Writing Essays: From Start to Finish
Revising and editing are the two tasks you undertake to significantly improve your essay. Both are very important elements of the writing process. You may think that a completed first draft means little improvement is needed. However, even experienced writers need to improve their drafts and rely on peers during revising and editing. You may know that athletes miss catches, fumble balls, or overshoot goals. Dancers forget steps, turn too slowly, or miss beats. For both athletes and dancers, the more they practice, the stronger their performance will become. Web designers seek better images, a more clever design, or a more appealing background for their web pages. Writing has the same capacity to profit from improvement and revision.
Understanding the Purpose of Revising and Editing
Revising and editing allow you to examine two important aspects of your writing separately, so that you can give each task your undivided attention.
- When you revise, you take a second look at your ideas. You might add, cut, move, or change information in order to make your ideas clearer, more accurate, more interesting, or more convincing.
- When you edit, you take a second look at how you expressed your ideas. You add or change words. You fix any problems in grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. You improve your writing style. You make your essay into a polished, mature piece of writing, the end product of your best efforts.
TIP: How do you get the best out of your revisions and editing? Here are some strategies that writers have developed to look at their first drafts from a fresh perspective. Try them over the course of this semester; then keep using the ones that bring results.
- Take a break. You are proud of what you wrote, but you might be too close to it to make changes. Set aside your writing for a few hours or even a day until you can look at it objectively.
- Ask someone you trust for feedback and constructive criticism.
- Pretend you are one of your readers. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied? Why?
- Use the resources that your college provides. Find out where your school’s writing lab is located and ask about the assistance they provide online and in person.
Many people hear the words critic, critical, and criticism and pick up only negative vibes that provoke feelings that make them blush, grumble, or shout. However, as a writer and a thinker, you need to learn to be critical of yourself in a positive way and have high expectations for your work. You also need to train your eye and trust your ability to fix what needs fixing. For this, you need to teach yourself where to look.
Creating Unity and Coherence
Following your outline closely offers you a reasonable guarantee that your writing will stay on purpose and not drift away from the controlling idea. However, when writers are rushed, are tired, or cannot find the right words, their writing may become less than they want it to be. Their writing may no longer be clear and concise, and they may be adding information that is not needed to develop the main idea.
When a piece of writing has unity, all the ideas in each paragraph and in the entire essay clearly belong and are arranged in an order that makes logical sense. When the writing has coherence, the ideas flow smoothly. The wording clearly indicates how one idea leads to another within a paragraph and from paragraph to paragraph.
Sometimes writers get caught up in the moment and cannot resist a good digression. Even though you might enjoy such detours when you chat with friends, unplanned digressions usually harm a piece of writing.
Read the following paragraph where a student has crossed out all digressions.
Answer the following two questions about the above paragraph:
- Do you agree with the decision to make the deletions that were made? Did she cut too much, too little, or just enough? Explain.
- Is the explanation of what screen resolution means a digression? Or is it audience friendly and essential to understanding the paragraph? Explain.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
Now start to revise the first draft of the essay you wrote in “Writing Your Own First Draft”. Reread it to find any statements that affect the unity of your writing. Decide how best to revise.
Careful writers use transitions to clarify how the ideas in their sentences and paragraphs are related. These words and phrases help the writing flow smoothly. Adding transitions is not the only way to improve coherence, but they are often useful and give a mature feel to your essays. The list “Common Transitional Words and Phrases” groups many common transitions according to their purpose.
