College x

Take it from someone who’s done a lot of writing in the last few months—you’re going to want to read this.

Spellcheck Only Goes So Far: How to Edit Academic Papers

No matter which academic program you study, sooner or later, you’re going to have to write a paper. Whether it’s for a core class, your major or an elective, the essay has remained one of the most popular forms to test students, much to their chagrin. Whether it’s three pages or twenty, you can use the same methods to review and edit your papers.

As an English major, I feel it is my duty to share some tips for revising, and to save any train-wreck papers before they reach the point of no return.

1. Outline

In high school, I always thought that I would be able to write essays on the same days they were due. With no clear direction, I would begin the journey and lose myself in the dense forest of incomplete ideas and run-on sentences.

Now that I’m in college, I outline every essay that I am assigned. Besides the fact that many professors want outlines before you even begin, having some sort of idea of where you’re going, what you’re arguing and what evidence you will find to support your conclusions is crucial.

I may sound like every English teacher that you’ve hated since grade school, but you wouldn’t start construction on a building without blueprints, right? Your essay is the same way. Finding evidence for your essay plays directly into the next step of finalizing your product.

2. Write Drunk, Edit Sober 

So, maybe it isn’t the best idea to take shots before starting your final paper. But, getting yourself settled into your favorite routine before writing a paper can help the words flow more freely because you feel comfortable.

Spellcheck Only Goes So Far: How to Edit Academic Papers
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Put on your favorite music, have some tea or do whatever makes you feel like you can knock out your first draft. After you’ve done that, the next step is changing it up.

Move to a different space, and take a break between writing and revising, so you can clear your head and look over your essay with an objective frame of mind. Don’t do it all in one sitting, because it’s too easy to miss typos or awkward phrases because you assume they make sense.

3. Quick Rules for Writing Effectively

In the writing stages of your essay, use these quick rules as writing guidelines.

Avoid using first-person, like “I” and “we.” In academic papers, because it is assumed that you are arguing your point of view, don’t use phrases like “I think” or “I believe.” These are unnecessary and take up space. Instead, use impersonal phrases, such as “the text shows” or “from this, one can argue.”

Avoid the passive voice. There is a time and a place for everything, and oftentimes, the passive voice is unnecessary. Keep your sentences short and to the point, and use active verbs.

Don’t cram in words to sound intelligent. Avoid thesauruses unless your essay becomes extremely repetitive without them. If you randomly choose cumbersome words to sound sophisticated, the reader may be jarred out of their thought process and think, “Did they really just say that?” Even worse, you may use the word incorrectly, costing you precious, final points.

Unless your source materials reference an event in the past, write about connections or actions in the present tense. For example, take “The Great Gatsby.” If you discuss Nick going to Gatsby’s parties, write in the present tense. Nick attending the parties will happen again and again, each time you read the book. If you want to reference the way Gatsby gained his wealth, though, write about it in the past tense because, from the beginning of the novel, Gatsby had already earned his millions.

4. Use Correct Grammar, Tone and Syntax

When you’re writing and revising your essay, make sure the language makes sense and clearly conveys your ideas.

In addition to using spellcheck, skim over your paper and make sure the intangible factors, like tone and sentence structure, are all in place. If you’re writing an expository paper, don’t show any bias. If you’re arguing your point of view, don’t be too harsh and stay impartially critical.

5. Utilize the Writing Center

You’re paying for your college education, so you might as well use as many resources as possible, including the expansive library and the writing or peer-review center.

Spellcheck Only Goes So Far: How to Edit Academic Papers
Image via WLN Journal

Many students don’t use the writing centers as often as they should, but working with students who attend your school can be especially helpful. They may just know what your professors are looking for in their essays.

6. Cite EVERYTHING

Don’t discuss your evidence in general terms. Even if you have sound ideas that are rooted in the texts that you are studying, don’t mention the evidence in passing. Specifically cite the page you found it; this makes your argument more credible, and it shows that you can manage higher level analysis.

It’s a pain in the ass to write a Works Cited or Bibliography page, but you can’t just pick and choose what you want, and then refuse to credit the original authors. Plagiarism, in any school, is a huge no-no.

Use websites like Easybib.com or Purdue Owl for help with in-text citations, footnotes or anything to do with research. Your professors will thank you, and there’s much less of a chance that you get expelled.

7. Read Aloud

Everything that you write makes sense in your head; after all, you wouldn’t have written it if it didn’t. Still, when you’re giving your final draft the last look-over, either read it aloud to yourself or have a friend look it over.

Having different people look over your essay minimizes the chance that mistakes make it through to the final draft, and having someone read your essay who isn’t familiar with the material will help you gauge if your writing is engaging and accessible. The more eyes that look over your paper, the better.

When everything is written, edited and edited again, it’s time to turn in your paper. Give it one final look-through, make sure you have your name at the top and turn it in. Take a rest after finishing your paper, or if you’re like me, you’ve left everything to the last minute, so start the process over again. It’ll work; trust me.

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