Having been through the academic gamut and editing professionally for several years, I can tell you there are relatively simple tricks to editing that will improve the grade on anyone’s paper. All it takes is a bit of learning and application. This write-up serves as a guide to those quick editing tricks that even the most struggling student or professional can apply and see immediate results, from a few percentage points to a whole letter grade or a compliment from a superior. Often, your ideas can be excellent and well-conceived, but your writing doesn’t properly convey them. However, I offer the disclaimer that even the best guide cannot take the place of a professional copyeditor.
For the sake of simplicity and ensuring readers can apply this advice with ease, I’ll break these tips down into sections. The first section will be proofreading, in which I’ll review basic changes that you can use to more effectively review your own work. I’ll base the second section on some more advanced grammar and syntax changes that can improve the overall clarity of your ideas and wording. In the third section, I’ll go over some formatting tips and how to ensure flow and reader comprehension while writing or editing (especially long-form). Finally, in the fourth section, I recommend a few writing/copyediting publications that, after a quick read, radically improved my grades in graduate school and helped me publish my thesis. In this write-up I offer some of my own strategies and insights into editing, especially in the case of longer papers, but I make no claim that this is a comprehensive guide. Instead, I offer this as an introduction, and throughout this writing I insert footnotes with URLs to lead to more comprehensive explanations and examples, often from universities themselves.
Proofreading your own work can be a daunting task, especially where some dissertations and research papers or projects stretch into the dozens of pages. I have a few strategies that have helped me adapt to writing and copyediting large papers. The first note I offer is that you should always be editing. Don’t leave it until you’re finished, but instead read every paragraph first by itself, and then in the context of how it connects to the larger work. If it’s your own writing we’re discussing, this means reading and re-reading each paragraph as you write it, as well as making sure it has a clear topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph that binds it to an overall thesis or the purpose of the section. Re-reading and editing your writing as you go will address many issues long before they have a chance to cause crippling problems in the paper as a whole.
The second trick to overall proofreading is straightforward for anyone who is fluent in spoken English, but especially for those who learned English formally: read your writing out loud. This sounds a bit silly, but it will help you designate where the writing needs work. The most telltale example here is the use of the comma, which is an element that carries a great deal of power in formal writing and can totally change the meaning of a sentence. The comma follows the basic rule of imitating natural pauses in speech. You’ll often know where to place one if you read a sentence out loud and track where you pause. The pause is often where a comma goes. Likewise, reading a paragraph out loud will identify where sentences or clauses end with periods or semi-colons. After some practice, you’ll be able to use this skill without actually verbalizing sentences.
While these are a few basic examples of how to employ this trick, you’ll be surprised at how doing this can clear up many common problems. With these tactics in mind, it’s also important to remember that, like in many languages, English formal writing is more refined than English conversation, and we can’t necessarily take the same shortcuts in writing as we do in our speech. This is largely because formal writing can’t lean on speech intonations, gestures, and emotional context like one can during conversation. Much of the advice in this guide is centered on ensuring your writing is as clear as possible and thereby avoids confusing readers with bad habits inherited from spoken conversation, and that begins with decent grammar.
Grammar, Punctuation, and Syntax
Grammar and syntax act as primary building blocks of all English, and how you employ them deeply affects the clarity and tone of your writing. One way to become more familiar with formal implementations of grammar and syntax is to read journal articles and pay attention to the way authors tend to arrange prose. Reading material that you are otherwise obligated to read is a great chance to do this, absorbing this style through a sort of editing osmosis. I found that the piles of research I had to read and study in my undergrad set me up with this basic background knowledge, and I wasted no time in applying it to my own work. Here I’ll get into a few specifics that I’ve found to plague most writing that I edit.
