“Editing” is the process by which we make major revisions to our writing. In terms of the larger writing process, editing generally follows drafting and precedes proofreading. Depending on the nature of the writing assignment, you might edit multiple times before moving on to the next revision step (“proofreading”).

How to edit

1) Pay attention to and address revision suggestions and corrections. If you receive substantive feedback from a professor, peer(s), or editor, your first job is to make sure you understand that feedback. If the feedback has to do with your essay’s content, support, and structure, then you may need to remove, add, and/or rearrange sentences, paragraphs, and even whole sections of your paper. You may even need to rewrite completely. Ask questions of your readers if you aren’t sure what changes they’re recommending. Try putting other people’s feedback into your own words if you aren’t certain about it. Finally, make a revision checklist based on the feedback you have received to help you create structure in your editing process.

2) Edit thoroughly. Keep in mind that even small changes to one part of a paper often necessitate changes elsewhere in the paper. That is, if you change your paper’s thesis, you also need to change its body and conclusions; if you add an evidence paragraph, you may also need to go back to your introduction and make changes there to make the whole paper internally consistent. In the editing process, make sure that your paper “agrees” with itself from start to finish.

3) Don’t confuse editing with proofreading, and don’t proofread before you edit. Proofreading (by, for instance, looking for surface errors or revising for style) is a separate step, and it’s the last step of the writing process. So, one should never go on a typo hunt before she has rearranged her paper’s paragraphs, assuming both steps are on the revision checklist. Revising out of order will just create a new need for proofreading and drag out the revision process unnecessarily. Using an orderly process requires discipline but saves time and energy.

A Revision Technique: the Retrospective Outline

Often, we have to edit independently, either because we haven’t received much (or any) feedback, or because, even after we’ve taken readers’ suggestions into account, we still recognize a need to revise further on our own. Retrospective or “reverse” outlines are useful when we need to edit a whole paper and wish to see it with fresh eyes. Keep in mind that the word “revise” actually means “see again”: a retrospective outline creates a kind of X-ray of your draft that you can use to look at it anew and make major changes to its core ideas and logical skeleton.

To create a basic retrospective outline, follow these steps:

1) Find your paper’s thesis and write it at the top of a blank piece of paper.

2) Find the argument of your first body paragraph and write it out beneath the thesis, using a number, letter, or Roman numeral (whatever you prefer) to mark it as your first main point.

3) Repeat this process for each of your body paragraphs. Be aware that as you work through your paper, you may find paragraphs that lack a clear main point. You may also find paragraphs that contain more than one main point. Note this on the retrospective outline so that it accurately reflects your paper.

4) Next, find your restated thesis in your conclusions and write it out beneath your paragraphs’ main points.

5) Look at the snapshot of your paper that emerges from this process. Isolate problem areas (places where body paragraphs do not have one clearly-stated main idea each, for instance).

6) Next, begin revising the retrospective outline as necessary. Add, remove, or rewrite sentences to address the weaknesses you noted.

7) Finally, use the revised retrospective outline as a guide to editing the draft itself. The outline you have edited should represent the outline for the new, revised paper: treat it like a blueprint for the work you are now ready to rebuild.

8 ) Repeat this process as necessary until you have structured your paper logically.

You will know your paper “makes sense” when a simple retrospective outline of it reads like a paragraph. That is to say, you ought to be able to remove the outline structure, space the outline like a regular paragraph, and read it from start to finish, and it should flow smoothly and logically from sentence to sentence without repetition, disorganization, or gaps in ideas. When your retrospective outline meets this goal, the paper it reflects probably also “flows” as a whole piece of writing.