How to Edit an Essay: Proofreading Tips

So an instructor tells students to edit their papers, but they're not sure how to do it. Here are the basic things to look for.

Editing (also known as "proofreading" in written work) can make a world of difference – not just in an essay, but even in novels, movies, television shows, and speech. All drafts, from rough to revised, can benefit from an editorial eye. Why? Because editing takes something from the "acceptable" phase to the polished, professional, and perfect (or close to it) phase. Editing one's work cleans up the messes and pays attention to the details.

When people revise their papers, they're looking for places to change big ideas and they look at the overall coherence of their words. They look at the flow, pace, and purpose of their essay. But when students edit their papers, they are actually looking at the nitty gritty, the up-close level. They are making sure to "dot their i's and cross their t's." In essence, they are making their papers as close to perfect as possible. So, with that in mind, how specifically should a student edit her paper?

Editing Tip 1: Check Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation

One of the fastest ways to make people dismiss a person's ideas on paper is to have misspelled words mingled with poor grammar and punctuation. While it's not necessarily true, many people will assume that a writer who has not edited his paper is either unintelligent or lazy. They feel that if the student didn't take the time to perfect his paper, he either doesn't know how to or doesn't care - or, worse yet, they believe he thinks he has already edited his paper - poorly!

Someone who has spent a lot of time writing his paper doesn't want people to have that impression. So in his first editing session, he should take the following steps:

  • Check spelling. If one's spell checker is giving a word a red line, it makes sense to check it out. Make sure it's spelled correctly (and used right as well - more on that in a moment). But what if the spell checker hasn't flagged a word? How will the student know he's spelled it wrong? He can go back over old papers first (and begin keeping a list): what words are always problems for him? He can also look at lists of commonly misspelled words and see if any of them look familiar. Finally, he can ask a trusted friend or take his paper to a writing lab to ask for additional help.
  • Check grammar. Does an instructor consistently tell the student he has problems with writing sentence fragments? If so, he needs to become familiar with identifying them as well as learning how to correct them. He needs to become a careful editor of his papers with those things in mind. Again, however, if he feels he's done his best but still feels unsure, he can also take his paper to a writing lab or ask a trusted peer to give his paper a once-over as well.
  • Check punctuation. Are there periods where there should be question marks? Are the commas in the correct place? Again, it helps to be familiar with past problems so the student has an eye on what to look for in future papers. A meeting with an instructor can sometimes bring a lot of these problems to light.

Sometimes checking for these three areas alone will take three passes through the paper. But as the student gets better at editing, he can often take care of all three areas at the same time.

Editing Tip 2: Check for Typographical Errors and Word Usage Problems

This stage of editing often be completed while checking for other errors as well, but often for a student who is new at editing, it helps to break down the process.

  1. Check for typos. It's sometimes quite simple to type quickly and create a typographical error. In most word processing programs today, spell checkers will identify "teh" as a typo and automatically change it to "the," but what about other errors? Checkers won't catch everything, so it makes sense that a student will want to check through her paper again, looking specifically for typos. Typos do not always lead to misspelled words (for example, a student typing rapidly might type "you" when she means "your"). Only careful editing will catch all of these kinds of errors.
  2. Check for usage errors. Sometimes typos become usage errors. For example, a student might type, "I liked it to," meaning "too." It could have been a typo, but it becomes a usage error. She has used "to" incorrectly. Carefully going over her paper, a student can catch these kinds of mistakes. But there are also other usage errors to check for. Sometimes students will use the noun "effect" in place of the verb "affect." Just like with spelling and grammar problems, students will want to familiarize themselves with problems they have over and over so they can become master editors of their own papers, but until they do, they can ask others to look them over for suggestions as well as check out the internet for lists of commonly misused words.

Careful Editing Polishes an Essay

With some instructors, carefully editing a paper can bring it up to "A" level from "C" or less quickly. But there's more to it than that: carefully polishing one's paper allows readers to simply absorb the writer's ideas, rather than becoming distracted by errors. Students want to be read fairly, and the best way to do it is to communicate to readers that they care enough about their papers to polish them to perfection. Taking the time to edit one's paper thoroughly does just that.

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