How to edit an essay

Because my students’ first drafts are so messy, I sometimes ask them to rewrite them during the revising stage. Many students make clean drafts without my encouragement since they have no room left for changes or since they can hardly decipher their changes any more.

I have learned that when students try to edit using a sloppy, revised draft with cross-outs and insertions, they miss errors.  Even though they have skipped lines to leave room for changes, and have left margins so there is room for insertions, sometimes they need to write a clean draft or type and print  a clean draft for editing purposes.

student essay to be edited

This portion of a fifth grade student essay has been revised but is difficult to edit because of all the cross-outs, circles and insertions. A clean draft would help the student to edit well.

Once they have a clean almost-final draft, students edit. They read every word of their essays, looking for errors such as in spelling, capitalization, verb tenses, plurals, parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, pronoun antecedent agreement, possessive nouns, its and it’s; they’re, there, and their; to, two, and too; and punctuation. Students who overuse certain words (and, then, so, and just, for example) hunt for them and either eliminate them or replace them.

One trick I learned long ago when I was a copy editor is to read each sentence out of order, starting with the last sentence and ending with the first sentence. By listening to sentences out of order, mistakes are easier to hear. My students think this technique is silly until they try it, but then they realize its usefulness. Usually I wait until a student is in middle school to suggest this editing technique.

As students edit, I try to read along with them, to suggest grammar and usage problems they might not suspect. At this point I sometimes teach a grammar lesson on the particular problem the student has encountered, especially if this problem is recurring.

When the student finishes editing his final hand-written copy, the student or I type this draft on the computer, leaving any remaining errors as they are. At our next meeting, the student edits for a second time, usually finding a handful of errors he missed during the first edit. (It’s so much easier to find errors when the writing is printed rather than hand-written.) Sometimes the student will make significant changes at this point, but not usually. Since I am aware of what the errors are, I point out errors that the student has not found.

Next we’ll talk about the value of typing and printing a final version of a student’s essay.

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