Editing is an incredibly important aspect of becoming a top student. Too many students get to the end of their essays and never want to look at them again. They submit sloppy work with obvious errors in it.
The reality is that you need to know how to edit an essay. Here’s why:
A 2017 academic study found that students’ average scores rose from 68% to 81% after just two rounds of self-edits. That’s a 13% increase in your grades just by editing your paper!
This huge jump in grades is because editing is where you can pick up easy marks.
Or, at least, it’s where you make sure you don’t lose marks.
One read-through of the work alone is likely to weed out poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It might also help you to identify gaping mistakes and errors you might have made.
One of the major errors that students make is not filling in their references.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received an assignment that simply says (reference) in the middle of a paragraph. Oops! They have instantly shown their teacher they didn’t care enough to edit their work.
If you want to grow your marks, you need to know how to edit an essay. Below are the five best ways to edit your work like a pro.
1. Top Students Finish their Essay Two Weeks Early
Finishing early puts you at an enormous advantage. I have never believed my students who tell me they ‘work best under pressure’. What they mean is that they need a big stick in the form of a deadline to prevent procrastination.
Sorry, but unless you’re exceptionally talented, starting the night before the due date just won’t cut it. Students who start the night before the due date are putting themselves through a world of pain due to their own lack of willpower.
If you finish your essay early, there are a ton of benefits.
- Firstly, you feel in control. If you feel like you’re ahead of the curve, a step ahead of the rest of the class, and two weeks ahead in all your readings you will be much happier. Feeling as if you’re in control gives you options.
- Finishing the essay early will give you the option of changing your mind. If you write the essay and your teacher gives you some insights in class, you can cross-check their insights with your own work. You can go home and make changes. Students who start late might hear that teacher’s insights. They might even take notes on them. But they won’t have their already written essay as an anchor point to compare their pre-existing thoughts to those of their teacher.
Starting early is very, very good for your learning. It will help you do better in class and have more control over your own ideas. You’ll be able to bend, adjust and improve your thought processes in the weeks between when you wrote the essay, and when it’s due.
- You’ll also be able to edit your work thoroughly. If you finish early you can put your essay down and forget about it for a few days. You can come back to it with fresh eyes and re-assess how you did. We call this process of reflecting on your own thoughts ‘metacognition’. If you start early, you have the ability to soberly reflect on your own thought process – indeed, your own writing.
If you don’t have time to do extensive edits, you’re – frankly – screwed. You have to make do with your first try. You don’t have the opportunity to come back to your essay with fresh eyes. You’re flying blind. And your work Will. Not. Be. As. Good.
- You will also be well prepared for unexpected life events. Your dog gets sick, your boss calls you in to work, and your parents ask you to babysit your little brother. All these things happen all the time. If you have the essay practically complete with plenty of time, you can handle these life events without having to ask for an extension. Asking for an extension looks really bad. Avoid it as much as possible.
I want to end this first piece of advice with one more point. Don’t compare yourself with that pain in the ass in your class who says they started their work last minute and still got top marks.
Firstly, chances are they put more effort into the work than they said but they are just trying to look cool.
Secondly, even if they are super good at writing essays with minimal effort, that has nothing to do with you. Copying their lazy style won’t work for 95 percent of students. Just roll your eyes at them and keep running your own race.
Improve your Life by Finishing Early
Make your own university experience better. Start your essay as soon as you know the essay question and give yourself at least two weeks’ grace to do edits, reflect on the piece, and enjoy your life that little bit more knowing you’re in complete control.
2. Top Students Print their Drafts to Edit
The next tip for how to edit an essay I have for you is to print out your drafts to edit.
Reading on a screen is very, very different from reading on paper.
All the best students print their essays and edit them on paper. You can re-read a piece on your screen fifty times and still miss big mistakes that will become obvious to you once you’ve printed the draft and read it off the paper.
Reading your work on printed paper is like reading it for the first time.
Reading your work on paper is almost like reading someone else’s writing. It will help you see where your sentence structure sucks and how to improve your paragraph structure.
I recommend that you print your draft and use a pen to make edits to your work. Some things you should do while editing on paper include:
- Rule out sentences that are useless and won’t earn you marks;
- Change your analysis verbs so they’re not all identical;
- Place an asterisk beside any sentences you feel should end with a reference to back up your points. Remember to reference once in the middle of the paragraph and once at the end.
- Underline any spelling mistakes
- Write in the margins how you would rephrase a sentence to make sure it makes the most sense
- Rule out your three-sentence paragraphs (see point below)
Once you’ve read through the work and gone through it with a red pen, you’ll be able to jump back on the computer and make all the changes you need.
I do this process three times in one week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) when editing my own writing, and each time my work improves a little bit more. By the time Friday comes around I have a high-quality professional piece of writing that I’d be happy for anyone to read.
3. Top Students Read their Work out Loud
One of the major ways students lose marks is through muddy, unclear writing. If your marker has to pause or (god forbid) re-read a sentence, you’ve lost the psychological essay writing game. Your marks will suffer big time.
