15: Editing and Proofreading Essays

Now that your essay is written, it is time to work toward the final stages of essay writing, and that first step in the final stage is editing and proofreading. This chapter will show you just how important all the details need to be in terms of delivering the perfect essay. It is the fine-tuning techniques that can make the difference in your essay grade, and you don’t want these little things to get you after all your hard work up to this point!

This chapter will cover the differences between editing and proofreading as well as show you how to edit your essay for content, structure, style and length. Finally, the chapter will wrap up with tips about effective proofreading, including techniques that help you catch those mistakes you might have missed during the editing process.

Chapter 15 contents:

15.1: Editing versus Proofreading: What’s the Difference?

It often seems like editing and proofreading get used interchangeably, but they are actually different and do involve different techniques for fine-tuning your essay. The chart below compares what each involves so you can understand when and how to use these essay-refining devices:

Editing Proofreading
  • This should be the first step after writing your essay and can involve multiple drafts of your essay in terms of revisions.
  • You will look at content, structure, style and word count.
  • You will need to check that you have a logical flow to your argument, your ideas make sense, and you have answered the essay question or responded to the essay statement.
  • This is an extensive process and can lead to rewriting. It may take a day or more to do. It is good to leave it overnight if you have time and come back to it after rest and time away.
  • It is good to have someone else look at your essay and provide their feedback.
  • This comes after the editing process and is the final step in your essay writing process.
  • You will look at grammar, spelling, punctuation and language problems like repetition in your words or any inconsistencies.
  • It helps to have a grammar book, dictionary, and thesaurus within reach.
  • You need a sharp pair of eyes.
  • It is good to have someone else proofread it as well for a fresh set of eyes.

Both processes are absolutely necessary for a successful essay but they do require different skills than you may be used to so practice is necessary. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to ask for help beyond what we are providing as tips and tricks in this chapter.

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15.2: Editing Essays

The next few sections will look at four key areas of editing: content, structure, style and length. Each requires specific action and decision as well as skill to ensure all areas lead to an excellent essay. We have provided a number of recommendations in each section to help you master the editing process for your essay.

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15.2.1: Essay Editing for Content

In editing for content, the objective is to make sure you have a well-developed argument that flows logically. You also want to check for the following in terms of editing your essay for content:

  • Relevant examples that back-up your argument;
  • Fully developed points;
  • Clear meaning;
  • Accurate facts;
  • No tangents that take away from argument flow; and
  • A balanced, objective response.

Start with your essay title and analyse the words within it to ensure you have captured the right meaning and context. You can do this by going through each paragraph and looking to see that similar words are used throughout. This will ensure you are relevant when it comes to your content.

This is where you should also check that your content has been referenced appropriately and correctly by checking the in-text references or footnotes against the reference list at the end of the essay. While you are doing this, make sure that you are consistent in how you have used the referencing style down to commas and colons.

Be sure to read or re-read the sections in this book that cover content development and refinement as these same tips and the questions presented alongside the recommendations will help during the content editing process.

If you are moving Microsoft Word, one of the best editing tools the program has is the Track Changes tool so you can see what has been added and deleted. This can help you follow along as you change content as well as edit for structure, style, and length.

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15.2.2: Essay Editing for Structure

Now, it’s time to take a more macro view by moving from the content to the bigger picture of the essay structure. This is where editing will help you to check for logic and organisation at the structural level. Here are some things to think about as you edit for structure within your essay:

  • Put yourself in the place of your reader and think about if your ideas are in order or if they are scattered. The ideal essay is one where the ideas flow from one to the next so the reader can follow along. Your tutor is the reader and they will be tired after reading a pile of essays so make it as easy as possible for them to follow your logic. Other chapters in this book have covered structure in great detail. Be sure to read those or go back to them for helpful hints that can be applied during the editing for structure process.
  • Ask yourself if anything could be reordered to make more sense to build up to a logical conclusion? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end to your essay where the introduction and conclusion are easily identified because they serve as bookends for the main ideas found in the body paragraphs?
  • Be sure to check for balance among the sections. The introduction and conclusion should each be about ten per cent of the word count with the primary amount of structure dedicated to the middle section of your essay.
  • Look to see that there is only one idea in each body paragraph. Then make sure that there are linking words and transitional phrases that help the paragraphs and idea in each one flow from one to the next.
  • When you are editing for structure, there may be situations where chunks of your essay get moved around with the convenient cut and paste tools in your word processing software. Just be careful that they actually get moved and not get lost along the way! Always do a Save As so you have a previous version in case you need to go back and grab content that somehow got lost in the cut and paste process.

