Editing and Revising

Writing is a process, and an integral part of that process is revision. Revision is best thought of as re-vision or re-seeing: looking at a text from a new perspective, which means re-thinking even its most fundamental precepts. This might involve reconsidering your position on a controversial topic, re-evaluating the quality of the evidence used to support your claims, or re-defining your audience and or purpose.

Editing is a little bit like cleaning up the kitchen after cooking a big meal. Your essay’s “cleanliness” includes smooth transitions between paragraphs, logical organization of your thoughts and presentation of information, overall clarity, proper documentation for sources used in the writing, and effective language usage (standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling).

Revising and editing are inextricably connected. A text must be both revised and edited well in order to be successful. If an essay, for example, is revised extensively, but not edited, problems such as grammar errors will make the essay’s meaning difficult to comprehend and stand in the way of its success.

The reverse is also true. Consider the poor writer who tirelessly edits an essay whose ideas are not fully formed. The result is a very polished text—perfect grammar, clear sentence structures, no spelling errors—that no one can comprehend, despite its orderliness, because its basic meaning is unclear, undeveloped, or unsubstantiated.

The Revision Process

After you have written a complete draft having a beginning, middle, and end, it’s time to re-see what you’ve written and think about what you’ve said, how you’ve said it, and why. Believe it or not, revising can be fun. You’ve already chosen your topic, defined its scope, conveyed your thesis, presented your information or position, supported your claims with evidence (which might have required a great deal of research), addressed potential counter-arguments, and arrived at a satisfying conclusion. That’s a lot of work, starting from scratch, getting over the terror of the blank page, and committing your thoughts to paper. You’ve already done the hard work. Now it’s time to read, re-read, review, reflect, and revise.

Figure 1

The revision process is recursive, which means that writers will go through several stages of the process at different times.

Revision Process

One method of revision is the post-draft outline. It helps you identify the organization of your writing so that you can improve it.

Post-Draft Outlining

This revision strategy requires you to outline a draft that you have already completed. This breaks down the essay into its parts to allow you to see if your organization is sound, if you have repeated your points, whether your introduction and/or conclusion need work, if there are points you need to make that you haven’t yet, etc. A good way to set this up is to count the paragraphs in your draft and write that many numbers on a separate piece of paper like this:







Then in one sentence, as briefly as possible, state the point of each paragraph. You are not looking for the topic sentence. You are trying to boil down what the paragraph is about. If your topic sentence actually reflects what the paragraph is about, that’s fine. It should, just don’t trust that it will. If it doesn’t, you will want to revise it.

A possible outlined draft (this one for a paper on homeschooling) might look something like this:

  1. Parents want what’s best for their children: Is homeschooling best?
  2. (Introduction)
  3. Homeschooling is growing for many reasons (religious, etc.).
  4. Homeschooling gives parents the freedom to set the educational environment
  5. (Activities, peers, etc.).
  6. Not all children need to be homeschooled, but children should have that option
  7. (Conclusion).

This is a clear outline, and so it indicates that the paper is strong in terms of organization. The reader can tell that distinct points are being made in the paper, that the paper is logically organized, and that there is a clear introduction and conclusion. This outline is for a very short paper (six paragraphs), but the same process can be applied to longer texts.

Now consider this outline, written for a different paper, also on homeschooling:

  1. Two groups of homeschoolers: religious and other
  2. Can’t get religion in school
  3. Parents want to pass on their faith to their children
  4. Homeschools put kids at disadvantage—no state/federal guidelines
  • What do you think about the paper this outline was written from?
  • What sense do you get from paragraphs two and three about the big point the author is trying to make?
  • Is the author against homeschooling? For it?
  • Can you identify a thesis here? What is the paper’s main point?

If you are struggling, you should be: This outline shows that the paper has several problems.

First, as readers, we think we will be reading a paper about two types of homeschoolers, religious and other, as described in the first paragraph. However, in the remainder of the paragraphs the author only discusses religious homeschoolers. As readers, we have to shift gears: Now we think the paper is going to be about why religious parents might want to homeschool their kids.

And then, all of a sudden, we are hit with the idea that homeschooling harms children.

Quite likely, this author did not recognize the disorganization of the paper, or that they had changed the angle on the topic, the central focus, several times. When writers are too close to their own work (which is almost always), it is easy to overlook that information is missing or misplaced. We’ve all started writing and ended up wandering, digressing beyond the point of no return. We can be forgiven for that—but outlining totally strips down the essay, so we can see its bare bones, meaning that even though we are close to the work, we can readily identify its strengths and weaknesses.