You never, ever want your teacher to have to re-read a sentence because it doesn’t make sense.
Unfortunately, it can be very hard to tell whether or not your own writing makes sense.
Reading sentences out loud can be one of the best editing strategies.
It can be an invaluable way to see which sentences are clear and which need more editing. Most markers will read your words to themselves in their head while marking your work.
So, if you read it out loud, you’ll be reading it the way the marker will. You will see your work through their eyes.
Here are some tips for reading your work out loud:
- Literally, stand in front of a mirror and read your writing out loud.
- Any time you feel you’ve run out of breath, mark that sentence for shortening. You can either turn one long sentence into two short sentences or delete some useless words to make the sentence shorter.
- Any time a phrase or group of words leave your tongue twisted, highlight them and find a simpler way to say it. If you have trouble saying the words, your marker will have trouble reading them.
It may feel silly reading your work out loud, but it pays big dividends in terms of building those top marks you need to move to the top of the class. Find a time to read it out loud when no one in your household will hear you. Or, turn the shower on and read it to yourself in the mirror so no one else can hear you over the sound of the shower.
4. Top Students use Editing Software
Microsoft Word does an okay job of identifying spelling and grammar errors. But if you want a powerful piece of editing software that will help you to write clear and professional essays, you need to get yourself a better editing app.
There are two major options: Grammarly and ProWritingAid.
Personally, I prefer Grammarly, but they’re both good.
Editing software is easy to use and helps you to edit your work really quickly to start working toward higher marks. And no, I don’t think using Grammarly is cheating.
5. Top Students email One Paragraph to their Teacher
Most teachers don’t read drafts. In fact, they refuse to read drafts. With over 100 students per semester, reading drafts dramatically increases their workloads, so they refuse.
But, you can still get around that issue. It’s all about crafting a clever email to them. You want to write an email to your teacher that doesn’t get a response along the lines of: “Sorry, I don’t read drafts.”
Instead, your email should be a specific question asking for advice on a specific point in your essay. This way, you’re not asking them to edit your draft for you, but you’re asking them a question linked to a paragraph in your piece.
Here’s how you email your teacher in a way that will get the best feedback:
1. Email your teacher asking them for specific feedback on a specific paragraph. You should frame it as a question. For example, you can say:
I was just interested in your thoughts on one part of my assignment. I’m aiming for a [Score] in order to maintain my average across all my classes, so it’s really important to me that I get this right.
I’ve talked about [X], but wasn’t sure if [Y] was completely worded correctly. I was wondering if you could quickly look at the sentences below and tell me if they’re on the right track?
Thanks in advance.
2. Send the paragraph you want them to look at as text embedded in the email, not as an attachment;
3. Send this email at least 7 days before the paper is due.
Your teacher is much more likely to respond to this sort of email with constructive advice. They’ll feel as if they’re answering a question, not reading a draft.
This strategy also often leads to detailed feedback. Your teacher will look at the draft and should identify several points that irk them. They’ll point out additional aspects you should work on.
This strategy is therefore also very useful for learning what your teacher’s pet peeves are so that you avoid them in your final submission.
6. Top Students Delete Their Worst Three Paragraphs
My last tip on how to edit an essay is to delete your three worst paragraphs.
Most top students go way over word count. In fact, they find it very hard to contain their writing to the specified amount.
This is a good thing. If you’ve gone over the word count you can edit your work more effectively.
Read every paragraph and give it a score out of 10:
- A paragraph that’s a 10 is your best paragraph: it clearly and explicitly answers the essay question;
- A 5 might answer the essay question, but not be your best argument;
- A 1 might be interesting, but not directly relevant to your essay questions
Once you’ve rated your paragraphs, you can go through and delete the three lowest-rated paragraphs.
This strategy helps you to reflect on which paragraphs will win you marks and which ones won’t. It will also help you to reflect on how well you answered the essay question.
If you delete your worst 3 paragraphs you end up with a more focused, straightforward, and effective essay – this will help you to grow your marks.
7. Top Students have Tutors
You might also want to consider getting a tutor. If you want to gain muscles, get a personal trainer. If you want to get smarter, get a personal tutor.
It’s that straightforward.
I’m the personal tutor for several students. I see their grades steadily grow because they’ve put in the time and effort to learn the tricks and tips for success from an expert.
You can get your own tutor either by looking around your local town or, by getting a tutor online. One of the benefits of getting an online tutor is you can really pick and choose between a variety of good tutors.
It’s hard to find good tutors online. Most companies out there are terrible. Many of them just write your essay for you instead of teaching you how to get better.
That’s why I only recommend 2 tutoring services. You can check them both out here:
Both these services allow you to search through a range of tutor profiles to find one who you’d click with. They also have charters of honesty that focus on teaching you how to succeed, not helping you cheat. That’s what I really like about both of them.
Editing your essay is one of the most important steps in the essay-writing process. The simple act of re-reading your work on paper or out loud to yourself can significantly boost your marks.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.