How to Edit Essays (and other writing)

Even most professional writers rewrite their material at least twice. Many of them will tell you that editing is their least favorite part of the writing process. But meticulous rewriting is crucial. A poor editing job is like a poor paint job on a new piece of furniture.

I believe that the major reasons for poor rewriting are psychological. Therefore, I do not mean to provide a step-by-step guide to the process. Instead, I hope to help you modify your outlook as you edit.

One preliminary note: great writers love the written word. We are all passionate about different things. Some of us love to grill the perfect steak. Some would like to make the perfect chip shot. Others would like to spawn the perfect sentence.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to be as passionate as those who choose writing as a career. But if your attitude is “writing sucks, I’d rather have a tooth pulled,” you’re doomed before you start. You need to take some pride in what you’re producing in order to do it well.

Okay – so you’ve decided that writing is more fun than the dentist’s chair (but less fun than watching SpongeBob – hey, I understand). You make a decent outline, and you write a first draft. Did you do a decent job? Be honest – would someone else praise your work? Are there lots of errors? Does your writing have “punch”?

SpongeBob SquarePants

Here’s where psychology comes into play. Many students are poor editors because they are lazy, impatient, or egotistical (or all 3). Let’s have a look at each:

Laziness is easy to understand. For most young people, XBOX, soccer, or hanging with friends is preferable to writing. If your schedule keeps you very busy, you may feel tired when it’s time to work on your writing. But that’s not the kind of laziness I want to talk about. If you’re any kind of a decent student, you’ve already learned how to set aside some time and get serious about your assignments.

However, there is a another source of laziness in editing that we don’t think about as much. We hate “do-overs”! Most people who enjoy doing a task will not enjoy having to repeat it. And that’s what re-writing feels like. “This isn’t good enough. Do it again.” To overcome this obstacle, stop looking upon rewriting as a do-over. It’s isn’t one; editing is simply part of the natural process of writing.

Continuing the furniture analogy I began earlier, the first edit is like sanding, and the second is like staining or painting. So when it’s time for either phase, don’t tell yourself “now for the boring part of writing.” Instead, say “now I’m an editor. Let’s do this right.”

Impatience goes hand-in-hand with laziness. When you’ve finished your first draft, you’ve already provided most of the creativity that will go into the end product. naturally, you want to get to that endpoint as soon as possible. But a rushed rewrite will produce an inferior product.

To cure the ills of laziness and impatience, I suggest that you do two things. First, take a nice long break before you begin to rewrite. Two, reread your work with a fresh outlook.

Did you know that novelists often wait six months or longer before they begin to rewrite? Sure, that can be frustrating for fans who are waiting for the next Harry Potter or Twilight book. But after many months, an author loses a lot of intimate knowledge of her own work. Rereading (the first step of rewriting) feels something like reading another author’s work, instead of her own. That makes it easier to recognize what needs to be changed.

Naturally, the time you wait until you rewrite will depend on your circumstances. If you’re writing an essay for school or a practice SAT, you may only be able to wait a couple of days. If you’re actually taking the SAT, you don’t have any real time to wait. Shake your head for 5 or 10 seconds, say “I’m an editor now,” and get going.

Finally, egotism can hinder your editing. Once a writer has created something, it becomes “his baby.” He may be reluctant to change it, and any suggestion that the work contains flaws may be perceived as an insult. My advice – if this applies to you, get over it! The whole point of a first draft is that it should contain errors (unless you’re one of those rare authors who edit as they write, and that’s very difficult to do without sacrificing creativity). Think of your first draft as something imperfect that you want to polish.

One suggestion that many writers have found helpful is to listen to your first draft. You can have someone else read it, or use the read aloud feature on a Kindle. Otherwise, you can use a program on your computer (just Google “freeware text-to-speech” – add “Mac” if you use one). Of course, most software solutions sound rather robotic, but they still help you to get a different point of view.

The great news is that the more you rewrite, the less you’ll have to. At first, you may be surprised how many errors and examples of weak writing your works contain. But by taking the time to fix them, you’ll learn to write first drafts with fewer problems. In other words, you’ll become a better writer.


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