Editing and proofreading

Revising your essay

Writing is a process that involves drafting and re-drafting to craft your paper into its final form. There is no rule about how many drafts are needed. Some students may think that they need to write only one draft of an assignment, correct the errors they find, and turn that in for a grade. More realistically, you need to work through at least several drafts to come up with the best possible finished product.

Essential points for student writers

You need to keep in mind the purpose of your writing and for whom you are writing. As a student writer your purpose is usually to display your understanding to your reader, who is usually your teacher. Thus, when tackling an assignment, you need to ask yourself what knowledge and understanding the assignment has been designed to assess. Then ask yourself how well you have succeeded in displaying that knowledge:

  • Does it cover all the main aspects and in sufficient depth?
  • Is the content accurate and relevant?


Editing means re-reading and re-working your paper to ensure its content is clearly presented in an organised structure and that the style is appropriate for the task.

Editing for structure

When editing for structure, refer to any requirements given in the assignment. Using an essay as an example, the structure will likely require you to edit as follows:

  • Introduction
    • Does the introduction present or define the topic, state your purpose clearly and present your line of argument?
  • Body
    • Does the body of the essay develop your argument?
    • Are the paragraphs ordered logically?
    • Are there smooth transitions between paragraphs through the use of transitional words/sentences?
    • Does each paragraph have a topic sentence that clearly states the main idea of the paragraph?
    • Is each paragraph adequately developed and supported with details, examples and explanations?
  • Conclusion
    • Does the conclusion sum up your argument with reference to the essay question?
    • Is the introduction and conclusion linked?
    • Have you ensured that no new material is introduced here?
  • References, if applicable
    • Have you used the recommended referencing style for your assignment?
    • Are all references acknowledged?

Editing for style

This means ensuring that the writing is clear and has the appropriate 'tone', i.e. that it 'sounds' right. This deals with the relationship between the writer and the reader as well as between the writer and the subject. Depending on the assignment, it might need to be formal, impersonal and tentative in tone.

Formal means avoiding slang and casual language and abbreviations and contractions.

Impersonal means you avoid the pronoun 'I'. At the same time, however, you may be required to make judgements and include your own views on an issue. How can you do this without saying 'I think', 'I believe' and the like?

In fact, whatever is included in your paper that is not attributed to someone else is assumed to be yours. Therefore, if you say There is a case for stricter government control on guns, the fact that you are not reporting another person's view implies that it is your own.

Tentative language shows that you are aware that something is neither clearly right or wrong, all or nothing. You can do this through use of:

  • verbs – may, can, seem, suggest, tend to
  • adverbs – probably, likely
  • adjectives – some, most, many, few
  • nouns – tendency, probability, possibility, assumption, estimate

For example:

Experience suggests that most students who study consistently throughout the term tend to achieve better marks.


Proofreading is finding and correcting errors in spelling and punctuation, and checking for grammatical correctness. Only after carefully editing for structure and style should you begin reading through your assignment to find and correct errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling. Although it is common for students to proofread their writing in the process of composing, it is important to leave it until after all the drafting and re-drafting has been completed.

At the composing stage you should be working at the level of ideas – organising vast amounts of information and concepts gathered through your reading and reflection on the topic. Proofreading at the same time as composing can easily paralyse your writing by hindering the flow of your thought.

Writers should leave themselves plenty of time for careful proofreading to find and correct errors. Most know from unfortunate experience that it is hard to proofread well at 4am on the day the assignment is due!

Tips for proofreading

  • Leave time between your last edit and proofreading the final draft. Put the paper away for a few hours, or better yet overnight, and proofread when your mind is fresh. This helps you see more objectively what you have written, as opposed to what you intended to write.
  • Proofread backwards. Read each sentence in the paper starting with the last sentence and working backwards to the first. This isolates each sentence and helps you to more easily find errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling.
  • Read the paper out loud, slowly. Reading out loud will enable you to hear awkwardness and mistakes in your writing that you might not notice in reading.
  • Proofread for typical errors. Review teachers' comments on past assignments to identify errors that you make repeatedly.
  • Read slowly and carefully—do not just skim. You may have accidentally left out a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire page. Occasionally pages get put in the wrong order. Spell checkers or other computer programs will not catch these errors; a very tired or rushed student may not either. Be sure to read through the final hard copy of the paper, exactly as it is to be submitted.

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