How to Revise, Edit and Proofread Your Writing

By Ali Hale

Whatever sort of writing you do, it’s important to revise and edit your work – especially if you write academic essays, or articles or short stories that you’ll be submitting to editors. However much time you took over the piece on the first draft, you’ll always find a few mistakes to correct.

This is the method that I’ve used for years when writing essays or short stories, to ensure they’re as good as possible before a lecturer or editor gets to see them!

Do nothing (for a day or two)

Set your work aside for a period of time – don’t hit ‘Save’ on the first draft then start again straight away on the second pass. You’ll come to the work afresh if you leave it alone for a while.

As Michael said in Write First, Edit Later:

Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you’ll know which.

For essays, try to allow at least a day. Short stories can sometimes need longer – your mind will carry on mulling over the ideas whilst you’re doing other things. And many novelists advise putting your novel aside for at least a month before starting the revision process.

Revision

Read over your whole piece quite quickly. Circle any typos and mistakes that you spot, but concentrate on overall flow. If it’s an essay, check for any gaps in logic or any sides of the argument you might have missed. If it’s a short story, do any passages drag – or go too fast?

Print out the first draft, and read through the whole thing, concentrating on the overall flow of the piece. Circle any typos or mistakes that you notice, but focus on the big picture.

  • If it’s an essay, are there any logical missteps, points you’ve not backed up, or angles to the argument that you’ve missed?
  • If it’s fiction, do any scenes drag or go too fast, and are there any plot holes or inconsistencies of characterisation?

This is the stage to sort out any big problems. I often rewrite the whole thing (especially when working on fiction), starting afresh with a blank document on the computer. If you’re better than me at getting it right first time, you may not need to do that – but you could find yourself cutting out whole paragraphs, adding in new material, and changing the direction of the piece.

After you’ve done this, you might want to ask a friend, classmate or colleague to read the piece. Tell them not to look for tiny errors like typos or clumsy sentences at this stage: ask whether they think it’s broadly OK, or if they have any reservations about the overall direction of the article or story.

Editing and proofreading

Once you’ve sorted out the big picture, you can start fixing any individual sentences and words. Again, it’s a good idea to print out the document and do this on paper: I find I miss errors on screen (especially typos which are valid words, such as “they’re” for “their”).

Look out for:

  • Typos and misspellings (a good tip here is to read backwards! You’ll go much more slowly, focussing on every individual word).
  • Clumsy sentences and confusing or misleading phrasing (try reading your work aloud).
  • Unnecessary words (check for the ones in Five Words You Can Cut).
  • Commonly misused or confused words (there’s a whole list of these in the Misused Words category).

If you’re not 100% sure about a spelling, double-check with a dictionary: try Merriam-Webster for clear, succinct definitions. When you can’t quite find the right word, using a thesaurus can help (again, Merriam-Webster is good).

Do you have a great tip for revising and editing your work? Or do you have a horror story about an occasion when you handed in a first draft with a glaring error..? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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13 Responses to “How to Revise, Edit and Proofread Your Writing”

  • meghnak

    ‘Do Nothing – Sleep on your writing’ – A wonderful step. I am surely going to try all these tips during my next revision. I think when I come back to my writing with a fresh mind, I myself can spot the many mistakes I have made, which otherwise would have got unnoticed. Thank you for sharing.

  • Peter Garner

    Good advice all of it. Regarding the tip to “try reading your work aloud,” most modern computers now allow you to select text and have the computer read it back to you. On newer Macs (running Leopard) in particular, the system voice is extremely lifelike. I find this to be an excellent proofing tool that is especially useful in situations where you might not have time to print out the document (i.e., tight deadlines… or forum posts).

  • rich

    Simple but effective tip: if you are using a word processor, change the font style/size and put the document in reading mode, (if available). It will almost feel as if someone else has written the work, which gives you that ‘distance’ that is so important for revision/proof-reading.

  • Blogging Millionare

    Not enough people proofread and end up looking like asses. I’ve done it enough to know not to do it.

