General Editing Advice


The division between drafting and editing is a porous one. Most of us tidy up our prose as we write. Still, once we’re reasonably happy that we’ve made all our points, it’s time to do some final editing. This process can range from rearranging entire paragraphs to tweaking the odd sentence. Either way, make sure you save enough time for editing. Even a quick read through will often reveal a number of obvious errors.

Editing Tips

Set It Aside

If you’ve got the time, set your work aside for a day or two. Once you’ll come back to it, you’ll be well rested and you’ll see the text with a new pair of eyes (well, not literally, but you get the point).

Print It Out

If you’ve been staring at the screen too long, print out your work instead. You might even consider changing the font size (or even the spacing), so that nothing is quite in the same place. It’s amazing how quickly our eyes gloss over mistakes when we’ve seen something a hundred times.

Read Aloud

Another great strategy for spotting mistakes is to read the text aloud. Some people even suggest reading your essay backwards, one sentence at a time. Sounds like great advice, but who is really going to read backwards? You’re better off just reading aloud slowly, questioning all the time whether your prose sounds natural. If you’ve written sentences that you would never utter in a normal conversation, then perhaps your writing may be a bit stilted.

Reading aloud also makes you aware of the pace and rhythm of the text. Are you using one long sentence after another, or do you mix it up? Are the sentences clearly connected to each other? There’s nothing like reading aloud (particularly with another person in the room) to make you aware of the peculiar features of your own writing.

Run a Spell Check

It’s easy enough to run a quick spell or grammar check. No need to be embarrassed by silly mistakes.

Check for Coherence

One of our favourite proofreading strategies is to use a marker and go through a paragraph highlighting all the key words. After that, just ask yourself whether all the key words are connected to one central idea. If not, you may need to do some rewriting to create more coherence.

Check for Relevance

Constantly ask yourself “why is this important?” or “who cares?” Quantity does not guarantee quality, so cut out anything that doesn’t add something new and interesting.

Another good question to ask yourself is whether your audience is likely to find your point obvious, or if you provide a unique angle or spin on the subject matter. Highlight what is different about your particular perspective.

Finally, if you’re completing a specific writing assignment, it’s never a bad idea to read instructor’s guidelines again. Have you fully answered the question, and do all your subpoints back up your central idea?

Fix the Formatting

No need to lose marks over bad formatting. Make sure you use our guides on essay formatting and citation. A bit of time spent on making your essay look professional will make your instructor very happy.


If you’re still unsure about your assignment, don’t be shy to visit your instructor or go to a writing centre (most universities have one). Although there are plenty of cranky and obnoxious professors out there, most will be happy to sit down with you and help you develop your ideas.

Finally, you can also do more editing, but at some point it’s time to stop. Don’t be embarrassed by the final product. If you’ve put in the time and effort, that’s all anyone can ask for. Reward yourself a little and then move on to your next writing project.


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Experienced writers think of editing as a way to add polish to their paper. Spending time fixing mistakes adds some extra shine to your writing.

Our top two suggestions for editing are to print out your paper and to read through it aloud. By looking at a printed version you will be able to see text in a new light, and you won’t gloss over mistakes as quickly. Similarly, reading aloud makes you realize when something just doesn’t sound quite right. If you would never say it to someone, then you probably shouldn’t write it either.

Peer Editing

By the time you get around to editing you might be sick of your paper. So find someone else to read it over.

You can give them this sheet to check for errors: Editing Checklist

When you edit someone’s essay, don’t just criticize the little things. Make sure you think about the big picture, about how everything connects. What is the main point? Are you eager to read on? Are you left with any questions?

Give feedback that is positive and up-building. Focus on how the essay can be improved.

Reverse Outlining

Another great activity you can do is what we like to call “reverse outlining.” This is where someone who is totally new to your essay goes through it and tries to make an outline. You start by reading each paragraph and circling all the key words. Then you try to write a short sentence that captures what the paragraph seems to be saying. When you’re done, check if all the paragraphs relate back to the main argument. Is there any information missing? Could something be added or changed? Reverse outlining helps you understand how others might interpret your essay.


Check out the following resources to help you develop your editorial skills:


You can’t go on editing your paper for ever. When you feel you’ve done your best, hand in your essay and relax.

And if you’re a perfectionist, and you have a hard time letting go, just remember that an essay does not have to be a masterpiece for the ages. If it were, your teacher wouldn’t have anything to do. So clean up your desk, thank your editors, and go have some fun!

Editing for Metadiscourse


Even if you’ve only ever written a single essay–or even a line of an essay–you’ll be familiar with metadiscourse and the challenge it presents. Metadiscourse is a fancy word for the language we use to frame our ideas:

In this example of metadiscourse, the phrase "nice shirt" is framed with the words "I've got to say."