An example of a run-on might be “Napoleon fought many battles he conquered much of Europe”. In this example, “Napoleon fought many battles” is an independent clause, just as “… he conquered much of Europe” is also an independent clause. This is because each contains its own basic subject-verb components. To address this, one need only form one compound sentence or two separate sentences, such as “Napoleon fought many battles and he conquered much of Europe” or “Napoleon fought many battles. He conquered much of Europe”, respectively. This issue’s close relative, the comma splice, is even more common in academic writing. The comma splice results from a misunderstanding and often over- or under-application of commas in sentences. An example of this would be “Napoleon fought many battles, he conquered much of Europe”, wherein the author employs the comma instead of using a semi-colon or conjunction to separate the two independent clauses, or a period to form two separate sentences. As you can see, these are simple issues to address; keeping an eye out for run-ons and comma splices, and learning to avoid them while writing, is a great point from which to begin employing grammar, punctuation, and syntax correctly. In the context of more refined prose, we should look next to tense consistency.
Tense consistency is an ever-present problem across English writing, and as such it is also the source of great confusion in the context of formal writing. Tense consistency is the basic principle of keeping your verb tenses consistent throughout an idea, paragraph, or even entire paper. For those less familiar with verb tenses, the major ones are simple present, past, and future (e.g. use, used, will use, respectively). These have a number of mixes and variations that are important to know, but this guide isn’t meant to go that in depth. For a quick reference, refer to Table 1.
Table 1 English Tenses (Focus, 2015)
|Simple||I wrote an email yesterday.||I write an email every day.||I will write an email tomorrow.|
|Continuous||I was writing an email yesterday at 5 p.m.||I am writing an email right now.||I will be writing an email tomorrow at 5 p.m.|
|Perfect||I had written an email before you arrived.||I have written an email.||I will have written an email tomorrow by 5 p.m.|
|Perfect Continuous||I had been writing emails for one hour when you arrived.||I have been writing emails for one hour.||I will have been writing emails for one hour tomorrow by 5 p.m.|
With a clear visual of the different English tenses, one can see how this can get complex in the context of formal writing. Most of the time, you’ll be safe (grammatically speaking) if you can keep your paragraphs tense consistent within either past, present, or future (while varying in simple, continuous, perfect, perfect continuous to some extent). What’s important to remember here is that your tense consistency must align with tense logic, which is to say the events you’re describing and the tense you’re using to describe them should align with the order in which they actually happened. For example, when referring to the research you’ve completed, you have two options – past or present. This is because you are currently writing the report on it, or you’re referring to research that has already been done (“The current research studies…” versus “This research studied…”).
Identifying where you may be in error in terms of tense consistency and logic is important because failing to present appropriate tenses in a consistent manner actually has the potential to disrupt the meaning of your sentences and confuse or disorient your readers. Indeed, using the future voice to refer to research that has already been done will imply that what you’re referring to is only hypothetical. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a paper where (for the first half of the paper) I couldn’t tell whether I was reading a research proposal or a fully completed study, simply because the author didn’t properly employ tense logic or consistency. This brings me to the next great source of confusion in formal English writing: the passive voice.
Perhaps my most common suggestion while professionally editing is to temper the use of the passive voice. While the passive voice is not technically incorrect to use in the same way as run-on sentences, it is a highly problematic construction that is a common sight across all academic writing. Unfortunately, it is also wildly misunderstood. One of my friends – an otherwise knowledgeable, bright, and educated writer – struggled massively with ascertaining what exactly the passive voice entailed, to the extent that he found himself hiring me to correct for it in every one of his graduate-level assignments. I believe it can be a highly useful tool in the context of fiction and creative writing, but in most cases it has no place in formal English writing. This is because the purpose of most academic writing is to elucidate and explain, while the purpose of the passive voice is to obscure. Indeed, we use it most often in daily conversation to avoid giving details or to hide small gaps in our knowledge. My preference is always to substitute the active voice and force the sentence to reveal whatever meaning it can. This simple change can radically alter the readability of your prose. I’ll take a moment here to present an example:
Put simply, the passive voice refers to making the object of an action into the subject of a sentence (UNC, 2019). Notice how the meaning of the sentences changes immensely depending on which voice I use here. In the case of the latter (active voice) example, you can see that the subject (the NRA) funded the study, with the implication being that the views the sentence is referring to entail too heavily controlling guns. If I substituted the subject with Everytown for Gun Safety, the United States’ largest gun control advocacy organization, the meaning of the sentence would be the complete opposite. The passive voice is a problem that infects even the best authors’ writing. Combined with reducing my use of nominalizations, tempering the passive voice in my own formal writing wildly improved my grades in graduate studies and allowed me to progress to my dissertation.