  • Doug DePrenger

    The sleep on it for a day or so step works wonders. I have used that for years. Coming back to an article a month later is good, but usually impractical.
    I look forward to your tips every day.

    Doug

  • Rarst

    I mostly use Wiktionary to look up words. 🙂 Probably not very deep but fast and with clear layout. It is also pretty good and newish tech terminology.

  • blutea

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’m working on a short story right now and was worried about my editing style. I tend to start my second draft right on top of my first (just in red ink instead of black). I don’t think I’ve ever re-read an entire first draft, just looking for small errors, without re-writing entire sections. I skip the small edits altogether and head straight for the complete overhaul! It’s probably why I hate editing so much, or why I usually edit as I go. These are some really helpful, and soon to be applied tips. Thanks!

  • Bobby Ozuna

    I think your information here is wonderful and very helpful. I have found that by first writing my stories freehand, I allow FULL creative disclosure…holding nothing back from the story or my mind’s ability to create good raw fiction.

    The first real draft of the story is the first typed section or chapter. I work on one chapter (freehand) while typing the previous chapters…this allows me to build on the story as I create new material. I do not go back and begin the proofing or editing until the story is done. The initial focus for me is ALWAYS the story–because what’s the point in editing and proofing a boring story, right?

    When I finish the initial draft…that’s when the real work begins and I have volunteer proof-readers…people who focus on grammar, some on punctuation, others on story flow, plot, etc…and each of them work one chapter with me, offering me their insight and I finalize the revision…ALWAYS reading the story out LOUD so I can hear it…

    I have found this help the grueling proof-reading stage become quite an enjoyable and building experience.

    Bobby Ozuna
    “Drawing Stories…With Words”

  • PreciseEdit

    Proofreading:

    Read aloud, slowly, carefully, from the start of each line to its end, pausing on each punctuation mark. Then do it again. Then do it again. (3 passes should be sufficient to catch everything you are going to catch.) Then get someone else to read aloud your writing.

    Even after 15 years in the editing business, I still do this–because it works.

  • Alice

    I was sort of emotionally drained after work on one short story, so I left it for a week or two before working on it again. After that, I got down the second draft and found it to be quite an improvement.

    Well, time flies when you procrastinate, so I just started on the third draft. To my horror, it was practically a series of infodumps, as well as contradicting every style guide known to man.

    I didn’t expect the story to be such a problem, because it’s a short crossover with the two least intelligent cartoons I’ve ever watched. I didn’t want it to be anything intellectual and magnificent.

    But no matter what you are writing, whether it’s supposed to be bad or not, it won’t be enjoyable if the final draft looks like it was slapped together.

    Oh, I took your advice for circling typos — I’ve been highlighting typos in red on the first readthrough, and general “problem paragraphs” in the second. Then the third readthrough is when I’m on Microsoft Word, editing out said sentences as I read. Then I repeat the entire process.

  • Teri

    you forgot the “procrastinate” part! i finished the first draft of my second book before thanksgiving (it’s march!)…and in january i printed it out…and today i started reading it…and instead of *continuing* to read it, i am online looking up what other people do at this stage…!

    anyway, i find that a useful thing is to keep several sheets of blank paper handy as you read through to note important character traits/plot things that you must be consistent in hitting/repeating. i know i’ve got a mention of, say, bombings on page 15 and 23 and then 75 and 150 and 300 – oops, i see that if this is supposed to be a major plot thing, i need to layer it in more consistently between 23 and 75, etc. etc.

  • Juanita Cage

    The first real draft of the story is the first typed section or chapter. I work on one chapter (freehand) while typing the previous chapters…this allows me to build on the story as I create new material. I do not go back and begin the proofing or editing until the story is done. The initial focus for me is ALWAYS the story–because what’s the point in editing and proofing a boring story, right?

  • Brian

    This is great editing advice! Glad I came across it. Focusing on the big picture is good advice. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details that you miss the forest for the trees.

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