How to Revise an Essay and Make It Better Than Ever

Think revising and editing aren’t necessary? Check out this ad:

software advertisement with corrected spelling error

It looks like the educational software ad writers of this company don’t know the difference between “their” (possessive) and “they’re” (they are).

Would you feel confident purchasing educational software from a company that doesn’t know basic grammar (or perhaps simply doesn’t care enough to proofread its ad)? Probably not.

Why? Because simple typos are generally a result of sloppy work—and that’s what your professor is going to think if you turn in a paper with the same type of errors.

Typos and grammar errors are bad enough, but gaps in the content and logic of your paper are even worse. That means learning how to revise an essay is an essential skill.

So grab a current draft of an essay, and practice these revision strategies to make your essay better than ever!

How to Revise an Essay and Make it Better than Ever

academic paper with proofreading marks
“Reworking, rewriting, removing” by mpclemens, (CC BY 2.0)

Before we dive into the details of how to revise an essay, think about whether you’ll revise a digital copy or a hard copy.

If you revise a digital copy, you might want to save your first draft and make revisions on another copy. This will let you refer to your original ideas if you rewrite. (Just make sure to give the files different names, so you don’t accidentally submit the wrong version to your prof.)

If you revise a hard copy, grab a pen (and maybe a highlighter) to start marking up your pages. It can often be easier to catch typos and other errors when reading a printed copy. A lot of seasoned authors use this method, so don’t automatically dismiss this old-school way of editing before giving it a try.

Now that you’ve decided how you’ll work, here are six revision tips you need to know to revise your diamond-in-the-rough draft into a polished piece of writing perfection.

Revision tip #1: Write and revise on separate days

When you’re writing, every word you type sounds like perfection. If you read your essay the next day, though, you’ll see that every word is far from perfect. You might even have your share of typos and sentences that are barely comprehensible.

The takeaway: Don’t procrastinate.

Leave yourself enough time to revise. Write one day, and revise the next. You’ll be surprised at what types of errors seem to appear.

If you absolutely don’t have time to wait a full day before you revise, at least wait a few hours.

Think you don’t have the time (or don’t want to take the time) to revise? Consider this: If you don’t spend an extra day or two on revision, your professor will certainly let you know where you should have revised.

My point: Your grade will thank you if you put in the extra effort.

Need help managing time? Read How to Manage Time Better When Writing (and Living Your Life).

Revision tip #2: Read your paper out loud

closeup of person reading a book
“Reading a book” by Karoly Czifra, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Remember when you were a kid and you followed along with your finger as you read out loud? I bet you may have even paused to sound out words in your favorite book. It helped, didn’t it? Why? Because it helped you comprehend the words, their meaning, and the meaning of the story. You could hear the words being spoken.

While I’m not suggesting that you necessarily need to follow along the page or screen with your finger (but you can if you like), I am suggesting that you read your essay out loud so that you hear how your paper sounds. It’s easier to hear awkward wording and spot typos if you read aloud.

If you have a friend who’s willing to read your paper out loud, recruit him or her to help too. You can sit back, listen to your words, and note where you might need to revise.

Need to polish your paper?
Let our expert editors help.

Revision tip #3: Check the content of your essay first

When people think of revision, they often think of correcting spelling errors, typos, and other grammatical errors. Though these are all part of the revision process, there’s more to revision than just changing some punctuation or moving around a few words.

You need to look at the content and the development of your paper too.

Make sure you complete your revision of these larger concerns (content and development) before looking for smaller concerns, such as word choice, grammar errors, and typos.

Here’s why: Let’s say you spend 10 minutes working on one sentence that you just can’t seem to get right. You change the wording three times and move the comma twice in an attempt to craft the perfect topic sentence for your paragraph.

If you spend all that time writing one sentence, what happens if you then revise the content of your essay and end up cutting the entire paragraph because it doesn’t support your argument?

Yep, you wasted 10 minutes on one sentence. That 10 minutes would have been better spent working on your key arguments, rather than working on punctuation and wording.