You can also apply outlining to a single paragraph, rather than a whole paper.

Let’s look at this one:

Many people are unaware of a growing trend in American society. This trend is parents taking the initiative and dedication towards ensuring that their children are given a quality education. Homeschooled children are growing in numbers every year. It’s clear that there are many advantages to having children learn at home.

This paragraph has five sentences, so your outline will have five points. When you summarize sentences, do it in as few words as possible:

  1. Growing trend in U.S.
  2. Trend = parents want a good education for children
  3. Solution = homeschool
  4. Homeschooled children increasing in number each year
  5. Why? Many advantages…

This outline shows a clear logical progression from point 1 to point 2 and so on. This outline demonstrates that the above is a well-constructed paragraph.

Now it’s your turn to practice. Below you will find a paragraph. Grab a piece of scrap paper and outline it sentence by sentence:

Homeschooling is often associated with two groups: religious and non-religious. Religious groups want their children to embrace their religion. To this end they take them to church on Sunday, involve them in church activities during the week, and teach them from the scripture. Religious homeschoolers want to be in charge of their children’s education while emphasizing their belief in religion. Religion and education are mixed together to build the children’s character, morals, and values. Religion is the faith that they hold above anything else. Religion is a subject that they can’t receive at public schools.

Here is one possible outline of this paragraph:

  1. Homeschooling = religious and non-religious groups
  2. Want kids to have religion
  3. Have religious activities all week
  4. Parents in charge of education and religion
  5. Both mixed is good for child
  6. Religion very important
  7. Can’t get it in school
  8. What do you think about this paragraph?
  9. Is it structured like the last paragraph we looked at?
  10. What are the similarities and differences between them?

It’s repetitive (paragraphs two and six say roughly the same thing), and it uses the word religion/religious too many times (nine times). Also, the topic sentence suggests that the paragraph is going to talk about two groups (religious and not), but it only talks about one.

  • How could this paragraph be revised?
  • Would reordering the sentences help?
  • What about changing the topic to just religious homeschooling?

There are countless ways to revise this paragraph; your choices will depend on the focus that you, the author, want to take.

Here’s one attempt at revising this paragraph:

While parents choose to homeschool for several reasons, many do so to instill their religious beliefs in their children. By homeschooling, they are able to involve their children in church activities and teach them from the scripture throughout the week. This gives parents the opportunity to shape both their children’s religious and academic education, thereby building in their children a strong moral character. Given that religion cannot be received in the public schools, homeschooling allows these parents the ability to pass on their faith.

Note how many of the “religion” words were removed, without changing the focus of the topic, which is a religious angle on homeschooling. This makes the paragraph less repetitive.

The focus has also been changed from two homeschooling groups to just religious homeschooling. In other words, now the topic sentence fits the paragraph.

Paramedic Method of Revision

The Paramedic Method of Revision is a technique that targets wordiness and helps streamline your writing so it is clear and concise. To start, we will need to review prepositions (See Table 1 for examples). A good test that identifies most prepositions is whether they can fit into the following sentence:

The squirrel ran ___ the tree (up, over, with, under, around, at, below, from, to).

Table 1



Is “president” a preposition? What about “and” or “this”? Why not? “The squirrel ran this the tree” is not a possible sentence. Neither is “The squirrel ran president the tree” or “The squirrel ran and the tree.” See how this test helps us to identify prepositions? “President,” “this,” and “and” do not fit into that blank, and so we know that they are not prepositions.

One note: There are a few prepositions that sound a bit odd in this sentence (for example, of), but they are prepositions just the same.

The next thing we need to identify are forms of the verbs, “to be” and “to have.”

These verbs are really common and have many forms. For instance, “being” and “is,” “had” and “having”—can you think of other forms of these verbs?

Here are some more:

BE: was, were, wasn’t, am, are, been, be

HAVE: has, hasn’t, hadn’t, have

With our memories jogged about prepositions and the verb forms of “to be” and “to have,” we can now look at the Paramedic Method of Revision, which involves a series of steps:

Step 1. Identify Overused Prepositions and Vague or Passive Be and Have Verbs

Identify all the forms of “to be” and “to have” (is, were, being, to be, had, having, hasn’t, etc…):

  • The little girl was found safe at the mall down the street after having been declared missing for ten days.

