Five steps to flawlessly edit your writing

expository writing High School

There is no such thing as a perfect essay, but there certainly are imperfect ones. Botched grammar, careless typos, and ineloquent wording will be sure to raise the eyebrows of admissions committees, teachers, and professors alike. When the stakes are high, careful editing can make all the difference.

Below are five ways to sharpen your writing and catch mistakes before hitting “send.”

1. Learn from the best.

Flawless editing starts with a solid understanding of the English language. Invest your time in learning from the greatest writers around; they have written much about what reads well and what strains the eye. George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” is a good place to start. The style guides of major publications, which address writers’ most common questions and mistakes, are also valuable resources (my personal favorite is that of The Economist). These works will help you think like an editor. Once understood, their lessons will stay with you for life.

2. Hear your writing.

Listening to your writing will invariably improve it. What might have looked fine on paper can sound odd when read aloud. From your new viewpoint, you may realize that you need to expand on a certain part, shorten another, and add a transition in between. Hearing your writing will also slow you down enough to notice mistakes that your eyes had skipped. Since your computer can read aloud to you without human error, take advantage of it (press Option-Esc on Mac or use Narrator on PC)!

3. Read backwards.

After you have read and heard your piece forwards, read it backwards. Starting from the last paragraph and moving up will disrupt your paper’s storyline or argument. Because you will not be thinking so much about the content, you can better focus on the grammar, language, and spelling.

4. Go word by word.

I recommend this step primarily for the most important pieces you’ll ever write—those in which you have no margin of error. Personally, I’ve used it in editing my book, master’s dissertation, and admissions essays. Print your paper and use a pen or pencil to put a checkmark on every single word. Yes: every single word. As you strike, ask yourself if that word belongs. If it doesn’t, fix it on your computer, reprint the relevant page, and start over. This technique will catch many mistakes that would have otherwise been overlooked. You’ll be amazed.

5. Wait.

If the deadline allows, wait to submit your writing assignment. The temptation to be done with a final draft is alluring, but taking a night’s sleep and some distance from your work will give you fresh perspective. This will improve the end product—and bring you closer to your goals.

Arshan attends Yale Law and holds an MS in African Studies (Oxford) and a BS in Foreign Service & International Politics (Georgetown). He's a published author and an officer in the US Army Reserve.

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