Nominalizations are another construction with which I take issue in formal writing, albeit a much less severe one than the prevalence of the passive voice. A nominalization is when you turn a verb or adjective into a noun. Simple examples of this might include using ‘decision’ instead of ‘decide’ or ‘investigation’ rather than ‘investigate’. The reason for reducing your tendency to use this is that it results in a lot of what I call word waste – that is, using more words than necessary to produce the same amount of meaning. In the context of a sentence:
When you work to cut out your use of nominalizations, you’ll automatically streamline your prose. By streamlining how you present meaning, you will encourage understanding and readability, and thereby improve your level of communication and engagement with your readers. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it can be helpful to implement. Here I’ll borrow an adage: separate the wheat from the chaff. Doing so will make your writing far more efficient and effective at communicating what you’re trying to say.
Another issue I regularly identify in even the most advanced dissertations is the lack of parallel structure or parallelism is the writing. Purdue University (2019) defines this as “…using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance… at the word, phrase, or clause level.” I would argue the utility of parallelism exceeds this. Learning how to use parallelism makes writing far less awkward and will reduce your readers’ need to go back and re-read sections of your work. Here’s an example:
Usually, we join parallel structures with a coordinating conjunction like ‘and’. Parallelism in lists like this typically uses the gerund (‘-ing’) form, adverbial (as in the sentence above), or the infinitive (‘to analyze’, ‘to view’) without mixing forms. Applying these basic principles across your writing, including clauses, words and phrases, and lists following colons, will greatly improve your readability and therefore your ability to communicate your ideas.
Formatting and Transitions
Communicating your ideas, whether in the context of research or argumentation, involves many components, not the least of which is formatting. I consider paragraph construction to be part of appropriate formatting. This is because this type of organization is what ensures all your points make sense and contribute to the actual purpose of your paper, but it is unfortunately one of the things many writers haven’t formally learned.
Similar to an essay, a paragraph should usually exist in three parts: topic sentence, body, and concluding remarks (Rumney, 2003). The topic sentence acts as a sort of ‘mini-thesis’ and dictates what the paragraph intends to do. It should be related to either the purpose of the section the paragraph sits in, or it should be related to the overall thesis of the paper itself. The body is the part that presents evidence or analysis and discusses the topic of the paragraph, while the concluding remarks close the paragraph and offer an opportunity to transition into the next one.
While only arguably a part of formatting, adopting appropriate transitions fundamentally improves your writing. Transitions are another essential element that most papers at the very least stumble upon here and there. They are a piece of a larger doctrine you might hear some (including myself) refer to as flow. Flow in writing, including elements like transitions and solid paragraph construction, allows your readers to absorb what you’re conveying by making ideas fit together in logical and fluent ways.
It’s often not enough to use transition words like ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’, ‘additionally’, etc. as these do not help the reader move from one set of ideas to the next. This relatively banal change in your approach to writing both long-form and short-form papers will drastically improve the way your work comes together.
