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How do I revise my paper? (And do I really have to?)

Giving yourself time to edit your paper is the single most important step you can take to improve your grade. It’s also the step that students are the most likely to skip. I get it. Revising your paper takes time and planning. And, let’s be honest, with everything you’re juggling, you might feel lucky if you can start your paper a day or two before it’s due, which doesn’t leave you much time to edit. But editing matters, and, in this post, I’ll make the case for why it’s worth saving time in your schedule to do it. 

Take a break

This first piece of advice may be the hardest to take — but it’s the most important. Before you start editing your paper, take some time away from it. Even just a few hours will help, but it’s better if you can give yourself a day or two between drafts. 

Taking time away from your paper will allow you to read your essay as an editor rather than a writer. This is crucial if you want to do more than just catch spelling and grammar errors (though you’ll have an easier time spotting those too!). 

Read your paper out loud

Another way to get distance from your paper is to read it out loud. Better yet, read it into a tape recorder and play it back to yourself. This is an especially useful trick if you don’t have time to take a break between writing and editing. 

This step will be extra important if you have a tendency to write long, complex sentences or if you struggle with transitions. If a sentence doesn’t sound right when you read it out loud, it also doesn’t sound right on paper.

Know your weaknesses

Once you sit down to edit, you want to focus on content, style, spelling, and grammar. 

For content, ask yourself: am I making clear arguments in my thesis statement and topic sentences? Do my topic sentences build on my thesis? Do I support my arguments with evidence and analyze this evidence to connect it back to the thesis statement?

For style, watch out for abrupt transitions, awkward sentence structure, or overly complicated sentences. The most important question to ask yourself is: Is my paper clear? In academic writing, clarity is much more important than flair. Be on the lookout for sentences that sound nice but don’t clearly communicate your arguments. 

For spelling, remember you can only rely on spellcheck to a point. You’ve probably heard it before, but spellcheck often misses words that are technically spelled correctly but used in the wrong context (for example, its/it’s and you/your/you’re). Be on the lookout for these common misspellings, as well as for when you might have slipped when writing one of a set of closely related words — say, affect and effect.  

For grammar, it helps to know what your weaknesses are before you start editing. If you struggle with run-on sentences or passive voice, you might not notice these errors unless you are looking for them. Talk to your teacher or tutor about areas where you struggle and watch out for these errors when you sit down to edit your paper. 

In fact, this last piece of advice goes for the whole editing process. Knowing where you struggle will help you focus your editing on the areas that need it the most. Especially if you’re short a time, make a plan to focus on one area that you know you need to work on. You’ll be surprised how far a little editing goes.  

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