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Edit Your Way to a Better Grade

Editing is the time in each papers life where you come face to face with the garbage you spewed onto the page. Editing makes a huge difference to any paper, but it can be just as hard as writing if you don’t know what to look for. Having written over twenty papers in the last four years, I wanted to share things I look for while editing to help you get a better grade.


If you’re like me, you didn’t have an English class before university where they actually sat you down and told you the proper use of a comma, a semi-colon, or a colon. You're not alone. I received a comma handout in most of my university classes. An important step in my editing process is going through my document only looking at commas and questioning whether or not they should be there. Some common comma mistakes include putting a comma where you want a pause or using a comma when you actually need to use “and” or make a new sentence. Take the time to learn punctuation rules when you can and avoid writing sentences that require types of punctuation you are unsure about.

Passive Voice

Passive voice used to be a huge problem for me. It happens when a “to be” verb comes before another verb. For example: “Austen was using” or “The characters were formed in a world of trauma”. In some cases, fixing passive voice can be as easy as changing the tense “Austen used”. In the other more complex cases, sentences need to be rearranged in order to get rid of the passive voice: “The world of trauma formed the characters”. Passive voice can be used correctly, but as a basic rule for beginner writers, removing all passive voice will make for a stronger paper.


it ’s vs its

When do you use “it's” and when do you use “its”? “It’s” is a contraction for “it is” (and contractions should never be in an academic paper). However, the English language uses apostrophe “s” as a way to make something possessive: “Suzy’s eggs”. Following that rule, “It’s” seems like the possessive when in reality the possessive form is “its”. The way to understand “its” is to stop looking at it like “Suzy’s” because “its” is more like “his,” “her,” or “their.” None of those possessive words use an apostrophe “s.” Here’s a helpful chart:

My                  Our

Her                Your

His               Their


Even knowing this, I’ve still had a few run ins with finding “it’s” instead of “its” in my writing so I make a point of always checking for “it’s” when I edit. (How many times can I say its or it's?)


Do a read through of your draft only looking at verb tense. Are some in present tense: “It is” and some in past tense “It was”. Make it cohesive. It stands out and can be confusing when tense shifts around throughout a paper. You want your paper to be easy to read so your argument shines through.

Saying The Same Thing Twice

On a sentence level, I have found that first drafts will often say the same thing twice in two consecutive sentences or within the same paragraph. Editing these sentences can be more complicated than looking for passive voice or punctuation, but they make a huge difference to the end result of your paper.


Here is an example from a past essay I wrote: “Matilda is playing upon Ambrosio’s vanity to keep herself in his good favour. In addition, Matilda insists upon maintaining her friendship with Ambrosio that she had when habited in disguise as Rosario.”


Although, not exactly the same, “friendship” and “good favour” are very similar and both sentences are structured the same. These sentences could easily be combined to make a better sentence (You will also notice the passive voice in the first sentence). If I were to edit these two sentences again I’d combine them to be more succinct and simple.


Maybe something like: “Matilda uses Ambrosio’s vanity to maintain their friendship after she reveals herself as a woman.”


I also noticed another similar sentence in the same paragraph: “In order for Matilda to stay close to Ambrosio, she must maintain his friendship and therefore his confidence.”


Here, I made the mistake of using a sentence to reinforce the earlier statement instead of letting my evidence reinforce my statement for me. If I were editing this essay today, I would remove one of those two sentences or maybe expand on “his confidence,” which is the only difference between the two sentences.



The tendency might be to use a lot of quotes to increase the word count. However, the best quotes are strong evidence for your thesis that don’t take up too much space. Shorter quotes allow for more room to argue your thesis.


In an essay I wrote, I used this quote: “the reputation which he enjoyed in Madrid was still dear to him; and since he had lost the reality of virtue, it appeared as if its semblance was become more valuable” (Lewis 280).


But if I cut 14 words, the reader will get to the important evidence in the quote right away: “he had lost the reality of virtue, it appeared as if its semblance was become more valuable” (Lewis 280).


It is also important to think about how you use quotes and what quotes you use. If I’m short on words, I will look at the quotes already in my essay before adding new quotes. Could I go deeper into the importance of this quote and how it connects to my argument? Is there something in the author's word choice that supports my argument? I might also ask myself: How does this quote relate to the whole of the book/my essay/the time period? Or how does the greater context of this quote reinforce my thesis? Asking questions about existing quotes is the best way to gain words in an essay without watering down your argument with more quotes that may not effectively support your thesis.

Can it be Said in Less Words?

As I showed you before, ideas can often be said in less words. It can be as simple as using one word to say the same thing as three.


Taking this sentence from before:“Matilda is playing upon Ambrosio’s vanity to keep herself in his good favour.”


And saying it in less words:“Matilda plays upon Ambrosio’s vanity to maintain his favour”


The sentence went from 13 words to 9 words. A small change but the second sentence is stronger and gets to the point faster. I removed passive voice, switched “keep herself in” for “maintain,” and took out "good" because it is implied with the word "favour." Those were all simple changes that made a big difference.

Rewrite Problem Sentences

In every writing assignment there will be a few problem sentences that are necessary but frustrating to fix. When I have a problem sentence, I separate it from the essay and rewrite it over and over until I find a sentence that works. My most problematic sentence is usually my thesis, but by writing it out in different ways, I can help flush out my argument.


Same Sound, Different Word

A lot of words sound the same but are spelled differently. I'm not immune to mistaking poor for pore or pour. That's why I make sure to check spelling on words that could be confused like there, their or they're. Writing that "their is a pore orphan" is a lot different than writing that "there is a poor orphan."



One of the most important parts of my editing process is a document I call “goop.” All of the sentences I remove from my essay get cut and pasted into the goop document. That is how I preserve old sentences in case I need them later. Make sure to separate your goop from your draft so you can see the word count and not get bogged down by discarded writing.

Happy editing! (or just editing)                


Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk. Edited by D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, Broadview Press Ltd., 2004.

 — Chef Amy

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