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15.2.3: Essay Editing for Style

After editing for content and structure within your essay comes editing it for style. While it may seem that this would have been part of the content editing process because it involves the language you are using, style moves a bit beyond just word choice. As we previously discussed in this book, style involves being aware that you have many choices to make when it comes to language but you have been able to select one word over another because the meaning suits the context and academic tone of your essay more than another one would. Editing for style also includes looking at the amount of short and long sentences you are using within your essay. As you edit for style, here are the areas that you need to look at:

  • Tone: The tone should be confident but not arrogant.
  • Language: The language needs to be academic but not resort to big words that your tutor realises you don’t typically use and may have used incorrectly.
  • Slang: Do not use any slang words.
  • Jargon: Make sure you have used all technical language and words correctly in relation to their meaning and that they are relevant within your essay.
  • Bias: It is important to ensure that you have been politically correct with your language and that you have not used any leading words that show you personally have a specific opinion about the subject matter.
  • Fluff: Check that all words are valuable rather than are just there to pad the essay. Cut but don’t cut to the point that meaning is lost or misinterpreted.

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15.2.4: Essay Editing for Length

The last area where you will need to edit your essay regards the length. Word count is important in the end because your tutor will not one that has not hit the right number of words - too little or too much and you will be marked down. Thanks to the magic of computer software, calculating word count is easier than ever before because there is a tool that does it for you. Here’s how to account for words in your essay:

  • Only count the words in the body of your essay. That means leaving out the title page, reference list, and appendices.
  • You also typically cannot count long direct quotes or footnotes.
  • Be sure to double check with your university handbook or tutor on what exactly should be included in your word count.
  • You typically have a leeway of 10 per cent over or under on your essay. So if it was a 2,000-word essay, you could deliver anywhere between 1,800 words and 2,200 words. Otherwise, you could be penalised.

Here are some tips for hitting the right word count without compromising your content, style, and structure:

  • Kill the fluffy words by starting at the beginning and looking for those areas where one word could be used in place of three or four. Removing fluffy words can also include adjectives and adverbs. While helpful and engaging, you may be able to get by on less.
  • Look for text chunks that are unnecessary because they are actually a tangent or do not offer anything of value toward answering the question. There is a fine line here where you will need to make sure you don’t remove too much from your essay. Feedback from your tutor or others with this editing task is very helpful.
  • Consider if anything can be moved to the appendices in order to keep the information as part of your argument but that can help bring the word count down and improve the flow.
  • Read for repetition. If you have repeated an argument or point, you can take one out and replace it or just simply shorten the essay to the appropriate word count.

By enacting these editorial tactics, you may find that you actually even improve your academic style to be more formal.

If you find that you are actually short on words, we have some tips to improve essays in this category as well. Here’s what you can do:

  • Do not add words to just add words. You will end up doing more harm than good by making your style more informal. Your tutor may also determine that you are just waffling on rather than send the message that you do know what you are talking about.
  • Revisit your essay question or essay statement and make sure that every idea that could be covered is actually covered. You may discover you overlooked a certain area that could be explained and that would then help meet the word count for your essay.
  • Ensure that existing arguments within your essay have been fully developed. For example, you might be able to add more examples that substantiate a certain idea. This also adds interest and relevance at the same time that it increases the word count.
  • If you are still struggling to meet the word count, you can consult your tutor for help or talk to someone else familiar with the assignment or subject matter to get advice on what else should be expanded within your essay.

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15.3: Essay Proofreading

Now that you have done the major work of editing, it’s time for the refinement process known as proofreading. Here is where you are looking at those details like spelling, punctuation, grammar and repetition. The tricky part here is catching all those little details. That’s because, by now, you most likely have read and re-read your essay to the point where you have become blind to these details. This section offers you a checklist and a way to step back and ensure that you catch any mistakes during the proofreading process. This is critical because it could come down to just one comma or misspelled word that is the difference between a 2:1 essay and a 2:2 essay. And, we all know that you want that 2:1 rather than the 2:2.