Questions to ask

Not sure what you should be looking for when you revise content? Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself:

  • Is your topic appropriately narrowed? For example, if you’re writing a four-page essay and you picked a ginormous and complex topic like climate change, you’ll definitely need to narrow the scope of your essay.

Revision tip #4: Consider style

stylish person in red jacket adjusting cuffs on dress shirt

Once you’ve revised the content of your paper, consider style.

You may not initially think writing style is important, but it plays a crucial role in the overall impression your writing will make on the reader.

Writing style is kinda like your own personal style. Whether you consider your style artsy, preppy, bohemian, casual, or punk, the clothes and hairstyle you choose say a lot about the message you put out to the world.

In writing, elements such as tone, voice, or redundancy can say a lot about the message you’re sending to the reader.

Here are a few things to look for as you review the style of your essay:

  • Examine the tone of your paper. If you’re writing an academic essay, don’t use slang and jargon. They’re too informal. Instead, use academic voice. For instance, you could replace “back in the day” with “previously” or “in recent years.”
  • Watch out for word repetition and unnecessary redundancy. If you’re writing about the death penalty, it can be easy to write the term “death penalty” over and over again simply because it’s the topic of your paper. To avoid such repetition, try using synonyms, such as capital punishment, execution, or legalized killing.

You might also consider a thesaurus, but use it cautiously. Even though the words might have similar meanings, they likely have different connotations.

For example, if you look up the word “quiet” in a thesaurus, you’ll see the word “speechless” as a synonym. Clearly, these two words don’t mean quite the same thing and can’t always be used interchangeably.

Revision tip #5: Edit for grammar, spelling, and typos

Now that you have the content and style in place, it’s finally time to look at those smaller issues—grammar, spelling, proper word choice, and typos.

Learn how to avoid these types of errors (and how to correct them) by reading these posts:

And even though I know you have spell check, don’t rely on it.

Of course spell check knows if words are spelled correctly, but sometimes spell check misses things or autocorrects to something it shouldn’t. For example, if you spell “definitely” wrong, spell check might change it to “defiantly.” This is definitely not what you want!

blank checklist with boxes

Checklist in a minute

I know the five strategies I’ve included so far are a lot to remember, so for quick reference, I’ve created this checklist that summarizes the revision strategies I’ve included in this post. To recap, here they are again:

  • Write and revise on separate days. Set aside your draft, and return to it in a day or two to begin the revision process.
  • Read your essay out loud. By reading your essay aloud, you can hear errors and identify places where you might need to clarify or reword ideas.
  • Check the content of your essay first. Before you check grammar, check to see whether you’ve met assignment guidelines, created a strong thesis, developed and supported your arguments, and created an effective conclusion.
  • Check the style of your paper. Look for correct point of view, proper wording, and appropriate tone.
  • Edit for grammar, spelling, and typos.

I’ve also created a printable revision checklist for you so that you’ll always remember how to revise an essay to make it better than ever. Just pop it open, and click File > Make a copy to snag your own copy to print out and mark up as you revise your next paper.

The Final Revision

feet crossing finish line in race
“Racers cross finish line in 5K run for Navy Chief birthday” by Official U.S. Navy Page, (CC BY 2.0)

Even after all this effort, sometimes it’s not enough to revise your own work.

While arguments might make sense in your own mind, they might not be as clear to others. Sometimes, you can even miss small grammar and wording errors because your mind reads what you meant to say, not what you actually typed.

Need more convincing? Read Why Self-Editing is Killing Your Writing.

And thus, the last strategy to use when revising an essay…

Revision tip #6: Have someone else read your writing

Having others look at your work means they see it from a new perspective. They’re reading as your audience, not as the writer, so they’ll see and understand things differently.

In some English courses, you’ll have the opportunity to have your classmates read your work. If you’re not in an English course, you might have another friend (hopefully one who is good at writing) read your paper. You might also visit your school’s writing center.

Of course, it’s always a smart idea to have a professional editor review your work even when you know how to revise an essay. And for that, you’re in the right place: the editors at Kibin can not only provide you with expert feedback and help with the revision process but can also help you become a better writer along the way.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on February 1, 2017, but has been expanded to include fresh advice and additional resources.

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