Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.
How to Revise an Essay
Steps 1-5 below are proofreading steps. If you are in a time crunch, just do those.
Have more time and want the best grade possible? Do revision first (steps 6-9), and then proofread (steps 1-5).
Proofreading vs. Revision
Proofreading is checking for grammar and spelling mistakes. You should always proofread carefully as the last step in essay writing.
Revision is going back over your paper and making changes that improve the logic, organization of arguments, sentence structure, word choice, and grammar. Revising your essay is the step which makes or breaks your paper and often determines your grade.
1. Grammar and Spelling Check
Use your word processing program to do a grammar and spelling check. Please never turn in a paper without doing this necessary check! I am always dismayed to get a student paper with many mistakes that any word processing program would have found.
Better yet, use which often can find even more errors. You can get a free account. About six months ago, I started using Grammarly and now depend on it to catch my typos and to remind me of more effective ways to write. Moreover, to get the most out of any grammar and spelling check, be sure to notice errors you make over and over. That will help you to learn how to write better.
2. Read Your Paper Out Loud
Remember that no computer program can find all your errors, so you need to do a careful reading of your paper too. Here are some tricks:
- Read your essay out loud (or have someone read it to you while you look at a copy). Reading aloud slows you down and helps you see things you miss.
- Print out a hard copy. Research suggests that using a hard copy rather than a computer screen also helps you to see errors more effectively.
- Watch for sentences that you need to re-read. If you find you stumble over some words, or have to re-read a sentence, you may want to consider re-writing that sentence to make it clearer.
3. First Word Check
This is my best revision trick and I guarantee your writing will be better if you do it. Here's how:
- Go through your paper and circle the first word of every sentence.
- If there are two sentences in a paragraph that start with the same word, then change one of them by adding one of my transition words, or else reword the sentence.
When you don't use the same words over and over, your writing sounds more professional and less choppy. Better yet, adding transition words actually improves the content of your essay because those words help you link your ideas. Try it! I bet you'll get a better grade!
4. Subjects and Verbs
Next, circle the subjects and verbs in each sentence. You are going to do this to check for two things: good use of verbs and commas.
1. Are you using interesting and active verbs when possible? Do you use the same verbs too often? Try to avoid using the passive tense and use interesting verbs. Check a thesaurus if you can't think of a better word, or Grammarly premium will help.
2. Is there something in the sentence before the subject? Put a comma between that introductory element and the subject. Example: When leaving the house, I locked the doors.
If you've done the step above, you have probably caught many of the most common comma errors. For other errors, you can look at my easy guides for commas; quotation marks; colons and semi-colons; and hyphens, parenthesis, and dashes. Here are the three main rules students miss on commas:
- Introductory elements in a sentence (any word or phrase that comes before the subject). Example: Inevitably, some students in my class will forget to spell check, and the errors will drive me crazy!
- In between items in a list. Example: She remembered to use spell and grammar check, circle and check her first words, and double-check her punctuation.
- Before and after quotations. Example: The instructor said, "I know you will get a good grade on your paper," when I turned it in on Tuesday.
6. Thesis and Topic Sentences
Check for logic and clear argument. Underline your thesis sentence. Did you write a clear, effective roadmap thesis? Underline your topic sentences. Is there just one in each paragraph? If you read just the thesis and topic sentences can you understand the main point of your paper? Does your argument make sense? Is there something you need to add? You might ask someone else to read these sentences to see if they think something is missing.
7. Check Language for Tone and Voice
A good paper moves into the "fantastic" category when the writer uses vivid words to create a persuasive tone and specific words that create an interesting voice.
Interesting Language. Do your thesis and topic sentences sound vivid, opinionated, and interesting? Strong language can make your paper stand out. That means using vivid verbs and adverbs. A good example of using strong language is "Why We Crave Horror Movies" by Stephen King.
Be Opinionated! Movie reviews are better if they are funny, sarcastic, and witty. That might not be an appropriate tone if you agree with the main point of your article, but you can be equally impressive if you are passionate, earnest, and thoughtful. One way to do that is to use strong language, especially transition words, verbs, and adverbs. Examples:
- I fully support...
- I completely refute...
- Obviously, the author’s ideas that...are biased due to….
- Nevertheless, I strongly believe...
- Without proof, I would have to reject….
- Attempting to prove her points with false evidence, the author slides into ridiculous…
You get the idea. Be bold!
