How to Edit

Two Parts:Beginning the Editing ProcessEditing Specific Genres

So you've finally completed that amazing piece of writing, be it a novel, an essay, or an article. Editing is the crucial next step. Follow over the steps below and you'll turn that B into an A or finally find that publisher you've always dreamed about.

Part 1
Beginning the Editing Process

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    Read over your written piece. It helps to have a hard copy and a red pen, but this is not necessary.
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    Check your spelling. A misspelled word can change the entire meaning of the entire sentence. Don't rely on your spellchecker. If you aren't certain about a word look it up in the dictionary.
    • Commonly misspelled words are: misspelled, received, believe, a lot, their, occurred, definitely.
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    Check your grammar. Without the proper grammar the written piece can become confusing. Jumping between tenses and points-of-view is difficult for a reader to follow.[1]
    • Consistently remain in one point-of-view. These are first person (I/me), second person (you), and third person (he/she/they).
    • Make sure your tenses match. Example: They were playing outside and are hungry. "Are" should be "were."
    • Look closely at passive sentences. Passive sentences are sentences where the subject is receiving the action, rather than performing the action. A passive voice example: "The ball was kicked by him." vs. the active: "He kicked the ball." Not all passive voice sentences are wrong, but they should be used with care.
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    Check your punctuation. Are you using commas, semicolons, periods correctly? Link Commas, in particular, are used incorrectly and people often avoid using semicolons altogether.
    • One common punctuation error is the comma splice. Example: "The hike is hard, so bring some water." The comma is unnecessary.
    • Do not use commas for periods. Example: "The water is very blue, the ship is big."
    • The Oxford Comma: this is an optional comma, but it often serves to make the listing of items in a sentence clearer. A well-known example: "We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin." The comma comes after "JFK." Without it that sentence reads: "We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin." The lack of comma turns JFK and Stalin into the strippers.
    • Periods and commas always go inside quotations marks in the U.S. Example: "There are many birds here," said Bill. For U.K. and Canada the rules are different.[2]
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    Read each sentence separately. Ask yourself if the sentence makes sense independent of the surrounding sentences. Each sentence must act as a complete thought.
    • Avoid sentence fragments: "The English Language is complicated. As it is a conglomeration of Latin, early French, and early German." This should be one sentence.
    • Starting a sentence with "because" is only acceptable in a few instances. Example: "Because the sentence was so difficult he could not complete it."
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    Vary sentence structure. Alternate with long and short sentences. This will break the monotony of too many similar sounding sentences. Language should be lyrical and interesting, even in an essay.[3]
    • Long sentences tend to provide more information. They may have several clauses with various kinds of punctuation.
    • Short sentences are more likely used to make a point.
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    Rewrite sentences that include overused words. These words are not intrinsically bad, but need to be used with care. A few examples are:
    • all
    • a lot
    • like
    • as if
    • due to the fact
    • Most adverbs like: slowly, really, very, suddenly, lovely, friendly.
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    Maintain an appropriate tone. There are differences between writing an essay, an article, and a novel. If you are writing an essay tone, especially, can dock you points.
    • For an essay, avoid first person and phrases like "I think." It is best to remain in third person. An article or story can be more lax depending on its type, and may use any of the three perspectives.
    • Unless specified by the teacher, and essay should not be informal.
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    Ask a trusted friend or adviser to read over your work. A second pair of eyes is always better. Make sure that this person knows their stuff and will be honest about it.

Part 2
Editing Specific Genres

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Editing an Essay for Content

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    Make sure that your essay follows a logical organization. Different disciplines have different ways of structuring their essays, but these steps are common among them.
    • The paragraphs should follow the structure laid out in the introduction.
    • The first sentence of each paragraph should sum-up the paragraph's content. If you are writing a persuasive essay, this sentence should make an argument that supports your thesis, but also can be backed up with the evidence presented in that paragraph.
    • If you are including a quote in a persuasive essay do not simply restate what the quote says. Make sure you explain why you chose that quote and how it supports your thesis.
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    Follow your professor or teacher's preferred method of citation. There are small variations between the different styles so be careful.
    • MLA is most often used for literature essays.
    • Chicago is most often used for research essays.
    • APA is used most often for sociology essays.
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    Create more than one draft. Your first draft will get all your ideas onto the page. The second draft serves polishes to the writing. This is when you should pay attention to structure and content of the piece. With your third, and any subsequent drafts, you should make certain there are no grammatical errors.
    • Editing multiple times is important. You will have to read through the piece more than once to catch all the errors.

Editing a Novel or Story for Content

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    Check that the story follows a logical progression. Unless you're trying for a post-Modern twist you'll want to have a beginning, middle, and end.
    • Does each scene and each character serve the story? Cut excess material.
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    Pay attention to character consistency and character development.
    • If your character acts loud and boisterous in one scene and suddenly shy in another, there had better be a good in-story reason for it.
    • A character who, for example, hates all elves won't simply fall in love with one just because she did one nice thing.
    • Consistency also means that a character who has brown hair in one scene shouldn't have red hair in the next unless it is explained.
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    Read the dialogue aloud. Does it make sense? Does it sound like something an actual person would say?
    • There is a fine line between mimicking human conversation which is full of "ums" and "likes" and creating something that sounds like human conversation, but is clearer.
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    Show instead of telling. This is one of the two most important parts of editing a story. Examples:
    • Example of telling: "George was angry."
    • Same situation, but with showing instead: "George gripped the wineglass so tightly it shattered. He paid no attention, his gaze focused on the television. His jaw clenched and a flush stained his cheeks."
    • Telling is not always bad. Not every moment needs to be drawn out in detail, but the most important parts of the story or novel do.
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    Enjoy the editing. "To write is human, to edit is divine."


  • Visit the library. Particularly if you are at a university or college, librarians can point you in the right direction for more in-depth editing help.
  • Read your work out loud. It's easier to weed out clunky sentences and to catch mistakes which your brain might gloss over.
  • Take advantage of resources like Strunk and White and Purdue OWL.


  • Take particular care with "it's," and "its;" "there," they're," and "their;" and "to," too," and "two."
  • Don't always rely on the grammar and spell check on your computer.

Article Info

Categories: Editing and Style