How Do You Edit an Essay?

How Do You Edit an Essay?

Editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer or editor strives to improve a draft (and sometimes prepare it for publication) by correcting errors and by making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and more effective.

The process of editing involves adding, deleting, and rearranging words along with recasting sentences and cutting the clutter. Tightening our writing and mending faults can turn out to be a remarkably creative activity, leading us to clarify ideas, fashion fresh images, and even radically rethink the way we approach a topic. Put another way, thoughtful editing can inspire further revision of our work.

From the French, "to publish, edit"


  • Two Types of Editing
    "There are two types of editing: the ongoing edit and the draft edit. Most of us edit as we write and write as we edit, and it's impossible to slice cleanly between the two. You're writing, you change a word in a sentence, write three sentences more, then back up a clause to change that semicolon to a dash; or you edit a sentence and a new idea suddenly spins out from a word change, so you write a new paragraph where until that moment nothing else was needed. That is the ongoing edit…
    "For the draft edit, you stop writing, gather a number of pages together, read them, make notes on what works and doesn't, then rewrite. It is only in the draft edit that you gain a sense of the whole and view your work as a detached professional. It is the draft edit that makes us uneasy, and that arguably matters most."
    (Susan Bell, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. W.W. Norton, 2007)
  • Editing Checkpoints
    "The final step for the writer is to go back and clean up the rough edges… Here are some checkpoints:
    "Facts: Make sure that what you've written is what happened;
    "Spelling: Check and recheck names, titles, words with unusual spellings, your most frequently misspelled words, and everything else. Use a spell check but keep training your eye;
    "Numbers: Recheck the digits, especially phone numbers. Check other numbers, make sure all math is correct, give thought to whether numbers (crowd estimates, salaries, etc.) seem logical;
    "Grammar: Subjects and verbs must agree; pronouns need correct antecedents; modifiers must not dangle; make your English teacher proud;
    "Style: When it comes to repairing your story, leave the copy desk feeling like the washing machine repair guy who has nothing to do."
    (F. Davis, The Effective Editor. Poynter, 2000)
  • Editing in Class
    "A large portion of everyday editing instruction can take place in the first few minutes of class… Starting every class period with invitations to notice, combine, imitate, or celebrate is an easy way to make sure editing and writing are done every day. I want to communicate with my instruction that editing is shaping and creating writing as much as it is something that refines and polishes it… I want to step away from all the energy spent on separating editing from the writing process, shoved off at the end of it all or forgotten about altogether."
    (Jeff Anderson, Everyday Editing. Stenhouse, 2007)
  • Tinkering: The Essence of Writing Well
    "Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost… Most writers don't initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It's not clear. It's not logical. It's verbose. It's klunky. It's pretentious. It's boring. It's full of clutter. It's full of cliches. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in several different ways. It doesn't lead out of the previous sentence. It doesn't… The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering."
    (William Zinsser, On Writing Well. Harper, 2006)
  • The "Slap-and-Pat" Theory of Editing
    "What I try to practice is what I call the 'slap-and-pat' theory of editing. Almost everything that's written needs some criticism. Almost everything that's written needs some praise, or deserves some praise. So you try to mix praise with criticism. Ideally, you do it sincerely. That is, you don't praise what you really don't like; but you praise what you really do like. You don't write 12 pages of things that are wrong, without remembering to find something else you like, that is already right."
    (Editor Samuel S. Vaughan, in an interview with the online journal Archipelago)
  • The Lighter Side of Editing
    "I hate cross-outs. If I'm writing and I accidentally begin a word with the wrong letter, I actually use a word that does begin with that letter so I don't have to cross out. Hence the famous closing, 'Dye-dye for now.' A lot of my letters make no sense, but they are often very neat."
    (Paula Poundstone, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. Three Rivers Press, 2006)

Pronunciation: ED-et-ing