Now you try

  • The dog was having too much fun when his owners were away from home.

Here’s the answer

  • The dog was having too much fun when his owners were away from home.

Next, identify all the prepositions, like this:

  • The dog with the black spots on his back lives over the tracks from my house.

Now you try one. Identify all the prepositions:

  • Go over the bridge, down Main Street, up Markham Blvd, and turn into the third driveway.

Here’s the answer

  • Go over the bridge, down Main Street, up Markham Blvd, and turn into the third driveway.
  • So at this point in the revision strategy, we’ve marked all the versions of “to be” (was, were, am, be,…), “to have” (have, had, having, has, ….) and the prepositions (from, to, over, under, around, below,…), like this:

The latest book of the month is a fascinating gem which will be cherished for years.

Step 2: Revise Identified Words

Try to delete the highlighted words. How? First, insert verbs that actually do something:

  • “I am a race-car driver” -> “I drive race cars.”

Often, you will find the verb you need (in this case “drive”) posing as an adjective or noun (in this case “driver”) somewhere in the sentence. Find it and make it a verb.

How do you revise the overuse of prepositions? Well, often, prepositions are acting as adjectives, so make them into one. How would you change this: “The boy with the blue hair”?

  • “The boy with the blue hair” -> “The blue-haired boy.”

The result is junk-free writing, real words carrying real meaning. There’s an added bonus here too. It has been proven in psychological tests that the clearer the writing, the more people understand it (i.e. the fewer unnecessary words). By using this technique, your point will be clearer.

There’s nothing wrong with prepositions, or the verb form of BE and HAVE. The problem is that most writing is packed full of them, which can create unspecific meanings. Give some other words a chance, and express yourself with more accuracy and intent.

Let’s go back to one of our earlier examples. Try to re-write this sentence, getting rid of as many of the marked words as possible:

  • The little girl was found safe at the mall down the street after being declared missing for ten days.

What’s the problem? For starters, there are lots of prepositional phrases. Did you notice a waltzing rhythm as you were reading? At the mall, down the street, … It’s also a passive sentence, meaning that there’s no real subject for the verb “found.” Who found her? We don’t know from this sentence because it is passive, but when you’re the author, you should make sure this information is known. For this example, let’s say the police found the girl.

Here’s one revision:

  • Police discovered the little girl safe ten days later at the local mall.

Solution: active verb, no more distracting rhythm.

Let’s look at another example. First identify the BE/HAVE forms and the prepositions:

  • They had an argument at the house of their neighbor.

Here’s the marked-up version:

  • They had an argument at the house of their neighbor.

Is there a hidden verb lurking somewhere that could replace “had”?

How about “argument”?

Couldn’t we change this to “argued”?

Here’s our first revision:

  • They argued at the house of their neighbor. Now, can we do anything about those prepositions? We may not be able to get rid of both, but we can get rid of one:
  • They argued at their neighbor’s house.

We started with a ten-word sentence and revised it to a clean six words. How’s that for eliminating wordiness?

Read Aloud

Reading your essay aloud is perhaps the single-most effective way to revise it. It’s an especially effective method for those writers who fear they don’t have good command of basic writing principles because all you have to do is listen–hear what the sentence sounds like. This encourages you to revise the sentence as you would speak it, and since most of us speak well, even if we have writing problems, it’s a way of addressing problems that we wouldn’t otherwise likely identify or know how to correct.

Now the twist: Read your paper backwards, starting with the last sentence first, then the next-to-last, etc. This seemingly odd suggestion is a useful one because reading your essay backwards dissociates each sentence from the larger meaning of the text, enabling you to focus just on the sentence and whether or not it makes sense on its own. Because the basic unit of each paragraph is the sentence, you want to make sure that each sentence you write is capable of standing on its own in terms of meaning and clarity. If you discover a sentence that doesn’t make sense on its own, in isolation from its context, then chances are it won’t make sense in the context of your paragraph (and, hence, your paper) either.

After you’ve made changes to sentences that need revision, read your paper aloud again, this time straight through from top to bottom. Listen to the sentences as if you were listening to music. Does anything sound clunky? Monotonous? Redundant? This will give you a chance not only to revise individual words, but also to revise for sound. This is a very good way to improve sentence variety. For example, if you have three sentences in a row that are roughly the same length (which sounds monotonous when you read them aloud), try combining two of them to make one longer sentence. The result is two sentences of different lengths, which will make for a more pleasant reading experience for your audience.