Common Transitional Words and Phrases
Transitions that show sequence or time
- as soon as
- at first
- first, second, third
- at last
- in the first place
Transitions that show position
- at the bottom
- at the top
- next to
- to the left, to the right, to the side
Transitions that show a conclusion
- in conclusion
- in the final analysis
Transitions that continue a line of thought
- besides the fact
- following this idea further
- in addition
- in the same way
- looking further
- considering…, it is clear that
Transitions that change a line of thought
- on the contrary
- on the other hand
Transitions that show importance
- above all
- in fact
- more important
- most important
Transitions that introduce the final thoughts in a paragraph or essay
- in conclusion
- most of all
- least of all
- last of all
All-purpose transitions to open paragraphs or to connect ideas inside paragraphs
- at this point
- it is true
- generally speaking
- in general
- in this situation
- no doubt
- no one denies
- of course
- to be sure
Transitions that introduce examples
- for instance
- for example
Transitions that clarify the order of events or steps
- first, second, third
- generally, furthermore, finally
- in the first place, also, last
- in the first place, furthermore, finally
- in the first place, likewise, lastly
After the paragraph above was revised for unity, the student next examined their paragraph about televisions to check for coherence. They looked for places where they needed to add a transition or perhaps reword the text to make the flow of ideas clear. In the version that follows, they have already deleted the sentences that were off.
- Answer the following questions about the above revised paragraph.
- Do you agree with the transitions and other changes that the student made to her paragraph? Which would you keep and which were unnecessary? Explain.
- What transition words or phrases did the student add to her paragraph? Why did she choose each one?
- What effect does adding additional sentences have on the coherence of the paragraph? Explain. When you read both versions aloud, which version has a more logical flow of ideas? Explain.
- Now return to the first draft of the essay you wrote in “Writing Your Own First Draft” and revise it for coherence. Add transition words and phrases where they are needed, and make any other changes that are needed to improve the flow and connection between ideas.
Being Clear and Concise
Some writers are very methodical and painstaking when they write a first draft. Other writers unleash a lot of words in order to get out all that they feel they need to say. Do either of these composing styles match your style? Or is your composing style somewhere in between? No matter which description best fits you, the first draft of almost every piece of writing, no matter its author, can be made clearer and more concise.
If you have a tendency to write too much, you will need to look for unnecessary words. If you have a tendency to be vague or imprecise in your wording, you will need to find specific words to replace any overly general language.
Sometimes writers use too many words when fewer words will appeal more to their audience and better fit their purpose. Here are some common examples of wordiness to look for in your draft. Eliminating wordiness helps all readers, because it makes your ideas clear, direct, and straightforward.
Sentences that begin with There is or There are.
Wordy: There are two major experiments that the Biology Department sponsors.
Revised: The Biology Department sponsors two major experiments.
Sentences with unnecessary modifiers.
Wordy: Two extremely famous and well-known consumer advocates spoke eloquently in favor of the proposed important legislation.
Revised: Two well-known consumer advocates spoke in favor of the proposed legislation.
Sentences with deadwood phrases that add little to the meaning. Be judicious when you use phrases such as in terms of, with a mind to, on the subject of, as to whether or not, more or less, as far as…is concerned, and similar expressions. You can usually find a more straightforward way to state your point.
Wordy: As a world leader in the field of green technology, the company plans to focus its efforts in the area of geothermal energy.
A report as to whether or not to use geysers as an energy source is in the process of preparation.
Revised: As a world leader in green technology, the company plans to focus on geothermal energy.
A report about using geysers as an energy source is in preparation.
Sentences in the passive voice or with forms of the verb to be. Sentences with passive-voice verbs often create confusion, because the subject of the sentence does not perform an action. Sentences are clearer when the subject of the sentence performs the action and is followed by a strong verb. Use strong active-voice verbs in place of forms of to be, which can lead to wordiness. Avoid passive voice when you can.
Wordy: It might perhaps be said that using a GPS device is something that is a benefit to drivers who have a poor sense of direction.
Revised: Using a GPS device benefits drivers who have a poor sense of direction.
Sentences with constructions that can be shortened.
Wordy: The e-book reader, which is a recent invention, may become as commonplace as the cell phone.
My over-sixty uncle bought an e-book reader, and his wife bought an e-book reader, too.
Revised: The e-book reader, a recent invention, may become as commonplace as the cell phone.
My over-sixty uncle and his wife both bought e-book readers.
