How to Write and Edit a College Paper: A Roadmap

Posted by Emily Leven on 6/17/15 11:47 AM

australia-road-trip-cangaroo-signStep 1: Write your paper. Step 2: Graduate. Step 3: Roadtrip across Australia. [image source]

Why is college-level writing so hard?

Making the switch to college-level writing is tough, and doesn’t happen overnight. Papers in college are often long (although the short ones with strict word limits can be tricky, too!). The subject matter is complicated and requires a good deal of analysis.

The professors expect that you already have skill and experience in expository writing, and won’t give you the guidance 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 can get dicey. Editing your college papers can be one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, but it is also one of the most important. 

A Foolproof Strategy for Editing: Says/Does

Today, I’ll introduce a simple strategy that you can apply to your essays for almost any class (and later in life, too!). It’s called “says/does.”

“Says/does” can be summarized like such:

  • 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 serves a purpose -- it DOES what you want it to in providing a smooth and logical roadmap of your thoughts to your reader. On a sentence level, you ensure that all your content accurately SAYS what you intend to convey.

How to Edit Using the Says/Does Method

1) Write an outline.

Ideally, you did this before starting to write. You read the prompt or thought about your goal for the piece and outlined the 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 how they might expect you to address their question. Most of the time, we write for readers who are pressed for time (whether that’s because they’re 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 what you are trying to tell them.

“But I already wrote my paper!”

If you managed to beat the writer’s block and finished 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).
  • In one bullet, summarize what the paragraph is doing in context of the whole piece. 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 tricky paragraph, you can 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.

When you are forced to summarize your writing, 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 concisely and 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. If you’re 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.

  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 catch.

By this time you have probably spent so much time with this essay that you have sections 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!

For more tips and tricks on expository writing, check out these other blog posts written by our writing tutors in New York and Boston: The Vital Importance of Writing Badly, Transitioning From One Paragraph to the Next, and How Do I Write a Good Thesis? Looking to work with an expository writing tutor on your essays? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

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Tags: expository writing