Take a Break From Writing

This sounds like yet another easy assignment. It is, but only if you haven’t procrastinated much and have left enough time between writing your draft and submitting your final essay to take a break from your paper.

Most writers are too close to what they have written to effectively revise it, and putting your work aside for several days give you a chance to create some distance from what you’ve written, allowing you to return to it, even a few short days later, with fresh eyes.

Your Readers and Your Thesis

Have you kept your promise to your readers? A thesis is a lot like a promise, a promise you make to your readers about the journey your essay will take them on. You likely started thinking about your thesis long before you began drafting your essay, and at that point it was tentative. As you gathered information, researched your topic, and crafted a compelling angle, your thesis changed according to the direction your draft was taking at every stage.

Then came time to commit. In your rough draft, you had to stake your claim. The next step was to get comments from your instructor and peer reviewers in your class. Their critical commentary helped you think about ways to improve your essay.

You’ve diligently applied the above revision methods to your paper. But did your thesis get the full attention it deserves?

The thesis is one of the most important parts of any text. It is a one- or two-sentences passage that describes your essay’s main point, as well as its purpose. Your thesis answers the question that is implied by your desire to write the paper. Hence, the above analogy to a promise made to your readers. Your thesis lets readers know what your paper will discuss, and why—and if it’s a persuasive essay, your thesis also lets your readers know by what means you’ve come to the conclusions you have, i.e., why you hold the position you do, the evidence that has led you there.

The Editing Process

Now that you’ve revised your work, you have a collection of ideas you’re proud of, in a form that seems logical. What could possibly be left to do? Oh, yes, the aforementioned “clean-up.”

Don’t let your best ideas become obscured by sloppy writing. Editing is the last act you will perform on your essay before you submit it for evaluation. Take your time, and don’t underestimate the importance of this part of the process! Leave at least one whole work session (an hour or two at least, depending on the length of your essay).

Running spell-check and grammar-check does not constitute editing. You can do these things, but be aware that there are likely a number of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors that the automated programs will not catch.

Here are some ways to make sure you turn in your paper in the best shape possible:

Read Aloud Part 2

Reading your essay aloud, whether to a specific person or just to yourself, is useful for both revision and editing. The value this gesture potentially brings to editing is that it allows you to hear, literally, all kinds of problems with language. You might now know, for example, that the subject and verb of a sentence disagree, but you can hear if something sounds awry. Take this simple example:

  • One of the doors are open.

Reading this sentence aloud, you can tell immediately that it doesn’t sound right. Why? You probably thought, perhaps unconsciously that “doors” is the subject of the sentence, so you wrote “doors are open.” But, in fact, “one” is the subject of the sentence, and it’s singular, so the verb must follow:

  • One of the doors is open.

Chances are you could correct this sentence without even naming the problem. The other aspect of your essay that reading aloud can help with is identifying unnecessary and vague words and phrases. If your sentence sounds like a mouthful it probably is! Can you say what you’re trying to say in fewer words? Try re-working an especially long sentence to see if you can communicate your intended meaning more succinctly.

If you notice that some of your sentences use “I” or “in my view,” be especially careful to make sure that what you are offering is more than just your opinion. In an informative piece, this might be a fact; in a persuasive piece, this might be an argument that is supported with evidence gathered in your research.

Vague language is one of the most common problems with rough drafts. After all, you know what you mean. Read aloud for overly general, non-specific language. Here’s an example, taken from a thesis statement:’

  • My essay will explain my views on capital punishment.

This is vague because it says nothing about what your views are, or why you hold them.

Consider this revised statement: – Capital punishment is unjust because it fails to deter crime.

Your reader will know your position and know why you hold it. What follows is the (correct) assumption that your paper will be an argument against capital punishment.

Many writers also want to add that there are pros and cons to their arguments, advantages and disadvantages, and while this impulse is understandable (and may be helpful to you in the draft stage), it doesn’t typically advance your thesis—and because you are taking a position on a controversial topic, readers will assume there are inherent pros and cons. The best strategy is to name, very specifically, the chief positions being debated. An example using the above topic, capital punishment, might look like this:

Some lawmakers have argued that capital punishment deters crime, while other stakeholders, including victims’ families, hold that incarceration is just as effective at deterrence as the death penalty.