Now return once more to the first draft of the essay you have been revising. Check it for unnecessary words. Try making your sentences as concise as they can be.
Choosing Specific, Appropriate Words
Most academic essays should be written in formal English suitable for an academic situation. Follow these principles to be sure that your word choice is appropriate. For more information about word choice, see “Working with Words: Which Word Is Right?”.
- Avoid slang. Find alternatives to bummer, kewl, and rad.
- Avoid language that is overly casual. Write about “men and women” rather than “girls and guys” unless you are trying to create a specific effect. A formal tone calls for formal language.
- Avoid contractions. Use do not in place of don’t, I am in place of I’m, have not in place of haven’t, and so on. Contractions are considered casual speech.
- Avoid clichés. Overused expressions such as green with envy, face the music, better late than never, and similar expressions are empty of meaning and may not appeal to your audience.
- Be careful when you use words that sound alike but have different meanings. Some examples are allusion/illusion, complement/compliment, council/counsel, concurrent/consecutive, founder/flounder, and historic/historical. When in doubt, check a dictionary.
- Choose words with the connotations you want. Choosing a word for its connotations is as important in formal essay writing as it is in all kinds of writing. Compare the positive connotations of the word proud and the negative connotations of arrogant and conceited.
- Use specific words rather than overly general words. Find synonyms for thing, people, nice, good, bad, interesting, and other vague words. Or use specific details to make your exact meaning clear.
Now read the revisions this student made to make they third paragraph clearer and more concise. They have already incorporated the changes they made to improve unity and coherence.
- Answer the following questions about the above revised paragraph:
- Read the unrevised and the revised paragraphs aloud. Explain in your own words how changes in word choice have affected the student’s writing.
- Do you agree with the changes that the student made to her paragraph? Which changes would you keep and which were unnecessary? Explain. What other changes would you have made?
- What effect does removing contractions and the pronoun you have on the tone of the paragraph? How would you characterize the tone now? Why?
- Now return once more to your essay in progress. Read carefully for problems with word choice. Be sure that your draft is written in formal language and that your word choice is specific and appropriate.
Completing a Peer Review
After working so closely with a piece of writing, writers often need to step back and ask for a more objective reader. What writers most need is feedback from readers who can respond only to the words on the page. When they are ready, writers show their drafts to someone they respect and who can give an honest response about its strengths and weaknesses.
You, too, can ask a peer to read your draft when it is ready. After evaluating the feedback and assessing what is most helpful, the reader’s feedback will help you when you revise your draft. This process is called peer review.
You can work with a partner in your class and identify specific ways to strengthen each other’s essays. Although you may be uncomfortable sharing your writing at first, remember that each writer is working toward the same goal: a final draft that fits the audience and the purpose. Maintaining a positive attitude when providing feedback will put you and your partner at ease. The box that follows provides a useful framework for the peer review session.
Title of essay:
Peer reviewer’s name:
- This essay is about:
- Your main points in this essay are:
- What I most liked about this essay is:
- These three points struck me as your strongest:
These places in your essay are not clear to me:
Needs improvement because:
Needs improvement because:
Needs improvement because:
- The one additional change you could make that would improve this essay significantly is:
Exchange essays with a classmate and complete a peer review of each other’s draft in progress. Remember to give positive feedback and to be courteous and polite in your responses. Focus on providing one positive comment and one question for more information to the author.
Using Feedback Objectively
The purpose of peer feedback is to receive constructive criticism of your essay. Your peer reviewer is your first real audience, and you have the opportunity to learn what confuses and delights a reader so that you can improve your work before sharing the final draft with a wider audience (or your intended audience).
It may not be necessary to incorporate every recommendation your peer reviewer makes. However, if you start to observe a pattern in the responses you receive from peer reviewers, you might want to take that feedback into consideration in future assignments. For example, if you read consistent comments about a need for more research, then you may want to consider including more research in future assignments.
