Making the switch to college-level writing can be tough, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Aside from the fact that papers in college are often long (although the short ones with strict word limits can be tricky, too!), the subject matter is often complicated and requires a good deal of analysis. Professors often expect that you already have a certain level of skill and experience in expository writing, and therefore don’t give you the guidance and structural requirements that you’re probably used to from your high school teachers. Add to that the fact that you don’t know your professor’s style and expectations as well as you did the high school teacher you saw every day, and things really get complicated.
A polished, well-organized piece of writing that communicates just what the author wants is difficult to produce, and it’s often hard to imagine your rough draft will ever be transformed into the final product you want. Editing can be one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, but it is also one of the most important.
But, not to worry- there’s a simple strategy that you can apply to your essays for almost any class (and later in life, too!). It’s called “says/does.” The idea behind it is that every sentence should serve a purpose. Every sentence should contribute to the clear communication of the ideas you are presenting to your reader. Every paragraph (or larger section) should do the same, but in the context of the whole piece. If you can read your piece with a “says/does” eye, you can clean up your organization so that each section DOES what you want it to in providing a smooth and logical roadmap of your thoughts to your reader. You can also use this technique to edit your writing on a sentence level so that all of the content accurately SAYS what you want it to.
Let’s boil the editing process down to just a few steps.
1. Write an outline.Ideally, this is something that you did before you started writing. You read the prompt or thought about your goal for the piece and you jotted down an outline of what points you wanted to hit in the order that made sense to you. Don’t forget your audience here. Think about what background knowledge they are likely to have on your topic and about how they expect you to address their question. Most of the time, we write for readers who are pressed for time (whether that’s because they are skimming our piece on an internet blog on their lunch break or because they are reading essays from 100 students). It’s extremely important to be clear and organized in your writing so that your reader doesn’t struggle to identify and understand what you are trying to tell them.
If you managed to beat the writer’s block and finish your first draft without an outline, good for you! But NOW, write an outline! This outline should look just like it would have if you had written it before completing your draft. If you wrote an outline ahead of time, read it over and make sure that it doesn’t require adjustment- sometimes the best ideas strike as we are in the writing groove, and it’s important to make sure that those new thoughts don’t seem disjointed from the rest of the piece. Find a way to incorporate them logically and smoothly in the outline and that will help you do the same in the actual piece.
2. Complete your Says/Does Analysis.Re-read your work paragraph by paragraph. On a separate piece of paper (or in a separate document), summarize the content of each paragraph (this is what that part of the text says). Then, in one bullet, summarize how this paragraph functions in the context of the whole piece (this is what the paragraph is doing). Perhaps you are using that paragraph to state your thesis, to describe a phenomenon, or to support a claim. Maybe you’ll find that this paragraph isn’t actually doing a whole lot and doesn’t need to be there. If you find yourself working with a particularly tricky paragraph, you can even apply this technique on a sentence level to sort out which sentences are working and which sentences need help. This is usually the part of the process where you can find the sentences that really SOUNDED great when you were writing them, but don’t actually communicate the message you need them to send. Additionally, when you are forced to summarize your own writing, you often find yourself coming up with ways to say the same thing more concisely. When you are forced to think about WHY you wrote that paragraph, and how it’s supposed to be advancing your work, you often find yourself coming up with ways to say the same thing more precisely. Both of these go a long way in making your paper tighter and easier to follow.
*Example: look back at the first paragraph of this blog post. My says/does outline for this paragraph would look something like this:
Says: Editing is hard, but it’s an important part of writing well.
Does: Introduces the subject and value of the blog post’s content (we hope!).
3. Compare the Says/Does Analysis of your draft to your outline.This step works best with a thorough outline that accurately reflects what you want from your final product. Especially if you are writing something long, it’s easy to forget the larger context of your piece when doing close edits. With your says/does analysis in hand, you now you have a snapshot of your paper that is broken down into small, manageable chunks. From here, it will be easy to hone in on the content areas that need to be fleshed out, and to see where your organization and flow need adjustment.
4. After making your edits, read your piece out loud.Now that the bulk of your editing is complete, this should be quite satisfying. What a pleasure to read something that sounds good because it IS good! But this step serves a greater purpose than allowing you a (well deserved) feeling of accomplishment. It also helps you identify the silly mistakes that we often make in the process of editing- forgetting to delete or include a word here or there, typos producing words that Word doesn’t underline with the squiggles, that sort of thing. By this time you have probably spent so much time with this essay that you have parts almost memorized. When you re-read it quietly, you often subconsciously skip words. If you read it out loud, you are forced to read the whole thing again as it is written, and you will be able to find those errors that would really leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.
So, what am I trying to SAY here? Good editing is possible, and you can DO it!
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Craving more on the topic? Browse some of our previous blog posts below!