8. Do a Reverse Outline
A reverse outline means you outline what you've already written. Reverse outlining helps you to see the arguments in your paper more clearly and to decide whether you've actually written things in the right order.
To make a reverse outline, take your paper, and underline the topic sentences in each paragraph. Then write those sentences in an outline form (or cut and paste those sentences on another document. Read them in order and check:
- Do they make logical sense?
- Are they strong sentences?
- Do the arguments follow logically?
- Have you really responded to the question of your essay assignment?
- Have you given clear reasons for your thesis?
Next, look through your paper and underline (or pull out) the reasons and examples you use to support each topic sentence.
- Does each piece of evidence really back up that assertion?
- Is the evidence clear, concise, vivid, and interesting?
- Does something seem missing?
Finally, if you have used sources, look at each of those and make sure that they are cited correctly. Have you used all of your sources in just one or two paragraphs? Your paper will be stronger if you use your evidence throughout the paper.
Some students have been taught to back up their assertions with quotes. However, this creates a bad habit of using a quote from someone else to make your point, rather than stating that point yourself. Often I find that students don’t understand what they are quoting and would do better to use a paraphrase.
My rules for quotations are that you need to both explain the quote in your own words and then tell how that quote backs up your argument. Frequently, it is easier just to paraphrase the author in your own words and then say how that backs up your ideas. Check your quotations:
1. Do you keep the quote inside your sentence?
Correct: Reading is vital to becoming a good writer. As Sarah McKlean points out, "We are all readers before we are writers."
Incorrect: "We are all readers before we are writers." Sarah McKean's quote tells us reading is important to becoming a writer.
2. Do you make sure that you explain how that quote backs up your argument?
3. Do you need to quote? Can you put the information in your own words as effectively or more effectively? Remember quotes are best used only if a person is an authority on the subject, the way the quote is worded is important, or if you are going to talk about specific parts of that quote later in your argument.
10. Author Tags
If you are using information from something you have read, heard, or watched, you need to cite that source. A useful method for deciding whether you need to use a citation is to ask: "Would a normal person know that information without looking it up?" If not, you need to tell your source. Two common ways for citing are to tell the author and title of the text or do a parenthetical reference (MLA style) or footnote (APA style).
Additionally, as you write your paper, you should use "author tags" whenever the facts you are writing about came from your source. Author tags can be the name of the author, "he or she" or "the author" or "the article says..." Find out where you need to put author tags by reading the paper and marking where you are referring to the ideas in the article you read (highlight one color), and your ideas (highlight in a different color). Make sure that every time you are referring to the author’s ideas you have used an author tag or referred in some way to where you got the ideas. Examples: the author argues, James concludes, the essay explains, he/she refers to.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 14, 2012:
Thanks Seeker! As you know, the process of revising is continual for people who consider themselves writers. My students often want to write better but need help in seeing the steps to make their papers clearer.
Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on September 14, 2012:
An excellent and very interesting article. It's many years since I had to write an essay - the last was during Nurse Training. I wish I'd had guidelines like those above it would have made life a lot easier!
I also like the step by step guide for proof reading an essay. Often the writer will use the spell checker but as you say, there are errors that can still be missed.
I'm going to pass this hub onto my niece who will be writing essays as part of her pre-exam studies. She is at Secondary School and I'm sure this hub will be a huge benefit to her.
Great hub and very interesting. Voted up + shared!
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 13, 2012:
I'm glad I helped Maddie. That is actually something I've found I have to do, since I'm one of those people who doesn't really know what I want to say until I start writing!
Maddie Ruud from Oakland, CA on September 13, 2012:
I love the idea of reverse outlining! I was never exposed to it in my own schooling, but it makes perfect sense. I will definitely apply it to my writing in the future.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 12, 2012:
So true Pennypines. And humor is a great way to make people more interested in what you have to say.
Lucille Apcar from Mariposa, California, U.S.A. on September 12, 2012:
One more little suggestion: Do not make your essays too serious, they can become boring. A little touch of appropriate humor or self-deprecating wit can go a long way.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 11, 2012:
You are so right Pennypines! My favorite writer, Anthony Trollope, often used familiar sayings that his characters quote to one another and themselves. That adds zest to life!
Lucille Apcar from Mariposa, California, U.S.A. on September 11, 2012:
I love to use quotes, especially from classic poetry. And they do lend credence to our arguments if used properly. It is amazing how far back in time the writer can go, how very many years ago the same topics that interest us today were used in fine literature and poetry.
The French say "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
Vive le bon mot! (long live good writing!)