Teaching Students to Edit Their Own Papers

Peter Wayne Moe
November 2017

We’re at the time of the quarter when students will be polishing up their final papers—or, at least, we hope they will be. Unfortunately, editing a paper often means just doing a spell check. The problem with spell check is not only that it misses errors but that students who rely on it alone don’t learn how to edit their work themselves.

The following strategies teach students to edit their own writing. They help students spend time inside sentences so that they can come to a better understanding of what their sentences do on the page. So too, the strategies help students read their work more attentively so that they can find and correct whatever errors may be there. I note: these strategies assume a writer is editing a hard copy of the draft.

Read Aloud Most writers never read their work aloud. This is perhaps the simplest, and most effective, way to edit. By reading aloud, a writer can hear the rhythm of the sentence, and the ear finds errors the eye missed.

Read while Walking Just as reading aloud engages the ear along with the eye, reading while walking engages the whole body. Editing a paper while walking around the room brings an embodied awareness to writing. Even better: editing while reading aloud while walking around the room. The mere acts of standing, moving, and speaking engage the sentence in a much different way than simply staring at the computer screen hunting for typos.

Read with a Ruler When editing, the eye can wander on the page. If a writer sets a ruler under the line being edited, the ruler helps focus the eye—and the writer’s attention—on the particular sentence in question.

Read with a Pencil, and Tap Each Word This strategy can be combined with the previous. Tapping each word as it is read helps a writer make sure that each word is actually there on the page. This strategy is particularly useful if a writer tends to leave out words (as I do in my own writing) or tends to put words in the wrong order.

Read Slowly All these strategies are, in some way, efforts to slow down editing. Editing is a slow process, and we can teach our students to embrace the slowness.

Read Later It’s easy to write something and think, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written!” But the ancient Roman teacher Quintilian speaks of setting aside a draft so “the passion of invention can cool,” and Stephen King writes of setting aside a draft so that he can later read it “soberly.” There is wisdom to this. If writers leave their work—for a few hours, or, ideally, for a few days—they can return to it refreshed and ready to read it with a level head.

Read the Paper Backwards, Sentence by Sentence Starting with the last sentence of a paper, edit the paper backwards, moving sentence by sentence. This can, of course, be combined with reading aloud, tapping each word, and walking around the room. The benefit to moving backwards sentence by sentence is that it takes each sentence out of context. The writer does not get lulled into complacency by reading top to bottom. Each sentence stands on its own, somewhat out of context, and errors are much easier to spot.

To teach these strategies, I find it useful to spend time in class with students practicing them on a piece of writing that needs editing. We then discuss how these strategies differ from relying on spell check alone and what is gained in each method of editing. This discussion is important, because it helps students become more reflective of their writing process and more aware of what works for them when they write.