How Do You Edit an Essay?

Correct errors and clear up clutter to polish your prose

According to Elizabeth Lyons, "Some of the most effective editing involves tightening . . .. Shorten a work and it becomes better" (Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, 2000). (SuperStock/Getty Images)

Editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer or editor strives to improve a draft by correcting errors and making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and as effective as possible. The process of editing involves adding, deleting, and rearranging words to cut the clutter and streamline overall structure.

The Importance of Editing

Whether you're working toward completing an assignment or hoping to get something published, tightening your writing and fixing mistakes can actually be a remarkably creative activity. Thoughtful revision of a work can lead to clarification of ideas, a reimagining of images, and sometimes, even a radical rethinking of the way you've approached your topic.

The Two Types of Editing

"There are two types of editing: the ongoing edit and the draft edit. Most of us edit as we write and write as we edit, and it's impossible to slice cleanly between the two. You're writing, you change a word in a sentence, write three sentences more, then back up a clause to change that semicolon to a dash; or you edit a sentence and a new idea suddenly spins out from a word change, so you write a new paragraph where until that moment nothing else was needed. That is the ongoing edit...
"For the draft edit, you stop writing, gather a number of pages together, read them, make notes on what works and doesn't, then rewrite. It is only in the draft edit that you gain a sense of the whole and view your work as a detached professional. It is the draft edit that makes us uneasy, and that arguably matters most."—From "The Artful Edit: The Practice of Editing Yourself" by Susan Bell

Editing Checkpoints

"The final step for the writer is to go back and clean up the rough edges... Here are some checkpoints: Facts: Make sure that what you've written is what happened; Spelling: Check and recheck names, titles, words with unusual spellings, your most frequently misspelled words, and everything else. Use a spell check but keep training your eye; Numbers: Recheck the digits, especially phone numbers. Check other numbers, make sure all math is correct, give thought to whether numbers (crowd estimates, salaries, etc.) seem logical; Grammar: Subjects and verbs must agree, pronouns need correct antecedents, modifiers must not dangle (make your English teacher proud); Style: When it comes to repairing your story, leave the copy desk feeling like the washing machine repair guy who has nothing to do."—From "The Effective Editor" by F. Davis

Editing in Class

"A large portion of everyday editing instruction can take place in the first few minutes of class... Starting every class period with invitations to notice, combine, imitate, or celebrate is an easy way to make sure editing and writing are done every day. I want to communicate with my instruction that editing is shaping and creating writing as much as it is something that refines and polishes it... I want to step away from all the energy spent on separating editing from the writing process, shoved off at the end of it all or forgotten about altogether."—From "Everyday Editing" by Jeff Anderson

Tinkering: The Essence of Writing Well

"Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost... Most writers don't initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It's not clear. It's not logical. It's verbose. It's klunky. It's pretentious. It's boring. It's full of clutter. It's full of cliches. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in several different ways. It doesn't lead out of the previous sentence. It doesn't... The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering."—From "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

The Lighter Side of Editing

"I hate cross-outs. If I'm writing and I accidentally begin a word with the wrong letter, I actually use a word that does begin with that letter so I don't have to cross out. Hence the famous closing, 'Dye-dye for now.' A lot of my letters make no sense, but they are often very neat."—From "There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say" by Paula Poundstone


  • Bell, Susan. "The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself." W.W. Norton, 2007
  • Davis, F. "The Effective Editor." Poynter, 2000
  • Anderson, Jeff. "Everyday Editing." Stenhouse, 2007
  • Zinsser, William. "On Writing Well." Harper, 2006
  • Poundstone, Paula. "There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say." Three Rivers Press, 2006
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "How Do You Edit an Essay?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). How Do You Edit an Essay? Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How Do You Edit an Essay?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).