Using Feedback from Multiple Sources
You might get feedback from more than one reader as you share different stages of your revised draft. In this situation, you may receive feedback from readers who do not understand the assignment or who lack your involvement with and enthusiasm for it.
You need to evaluate the responses you receive according to two important criteria:
- Determine if the feedback supports the purpose of the assignment.
- Determine if the suggested revisions are appropriate to the audience.
Then, using these standards, accept or reject revision feedback.
Work with two partners. Go back to Exercise 4 in this lesson and compare your responses to Activity A, about the student’s paragraph, with your partners’. Recall the student’s purpose for writing and her audience. Then, working individually, list where you agree and where you disagree about revision needs.
Editing Your Draft
If you have been incorporating each set of revisions as Mariah has, you have produced multiple drafts of your writing. So far, all your changes have been content changes. Perhaps with the help of peer feedback, you have made sure that you sufficiently supported your ideas. You have checked for problems with unity and coherence. You have examined your essay for word choice, revising to cut unnecessary words and to replace weak wording with specific and appropriate wording.
The next step after revising the content is editing. When you edit, you examine the surface features of your text. You examine your spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation. You also make sure you use the proper format when creating your finished assignment.
TIP: Editing often takes time. Budgeting time into the writing process allows you to complete additional edits after revising. Editing and proofreading your writing helps you create a finished work that represents your best efforts. Here are a few more tips to remember about your readers:
- Readers do not notice correct spelling, but they do notice misspellings.
- Readers look past your sentences to get to your ideas—unless the sentences are awkward, poorly constructed, and frustrating to read.
- Readers notice when every sentence has the same rhythm as every other sentence, with no variety.
- Readers do not cheer when you use there, their, and they’re correctly, but they notice when you do not.
- Readers will notice the care with which you handled your assignment and your attention to detail in the delivery of an error-free document..
The first section of this book offers a useful review of grammar, mechanics, and usage. Use it to help you eliminate major errors in your writing and refine your understanding of the conventions of language. Do not hesitate to ask for help, too, from peer tutors in your academic department or in the college’s writing lab. In the meantime, use the checklist 14.1 to help you edit your writing.
- Are some sentences actually sentence fragments?
- Are some sentences run-on sentences? How can I correct them?
- Do some sentences need conjunctions between independent clauses?
- Does every verb agree with its subject?
- Is every verb in the correct tense?
- Are tense forms, especially for irregular verbs, written correctly?
- Have I used subject, object, and possessive personal pronouns correctly?
- Have I used who and whom correctly?
- Is the antecedent of every pronoun clear?
- Do all personal pronouns agree with their antecedents?
- Have I used the correct comparative and superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs?
- Is it clear which word a participial phrase modifies, or is it a dangling modifier?
- Are all my sentences simple sentences, or do I vary my sentence structure?
- Have I chosen the best coordinating or subordinating conjunctions to join clauses?
- Have I created long, overpacked sentences that should be shortened for clarity?
- Do I see any mistakes in parallel structure?
- Does every sentence end with the correct end punctuation?
- Can I justify the use of every exclamation point?
- Have I used apostrophes correctly to write all singular and plural possessive forms?
- Have I used quotation marks correctly?
Mechanics and Usage
- Can I find any spelling errors? How can I correct them?
- Have I used capital letters where they are needed?
- Have I written abbreviations, where allowed, correctly?
- Can I find any errors in the use of commonly confused words, such as to/too/two?
If you need additional proofreading help, ask a reliable friend, a classmate, or a peer tutor to make a final pass on your paper to look for anything you missed.
Remember to use proper format when creating your finished assignment. Sometimes an instructor, a department, or a college will require students to follow specific instructions on titles, margins, page numbers, or the location of the writer’s name. These requirements may be more detailed and rigid for research projects and term papers, which often observe the American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA) style guides, especially when citations of sources are included.
To ensure the format is correct and follows any specific instructions, make a final check before you submit an assignment.
With the help of the checklist 14.1, edit and proofread your essay.