It’s hard to write without using metadiscourse. For instance, anytime you indicate a change in direction, you end up using expressions like howeveron the other hand, or yet one might argue that. All of these are examples of metadiscourse.

Use too much of this kind of language and your prose will seem stilted and cumbersome; use too little and the reader will be lost in a jungle of disconnected observations. Let’s take a closer look, then, at how you can use metadiscourse to frame your ideas effectively.


The word metadiscourse consists of two parts. The word discourse means communication or debate. The prefix meta comes from Greek and means something like about. In other words, metadiscourse refers to the language we use to talk about our regular communication.

If your thesis reads “I will argue that according to Plato thinking for yourself is antithetical to an oral tribal culture,” then the phrase “I will argue that” is metadiscourse. It frames the idea and tells the reader how you want your words to be understood.

Metadiscourse is important because it allows us to put our stamp on the material, to give direction and relate the various facts and opinions to each other.

Here’s how one scholar defines metadiscourse:

Essentially metadiscourse embodies the idea that communication is more than just the exchange of information, goods or services, but also involves the personalities, attitudes and assumptions of those who are communicating. (Hyland 3)

In other words, your choice of metadiscourse affects your writing style. It affects how readers perceive you as a person.

Editing for Metadiscourse

Here’s a sample essay introduction filled with metadiscourse:

When comparing two pieces of literature, there are many different aspects that a person can analyze. When we take a closer look at Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe we see that this is true. For example, Lewis shares a Christian message, whereas Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. In this essay, I will demonstrate that these themes come up especially in relation to lying. Whereas Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.

Clearly this paragraph is very self-referential. The writer constantly reminds us that literary analysis involves comparison, analysis, close reading, and argumentation. Much of this language is redundant, and we could easily do with a shorter version:

Philip Pullman wrote The Golden Compass in part because he hated C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Whereas Lewis shares a Christian message, Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. We see this especially when it comes to lying. Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, but Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.

The revised version is more direct. By minimizing the frame we can focus on the picture.

The point, then, is that metadiscourse should be used judiciously. Some writing instructors go overboard and launch a crusade against metadiscourse, deleting as much self-referential language as they can. Instead, the challenge is to find a happy medium, where your metadiscourse makes the reading process smooth and easy.

Finding Your Voice

A common struggle for writers is to decide what pronouns to use (or whether to use them at all). Let’s review whether it’s acceptable to use “I” and “we” in academic writing.

Using “I”

I can’t tell you how often students have come to me and said “But my teacher told me never to use ‘I’ in my essay.” While such advice may be well-meant, it has the unfortunate effect of making the act of writing seem somehow impersonal and distant, as if essays have to be composed in a different language.

Now it is true that in some disciplines (e.g., history) the first person voice is frowned upon, mostly because the author is expected to seem objective and unbiased. It’s also true that “I” is often redundant. If you’re writing a book review and you open with “I think that Slade House was a gripping read” you could just as well say “Slade House was a gripping read.”  The reader will assume that the statements on the page are your opinion.

Despite these caveats, using “I” is not forbidden, and is often preferred. The first person voice is particularly useful when you’re distinguishing your ideas from those of others:

Whereas Sarah Jones argues that … I would suggest that …

I agree with Michael Smith that …

The first person pronoun is also great for indicating shifts in your argument:

I will argue that …

Having seen that … , I think we can safely conclude that …

Even if you later decide to delete some of those “I’s,” they will have helped you to get your ideas on paper, and that’s a good thing.

Royal We

Another pronoun that tends to confuse writers is “we.” Here’s how to use “we” without sounding pompous.

First, avoid using the “royal we,” where “we” is just a grander way of saying “I”:

We will argue that …

As we have demonstrated …

Unless you are coauthoring a piece of writing, this use of “we” is not advisable.

On the other hand, you can use “we” if you’re actually referring to multiple individuals:

In our study group we found that …

As we examine the evidence, we will see …

Notice that in the second example “we” refers to the writer and the reader(s). This use of the pronoun can be an effective way of making your audience feel part of the process.


Much of essay writing consists of learning to use metadiscourse properly. It’s about discovering your own voice, of developing your writing personality.

At first the tendency will be to do too much, to start every sentence with a transitional word (therefore, thus, etc.), or to add unnecessary modifiers (e.g., essentially). Then the pendulum might swing the other way, and you feel self-conscious every time you write “I will argue,” or “we will see.”

But in the end you’ll find the right style for you, and that’s really all that matters.

Works Cited

Hyland, Ken. Metadiscourse: Exploring Interaction in Writing. Continuum, 2005.