Maybe you are not sure what to look for when you undertake proofreading. After all, whether English is your native language or not, English is a tricky language in terms of spelling and words that are so similar let alone the detailed grammar and punctuation rules. That’s why we put together this checklist on what you need to do as an effective proofreading process:

  • Complete/Incomplete sentences: While you can break this rule if you are doing creative writing, essays require complete sentences. Every sentence needs what is called a main clause or it will be marked as a sentence fragment. A sentence fragment often happens when you start a sentence with words like “because,” “if,” “when” and “which.” You can eliminate using these words at the start of a sentence, which can help you minimise the risk of sentence fragments. Or, you can add a main clause, which has a subject and a predicate. Often, by reading your sentences out loud, you will get caught on anything that is a sentence fragment.
  • Spelling errors: Although it is great that your software has a spell checker, you should not rely on it to do your proofreading. That’s because you may have spelled a word correctly but it is the wrong one for what you meant for your sentence. For example, it doesn’t realise that “form” should have been “from” or it should have been “their” instead of “there” or “whether” instead of “weather.” A spell checker does not recognise every word, especially technical terms or names. If you are not sure which word is appropriate, such as “lose” or “loose,” look it up in a book or online or get help from your tutor or a company that specialises in proofreading.
  • Abbreviations: Typically, abbreviations should not be used in essays, such as “i.e.,” “e.g.,” or “etc.” This is because they tend to be considered less formal. To replace them, consider using phrases like “that is,” “for example,” and “and so on.” You may abbreviate a name of an organisation or society as many tend to be very long, but you must spell it out the first time you use it and include the abbreviation in parentheses so that, going forward, you can use the abbreviation and the reader will know what you are referring to.
  • Numbers: This is an area where students often get confused about the rules. First, be sure to check that all numbers, figures, and dates are correct and there are no typos, such as when you meant to say “1881” but ended up typing “1981” - clearly a big gap in history there! Then, you need to check for consistency in how numbers are presented - 12 or twelve; 3,000 or three thousand?
    • Write the number out when it starts a sentence.
    • Write the number out when it is made up of one or two words.
    • You can use numerals when it is made up of more than two words.
    • Typically, any time a number is over ten, you can use numerals instead of writing the number out.
    • Check with your university’s preference.
    • Just be consistent with whatever style you choose when it comes to numbers!

 When you need to start proofreading for these areas, there are many proofreading techniques you can use to help you get through it - and when we say proofreading, we don’t mean just read through it once. It is about using a few of these techniques to make sure you caught every little thing.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Print out your essay because proofreading from a computer screen is challenging. Your eyes get tired fast and you start to miss things.
  • Find a quiet place.  Proofreading your essay takes concentration.
  • Go slow with your reading to ensure that you catch everything. This is not the place to use those speed reading techniques you have mastered.
  • Take many breaks. This means getting up and moving around and maybe even doing something completely different to have your mind rest and reboot for more proofreading.

Now, onto the proofreading techniques to use on your essay:

  • Read aloud and listen to the words as this will help you identify where there may be sentence fragments or awkward phrasing. You can also ask someone else to read it to you as this helps you to focus more on what is being said and less at processing the words you see as you read out loud.
  • Read backwards, which may seem very awkward at first, but you will be surprised how many mistakes you will catch in terms of spelling and grammar this way, such as a missing full stop or the wrong word that spellchecker did not catch.
  • Change how what you are reading looks in terms of font colour or font size. This will have you your brain feeling like it is thinking about and checking out something completely new. These types of changes can often make grammar and spelling mistakes more obvious, too! Just put the essay back into the font and colour required by your university before you submit it.
  • Read it the next day. Like taking breaks, this gives your brain and eyes more time to rest. This refreshment can make things that you never saw before pop out at you as obvious.
  • Give it to someone else to proof. By this point, you may have lost count of just how many times you have looked at, changed, and read your essay. This is when you can have a fellow student, friend, or colleague serve as your second pair of ‘fresh’ eyes. While they do this, ask them to look beyond just spelling and grammar. They can check content for repetitive words and inconsistencies in numbers or referencing formatting; quality and logic of thought as someone outside the knowledge or expectation zone of this subject matter; and language in terms of style, objectivity, and formality.

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Chapter 15: Summary

Now that you’ve read our chapter on editing and proofreading, see if you can answer these questions about what you learned:

  • What is the difference between editing and proofreading?
  • How should you edit for content?
  • How should you edit for structure?
  • How should you edit for style?
  • How should you edit for word count?
  • How can you trim or add to word count?
  • What should you look for when proofreading?
  • What are some good proofreading techniques to use?

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