Welcome to college, land of the free food giveaways and home of the four-to-five-page essay, 12-point font, double-spaced and MLA formatted. Whether you’re a biology major or a dance major, you are guaranteed to face the classic essay. And unlike the high school glory days, this essay requires more than just effective writing skills. With stricter grading policies on formatting and literature professors who notice when your commas are outside of the quotation marks when they belong inside, knowing how to self-edit your essays can have a major effect on your grade. Here are nine tips to self-edit your essays if you’re looking to improve on your next writing assignment.
1. Read it backwards.
Once you reach the point in the editing process when you've read your essay so many times that you lose count, it's time to stop. Well at least, stop reading it forwards. It's near impossible to catch mistakes in your essay if you are practically reading it from memory. When I find myself reaching this point of frustration, I start reading backwards. No, I don't actually read the sentences backwards. Instead, I start by reading the conclusion of my essay (from the first sentence to the last sentence) and then I work my way back up to the introduction. This tip serves two purposes. One, it helps catch little mistakes like those pesky commas that don't stay inside of quotation marks. And two, it helps create a steady flow in your writing. If you can read your essay forwards and backwards and your ideas connect both ways, your thesis statement will thank you.
2. Use Google translate.
Here's an alternate way to use Google Translate: Copy a paragraph or two from your essay into Google Translate and click the audio button to hear your writing out loud. Sometimes, we spend so much time reading in our heads that we skip over minor words or forget to include important words. Hearing your essay out loud will help to solve such problems.
3. Now you read your essay aloud.
Sure, you've heard your essay in Google Translate. As much as technology innovators are pushing to make the automated voices sound more human-like, it's just not the same. Google Translate doesn't have rhythm. The automated voice can't pick up on the tone of your essay and it leaves your writing sounding flat. In order to channel that tone, read your essay aloud, not in a whisper, but at a conversational volume. You can even record yourself reading your essay and play it back. This tip will help trim your essay. Maybe you will notice yourself repeating the same phrase, or you'll come across a sentence that sounds out of place. Either way, hearing yourself read your writing will heighten your senses to little mistakes that were easy to miss before.
4. Take it one paragraph at a time.
After you've read your essay forwards, backwards, out loud and heard it through Google Translate, consider your macro editing done. You've looked at your work as a whole, and now it is time to examine the finer details. Start with your introduction and read for clarity, punctuation, conciseness and relevancy. Then, close out of your essay and find something productive to do for about 30 minutes. Try reading for another class or taking a break for lunch. Return to your essay after 30 minutes (or less) and move onto your next paragraph. Follow the same checklist and read for clarity, punctuation, conciseness and relevancy. Repeat until you're finished with your essay. This self-editing trick lends itself useful when you have other assignments to work on because it gives you the flexibility to multitask. Even when I'm not swamped with other assignments, this trick keeps me level-headed as I work through my essay.
5. Look at the length of each sentence.
As an editing activity in middle school, my language arts teacher told the class to highlight our simple sentences in yellow, our complex sentences in pink, our compound sentences in orange and our compound-complex sentences in green. Not only did this make for a colorful essay, but it also helped to point out sentence structure. This activity made me realize my tendency to write in long, sweeping sentences, without any simple sentences to break up my ideas. Other students noticed their tendency to write too many simple sentences in succession, which made their ideas sound choppy. You can mimic this helpful middle school activity simply by looking at the length of each of your sentences. If you're a visual learner, you can use the highlight icon on Microsoft Word and try this activity for yourself. The biggest takeaway from this tip is to make sure you have varying sentence lengths.
6. Look at the beginning of each sentence.
Now we're really paying attention to detail. Once you've checked the length of the sentences, it is time to check for redundancy with our language. Oftentimes, we have the tendency to use familiar phrases to launch our thoughts, especially when we are working under pressure, but this trick prevents that. Look at the first couple of words you use to start each sentence. If you are repeating yourself often, you will quickly find a pattern where you reuse the same phrase. If this is your dilemma, find new ways to express your ideas. Although this self-editing task sounds tedious, it only takes a skim through your essay. Since you're only checking the beginning of each sentence, reading through your essay will go a lot quicker than examining each sentence piece-by-piece.
7. Replace "to be" verbs.
The verb "to be" is the weakest verb in the English language, as told by every one of my literature professors and something I have noticed since learning to write thesis statements in tenth grade. For reference, the forms of "to be" are the following verbs: am, is, are, was, were, being and been. Try speaking without using any of these verbs and you'll see why it is easy to repeatedly use "to be" verbs throughout our writing. The purpose of this tip is not to eradicate all "to be" verbs. Instead, look for places where you can replace a "to be" verb with an action verb. For example, "She stayed at my house," sounds stronger than, "She was at my house," because the first sentences uses an action verb rather than a "to be" verb. Try to show action in your sentences when appropriate, because it strengthens your sentences and enhances your vocabulary. Trust me, your professors will notice.
8. Check your nouns and pronouns.
OK, we understand, your essay is about James Baldwin, but if every other sentence includes the phrase "Baldwin says" or "Baldwin proves," it's time to change up your noun. Consider replacing "Baldwin" with "the author" or "the writer." It conveys the same idea without using the same word over and over again. Similarly, if you find yourself using the same pronoun (i.e. she, he or they) repeatedly, I'll take a page from my high school AP Language Arts teacher and call B.S. which was his shorthand for be specific. While a sparingly used pronoun can be effective, you certainly don't want to clutter your essay with "he said," "she said" or "they said." If your professor leaves feedback that your writing is vague or confusing at certain points, it could be a case of pronoun overload. As you work on self-editing your essay, use a diverse collection of nouns and pronouns, even if you're referring to the same person.
9. Connect the dots.
Go back to your thesis statement and reread it. Now examine the main points in each of your paragraphs and ask yourself: "How does this relate back to my thesis statement?" If the answer is unclear, then so is your idea. Don't keep an unrelated paragraph for the sake of meeting the word count, because your professors will notice. Instead, use your thesis statement as a guide for your ideas and provide support for your claim. This final step in the self-editing process will make sure you connect all the dots in your essay.
Maybe you're like me, and when an idea stirs in your head, the only thing you can focus on is getting it typed out before the idea disappears without any regard for grammar, page count, MLA formatting or those annoying commas that belong inside quotation marks, not outside. Or maybe you're not like me and you make a sport out of how long you can procrastinate writing your essay before you really start to feel guilty. Whichever extreme or varying degree on the spectrum between "I love to write" and "When is this class over" you fall under, the editing process is tough. If you're serious about improving your writing or moving up a letter grade, try these nine self-editing tricks for an improved essay.
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