Speaking of banal changes, I would be foolish not to briefly discuss formatting in terms of styles. The primary styles are APA/Harvard (Social Sciences, Law), MLA (Literature Studies), Chicago/Turabian (History), and Vancouver (Medicine/Science). To many academics, styles seem like a waste of energy. I would argue to the contrary – they at the same time standardize your entire paper along easy-to-follow guidelines and they make your references legible to any viewer who is remotely familiar with academic citation. Picking a style and sticking to it means making your work more legible, useful, and legitimate (as it is a preventative measure against charges of academic integrity violations/plagiarism). Each style is purpose built to specific disciplines. For example, Chicago uses footnotes with full references to allow a reader to easily search for the source – a feature very useful in History. MLA uses vague in-text citations with page numbers, which caters directly the need for those in Literature Studies to follow mentions within a particular work, at the same time avoiding the distraction of larger citations. APA uses in-text references with author surnames and year of publication, which lets those in the Social Sciences (which involve notoriously fast-changing disciplines) know how current the research is, and which researcher is responsible for it. You should therefore pick a style that caters to your work. Over the years, I have found APA to be the most versatile and easy to implement among the different formatting styles. Its design language in terms of headers and page layout are also very straightforward, consistent, and easy to learn. However, there is a wealth of information and guides easily accessible through Google for implementing very specific citation and formatting rules.
Some Light Reading
Upon entering graduate school, my grades plummeted 10-15% in most of my courses. I wasn’t doing anything differently from when I was enrolled as an undergraduate getting A-range grades, but somehow, I was bombing my papers. Rather than blame my professors or figure I just couldn’t cut it at the elevated level at which I found myself, I began looking for solutions. Most immediately, I spoke to my professors about this change, and one cited my writing style as the core of the issue. She ended up recommending a few key works to read so as to improve. Like many other students, I had learned to write in university exclusively through reading – in my case very old – academic publications.
I’ll share those with you here, as they were instrumental in helping me improve and organize my writing to the level where I could complete, defend, and publish a Masters dissertation. Reading about writing seems like a hassle, but if you take these guides seriously, your writing will improve, and with it your grades and your ability to execute long-form projects. The first is Kate Turabian’s (2010) Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers. Turabian (yes, that Turabian) offers an excellent guide on conceptualizing papers from the ground up. Her sections on developing research questions, engaging sources (including paraphrasing and summarizing information), and draft creation and revision are particularly helpful for the budding editor. The work acts as a more accessible and comprehensive writing guide than the traditional A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations from which the Chicago/Turabian style drew its namesake.
The second, and in my opinion life-changing, book I’d like to recommend to you here is Joseph Williams’ (1990) Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. In his first chapter, Williams offers a review of cultural relics that cause people to write so poorly. While this is fascinating, the much more practical parts of the text come later. The second chapter offers an accessible dialogue and a litany of examples for improving the clarity of our writing. I won’t offer a detailed review here, but I highly recommend reading this book in its entirety, identifying which of Williams’ violations you engage in, and then practicing fixing them according to his advice. More than any other work, Williams’ writing helped me surgically alter the way I write to produce clear, concise, graceful prose. In my graduate studies, it wasn’t my methodology or research that were poor, but the way I was conveying my ideas.
Focus English Online. English verb tenses chart. Retrieved from
Karakash, A. Figure 1 (Stock Photo). Pixabay.com. Image retrieved from
Rumney, L. (2003). Paragraph Structure [PDF]. Retrieved from
Purdue University. (2019). Parallel Structure. Retrieved from
Trent University. (2019). Avoiding Run-on Sentences and Comma splices. Retrieved from
Turabian, K. (2010). Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers. Chicago, IL: University of
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2019). Passive Voice. Retrieved from
Williams, J. (1990). Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 For more examples and instruction on how to combat this, see Trent University’s brief guide at https://www.trentu.ca/history/avoiding-run-sentences-and-comma-splices
 For a much more extensive breakdown of the passive voice and how one can appropriately use it, refer to the University of North Carolina’s excellent Writing Center resource: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/passive-voice/
 For more examples and explanation of parallel structure, consult the Purdue Online Writing Lab webpage at https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/mechanics/parallel_structure.html
 To read about paragraph structure more in-depth, consider Rumney’s document on the matter, found at https://www.hamilton.edu/documents/Paragraph%20Structure.pdf
 I recommend buying a more recent edition of this book, but you can access it from Duke University in PDF form at https://sites.duke.edu/niou/files/2014/07/WilliamsJosephM1990StyleTowardClarityandGrace.pdf