Welcome to our tips and tricks for self-editing series! This four-part Thursday series will help you become more familiar with your own work, so you can improve your content, organization, style, and grammar on your own. This series is aimed so that this situation won’t happen to you:
Today, we’re going to start with content.
Some people might think of writing like this:
Calvin & Hobbes
As amusing and relatable Calvin might be, he is wrong on about how to develop your content. In fact, you want to do the exact opposite of everything Calvin said!
Content can refer to
- our ideas,
- our arguments,
- our understanding of the prompt and material,
- and how we communicate that understanding to our audience in our essays.
Many students come to us assuming their grammar is the real problem behind their low essay grades. However, we often find that students have content issues that are larger and more important than any grammar issues in their essays. Professors, employers, friends, and family often care more about your ideas than your mastery of English grammar. That isn’t to say grammar doesn’t matter because it does. But, keep in mind that not even strong grammar can hide bad ideas. What you say matters the most, and if readers catch a flaw in your argument, a gap in your idea, a mistake in your understanding, then you will lose their focus, and they might stop reading.
So how do we catch these content errors? Here are a few tips.
First, you have to finish a draft a couple of days before the essay is due. We know this process can be tedious, especially with heavy course loads. However, this step is key in the revision process no matter how you decide to edit your essay.
Next, after finishing a draft, you have a few choices:
- You can put the draft aside and return to it a couple of days later with fresh eyes. This distance away from your paper allows your mind time to defamiliarize itself with your content so when you return to your essay, you can catch all the flaws, gaps, and mistakes that you originally overlooked.
- You can also color code your essay. Read your thesis and keep it in mind as you take four different colors and underline or highlight every sentence to signal its function as either a claim, a piece of support, an explanation of your support, or off-topic information. Remember: every sentence has to work to prove the thesis, so if your claims, support, or explanations are off-topic, revise them. For the clearly off-topic sentences, make sure to omit or revise them so they support your thesis. Your essay should only have three colors by the end.
- Lastly, ask a friend to peer-review your essay. Your friend can reassure you that your essay makes sense in terms of your argument and your support for your argument. This way is probably the best since you simulate a real writer-reader relationship with your friend, and can therefore identify places where any reader (like your professor or employer) might get lost.
Now that you know how to find your content errors, this checklist describes the expectations of a well-written essay.
|Self-Editing Checklist for Content
󠄀 Have I read the prompt?
󠄀 Do I have an arguable thesis statement?
󠄀 Does my thesis answer the prompt?
󠄀 Does my thesis have supporting reasons?
󠄀 Does my thesis answer the question “so what?”
󠄀 Do my body paragraphs follow PIE?
󠄀 Do my points support my thesis?
󠄀 Do my examples, quotes, or evidence support my thesis?
󠄀 Do I explain how my examples, quotes, and evidence supports my thesis?
󠄀 Do I avoid ending on quotes?
󠄀 Have I considered my audience?
󠄀 Do I have a relevant title?
Whew, what a list! Let’s talk over some of the main points briefly for clarification.
Reading and truly understanding what is being asked of you in any writing situation is where you need to begin. In this phase, underline or highlight key points that the prompt is asking you to do. If you’re writing a resume, for example, make sure you’re referring back to the job ad and responding to their demands. If you’re writing an essay, determine if the prompt asks you to analyze, compare, summarize, explain, critique or defend a position, then be sure to follow those guidelines.
After you understand the prompt, create a thesis statement. Don’t leave your reader like this:
Thesis statements are the center, the glue, the entire point to writing your essay. If you don’t have one, the reader will be confused, lost, and probably think you’re just ranting. Since you’ve read the prompt carefully by now, you can determine if your thesis answers the prompt properly.
Furthermore, you should make sure your thesis is arguable. Every time you write, you are arguing something. For instance, if my prompt is to explain why I think a certain animal is the best pet, I can’t have a thesis that says “Cats are animals,” because that is a fact. Instead, I have to say something like “Cats are the best pets because they are soft, independent, and unpredictable.”
With your working thesis in mind, review your body paragraphs to be sure they support your thesis. Using PIE (Point, Information, Explanation) can help you make sure that everything relates back to your thesis. For instance, I don’t want to start talking about what kind of food cats eat during my body paragraph about cats being independent. Instead, I’ll say something like:
Because cats are independent, they are the ideal pet. Compared to dogs, cats are known to be much more independent—entertaining themselves for hours—and are rarely bothered when their owner leaves. Since cats are so independent, you don’t have to spend as much time with them, but you still get all the benefits of having a furry companion in your house.
In this paragraph, I focus primarily on the benefits of cats’ independence instead of jumping around to many different ideas. I am also sure to relate this paragraph back to my thesis.
And for conclusions, don’t do this:
When I read a summary, at the end of a paper, not only am I unfulfilled as a reader, but I also feel insulted because the writer doesn’t think I can remember what they talked about. Yes, you need to readdress your points, but instead of telling the reader what you talked about again, tell them what they should have learned from the essay and why it matters. Make the essay worth their time.
Lastly, always have your audience in mind, especially during revision. If you don’t think about your audience, you’ll either add too much or too little information which will harm your reader either way. Considering your audience also helps you identify how formal you have to be in your language, an important convention for academic and professional writing situations.
Well, that’s all for today! Keep an eye out for the next post in this series, which will cover organization.