Tom Hanks quoted Kirk Douglas when he said, “The secret to writing is re-writing”. Neither actor is a conventional authority on writing nor editing, but in my experience they are correct. I’ve written a few articles, some short stories, and enough essays to make me want to forget about most of them. My only claim to insight – compared to anyone else undertaking a humanities or social science degree – is that I have explored the delicate science of trial and error for three years. I do not get it right the first time. Far from it. However, eventually I find something that seems to work for my tutors and me. If I can outline it here, then maybe you can enjoy a fast track to profitable prose.
So, you are assigned an essay. When scheduling your coursework, aim to complete a first draft ten days before the deadline. Then leave yourself at least three days to put the essay aside and clear your head. Better still, try to focus on other work to keep the essay out of your mind. Once you’ve waited a few days, re-read the essay carefully and make a list of any issues or shortcomings you can identify. Make it your goal to fill a notepad with everything that is wrong and could be better in the essay. Approached properly (i.e. with enough time to act on the issues), this does not depress the writer – it motivates them. Any delusions about the quality of the first draft are soon dispelled.
Either before or after you’ve made the changes on your list, turn your attention to each paragraph. Write a summary sentence for each paragraph, as if you were writing an abstract. This is substantially more helpful than it seems. It forces you to clarify the purpose of each hundred-and-fifty-plus block of words. Anything that does not contribute directly to developing this point should be removed, replaced, or clarified. Dozens of sentences may appear redundant simply by carrying out this brief exercise. This not only cuts precious words, but it renders the essay more concise and its argument clearer. This process will lead to a strong structure.
Next, you should do what I call ‘line editing.’ It is not always easy to deal with a full essay draft– 2,500 words can simply be too much to edit as a whole. Painters do not finish a piece with broad strokes, and nor should a writer. Instead, copy a paragraph, open a separate Word document, and paste it there. Break the section up into its constituent sentences so that there is a space between each. Read each one slowly. If it now seems too long, break it up. If it is awkward, reformulate it. If it is convoluted, simplify it. These issues are far easier to identify when you commit to one sentence at a time. At this stage, it is more productive to take the relevant section out from the main body of text as this prevents you from drifting around it to find other problems. If you take a scatter-gun approach to editing, you are going to spend considerably more time with considerably weaker result. Instead, aim at one target at a time – you are far more likely to hit them.
Another step towards perfection – to the best of your ability – is to have Word read the essay back to you (Review<Read Aloud). This way, you pick up on any erroneous words that are spelt incorrectly and autocorrect hasn’t picked up. It also gives you a new perspective through which to assess the cadences of each sentence. Alternately, or additionally, have a colleague read it over. Just make sure that they have time to study it and are not predisposed to hold back in their criticisms (reciprocity should ensure both).
Once these steps are done, you should have a polished essay which is amenable to the marker’s eye. While these steps are not required for your editing process, I hope you think they are worth trying. With a subject where clear communication and effective argument is imperative, these insights which I accumulated over three years have been invaluably helpful. Hopefully, they can help you as they have helped me.