Most of my academic clients come to me for help with big things: a final paper, a thesis, a dissertation. But undergraduate and grad students, and even doctoral candidates, must deal with at least ten minor writing assignments for each big scary writing assignment that comes along.
Those minor assignments (things like online discussion posts and brief essays) may not warrant professional attention, but they definitely deserve more careful attention than many students give them. As you strive to transition from "mere student" to "scholar," you must learn the fundamental skills of revising and editing your own work... and as usual, you'll want your self-editing process to be as efficient as possible.
Here are six tips to help you develop efficient and effective self-editing skills:
- Take a short break. Without going into the details here, when you are under pressure and trying to express a certain idea or meaning in writing, your brain can play an interesting trick on you.* It imputes the meaning you want to express onto a small group of words (usually one, maybe two sentences) that don't actually carry that meaning. When you re-read what you've written, your brain cues up the meaning you intended those words to have, and serves it to you. This explains those times when you check your class post the next day and not even you can figure out what it says. Fortunately, this effect wears off in just a few minutes if you take a break and do something completely different: make a sandwich, do some burpees, fold some laundry. When you come back to read over your first draft, you'll be able to see what you've actually written.
- Pretend someone else wrote it. This is one way to look at your writing objectively, impassively, so that you are neither overprotective nor overly judgmental of it. There will be problems. They do not reflect on you as a person. See them, and look for ways to fix them. Critique yourself graciously, the way you would help a classmate (one that you like). Let your "inner editor" be the helpful, practical, supportive friend your "inner writer" needs.**
- Read it aloud. This is another way to perceive your writing objectively: your auditory and visual cortices process language very differently. Certain problems with grammar, pacing, word choice, and arrangement that were invisible to your eye will become obvious when you hear yourself read it aloud. This leads directly into the next two tips...
- Check your word choice (and spelling, while you're at it). Use clear, plain words as much as possible. When you use special terminology, as you must, make sure you are using it correctly: a quick search in one of your source documents (or a google search) will remind you how to use properly it in a sentence, and tell you whether that's really the word you want to use (and how to spell it).
- Check your logic (or narrative). Don't get carried away here! Just ask yourself, "Does the order that I've said things make sense?" Often, your first draft will be written in the order that thoughts occurred to you. Now's your chance to rearrange those thoughts in an order that will express them best.
- Double-check your assignment description and any clarifying notes about it. Even if you think you know what your post is supposed to cover, check it before you click "Submit" or "Send". Make sure your short assignment includes all the required ingredients, and does all the required things with them. You'd be surprised how often students miss easy points this way.
There are many more strategies and tactics for self-editing, but you don't want to spend that kind of time on a "brief" essay. Let's try to keep it brief! These six tips won't take long, and they will help you avoid the vast majority of typos, mistakes, and omissions that can gradually erode your grade in a class.
It will keep you from cringing when you re-read that online class discussion too... let's minimize those cringeworthy posts, for your sake and for your classmates!***
*(temporary stress-induced semiosis)
**(...and kick that "inner critic" to the curb. If you can't, let's talk.)
***(and for your professor too, speaking from personal experience!)
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