Tips for How to Polish Your Writing: A Baker's Dozen
Writing assignments need not produce anxiety, but you must be willing to put in the time to edit and revise multiple times and enlist others' help.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Writing assignments strike fear and loathing in many students. Polished writing skills, though, can be the ticket to better grades and greater academic success.
If you can develop a process -- like the one suggested here -- that gives you the time you need to edit and revise, you will cultivate writing habits that will take you far in school and life.
Here are 13 tips for revising, editing, and polishing a paper.
1. Give Yourself Quality Material to Begin With.
You'll find it much harder to polish writing that is weak to begin with. Bolster your revising efforts by writing a well-researched, well-organized, well-supported paper.
2. Give Yourself Plenty of Time to Revise.
As a professor, I cannot tell you how many times I've felt the warmth of a student assignment that was literally hot off the printer. A paper printed out right before class almost certainly hasn't gone through the careful editing and revising process it needs to earn a top grade.
2. Edit On Screen.
Before printing out your paper, read it on screen. This read-through will help you catch and correct obvious errors. Hint: Make it easier on your eyes by adjusting the zoom setting in your word-processing program to more than 100 percent. A setting of 150 works well.
3. Spell-check and Grammar-Check.
These functions of your word-processing program are far from foolproof, but they do serve as a first line of defense
4. Print Out the Paper and Perform a Macro-Edit.
On your first pass, check for big-picture issues, such as how well the paper is organized, whether it shows your understanding of the topic, whether you've supported your thesis, whether you've done adequate research, and if the paper is the right length for the assignment. Make revisions based on this review.
5. Ask Your Instructor to Critique an Early Draft.
It's always a great idea to find out if you're going in the right direction with the assignment by asking your teacher to give the paper a read. Not all instructors will do so, but it can't hurt to ask. If not your instructor, see if you can enlist a teaching assistant, another instructor, or tutor in your school's writing lab. Revise again after getting this feedback.
6. Set Your Paper Aside Before Editing Again.
Here's where it really pays off not to procrastinate and get your assignment finished as early as possible before the due date. If you can set the paper aside for anywhere from one to 10 days, you can later approach it with fresh eyes and a more clear-headed evaluation.
7. Give the Paper a Fresh Reading.
Check for simplicity of sentence structure. Look scrupulously for run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Cut out excess wordiness. Ensure smooth transitions. Get rid of passive voice as much as possible. Be sure you've deployed a rich vocabulary, used words correctly, and eliminated jargon and cliches.
8. Read Your Paper Aloud.
You would be amazed at the revelations produced when you speak your paper. Your ear can catch flaws your eye can't. Listen for flow, transitions, choppiness, and confusing sentence structure. If the paper seems to lack the proper pauses when spoken, it probably needs better punctuation. Revise based on this step and the previous one.
9. Ask Someone Else to Read Your Paper.
Your goal here is to find someone unfamiliar with the assignment to see if your writing makes sense to an outsider. The person can note grammar and spelling issues, but the main task is a big-picture read to see how well your paper explains its topic. Revise again based on this feedback.
10. Conduct a Final Proofreading and Polish.
Engage in a micro-edit that scrutinizes grammar, spelling, writing style, punctuation, capitalization, bibliographic style, citations, and neatness. Check the assignment again and be sure your paper meets it.
11. Pay Attention to Formatting and Packaging.
Some professors are sticklers for everything from font style and size to margins to whether your paper is stapled or not. Be sure you know these formatting and packaging requirements and that your paper conforms. Professors can get amazingly annoyed if you don't meet their specs, and even your best writing could go without appropriate reward as a result.
12. Be Prepared to Repeat Some Editing Steps.
Each time you subject your paper to another review -- whether through your own eyes or someone else's, you'll likely make more revisions and perhaps add more material. That means you need to keep conducting macro-edits to ensure the paper makes sense and micro-edits for grammar and writing issues.
13. Learn from Your Mistakes.
Suppose you do all the above, and your grade is not as good as you expect. First, read the teacher's comments. Many of us in education write copious, painstaking notes on papers, only to watch students flip to the page where the grade is and never read the comments. If there's a comment you don't understand, or your grade is way below your expectations, try to meet with your professor to go over the paper and see how you can do better next time.
Final Thoughts on Writing an Academic Paper
Writing an academic paper need not produce anxiety. A combination of good planning, scrupulous revision, additional sets of eyes to edit, and meeting your professor's expectations will win the day.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.