When you are editing your essay, make sure that your words are as precise as they can be. Don’t say “people” when you mean “residents of Delaware County who pay taxes.” Don’t hesitate to use a thesaurus if you think your word choice could use improvement, but you can’t think of the most precise word.

Check for Redundancy

As you are reading aloud, be aware of any passages that sound monotonous or sing-songy. This is a sign that you are on your way to lulling your readers to sleep with repetitive sentence patterns. An easy way to correct this is to combine shorter sentences to make one longer sentence, as well as to break up long sentences into two shorter sentences. Sentence combining allows you to combine sentences that are closely related in order to enhance clarity, underscore connections among ideas, and reduce choppiness. Look through your draft for sentences that are explanation or connection.

Remember: Punctuation changes always change the rhythm of a sentence—just make sure that new punctuation doesn’t get in the way of what you’re trying to say.

Here’s an example of several sentences that could be improved by this method: – Olin loves to play tennis. He doesn’t like wearing traditional “tennis whites.” He prefers tournaments that allow players to wear bright colors on the court.

Edited version: – Olin loves to play tennis, but he doesn’t like wearing traditional “tennis whites”; he prefers tournaments that allow players to wear bright colors on the court.

Check out the APA Style’s tips on avoiding redundancy too.

Avoid Clichés

Writers often resort to clichés as a kind of short-cut to meaning, especially if they think the reader will “get” the intended meaning; however, the meaning of a cliché is subjective–”it’s raining cats and dogs” will not mean the same amount of rain to everyone, and the meaning of a cliché is also rooted in cultural knowledge; not all readers will understand it. Clichés are therefore not appropriate for academic and professional writing that aims to be specific and inclusive.

Examples of Cliches

Cold as iceLet sleeping dogs lie
Come hell or high waterLife is like a bowl full of cherries
Crocodile tearsLittle did I know
Curiosity killed the catMoment of truth
Cut to the chaseMore than one way to skin a cat
Down and outNo spring chicken
Few and far betweenOn my last nerve
Fit as a fiddleOver a barrel
Give 110 percentPearls of wisdom
Home is where the heart isPush the envelope
Honesty is the best policyQuiet as a mouse
I had the time of my lifeRaise the bar
Scared to deathOnly time will tell

Guidelines for Unbiased Language

When writing about people, whether they are the authors you are citing in your paper, the subjects you are studying in your research, or any individual or group of people, inclusive language is key to connecting with your readers without alienating anyone. Since the 1960s, the pronoun phrases “he or she,” “his or her,” and “him or her” have been used for referring to an unidentified person. Yet “he or she” assumes all people self-identify as either male or female while ignoring those who potentially self-identify as transgender and gender-nonconforming. These students would use “ze” or “they” as their pronouns. Using unbiased language therefore means avoiding use of “he or she” or any other binary phrasing such as “the opposite sex” that implies there are only two genders, excluding all others.

Using the specific “identified pronoun” for your readers is important. If you are writing to one person or about one person whom you know identifies as “she,” “he,” “ze,” or “they,” use the specific identified pronoun for your specific audience. However, in many academic and professional writing situations, the audience will be people you do not know personally. To write inclusively therefore means using a non-binary, gender neutral pronoun: they/their/them.

For example, the sentence “Students sharpen their pencils” is both grammatically correct and gender-neutral. Click a topic below for more information about “Singular They” and other tutorials on using unbiased language from the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, (7th ed.):

Singular They

Avoid Over-Quoting

Quoting refers to using a source without altering it in any way; passages are used from a source word-for-word. In college writing, quotations are used sparingly since too many quotations can make a paper sound like a summary of another person’s work rather than your original work. Your own ideas can become diluted in a sea of other authors’ words with too many quotes. Quotations additionally include quotation marks and in-text citations, which can slow down the reading. Quotations also interject another author’s voice in your paper, and the switch from your voice to another’s can also slow down the reading.

Guidelines for When to Quote

  • When you are critiquing or agreeing with someone’s exact words. For instance, if you wanted to argue that a movie reviewer’s comments were biased, you would want to quote the exact words of the reviewer, so your reader would understand your comment.
  • When you want to include dialogue in your paper. For example, if you wanted to highlight a point someone made in an interview, you would want to quote the exact words spoken in the interview.
  • When the original author’s words are so eloquent, profound, or unique (such as research results) that you cannot find a way to paraphrase and maintain the same meaning or impact of the original passage, you would want to quote those words.
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