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Monday Master Class: How to Edit Your Paper in Three Passes or Less

“Editing your paper is important, and this shouldn’t come as a suprise…At the same time, however, you don’t want to overedit. Many students fixate on these fixes, and end up devoting hours to reviewing draft after draft.”
Step 8: Fix, Don’t Fixate,
from How to Become a Straight-A Student

The Editing BalancePencil

Paper editing is a tricky task. It has to be done well. Nothing scuttles a paper faster than obvious mistakes or sloppy construction. You must, however, be careful. Too many editing passes can bloat the paper-writing process. In Straight-A, I present a simple three-pass system that finds this balance between effective and efficient. It casts a critical eye on your structure — and your mechanics — without unduly burdening your schedule.

The Argument Adjustment Pass

The first pass of the three-pass system focuses on your arguments. You’ll fix low-level mistakes later, so don’t worry about those for now. The pass works as follows:

Read your paper on your computer screen. As you proceed paragraph by paragraph, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the argument I’m making here compelling? If not, cut the paragraphs. Be ruthless. At least 10 – 20% of this initial draft is probably bloat: the result of trying on arguments for size and worrying about reaching the page limit. This is your chance to atone for your sin of lexographic abundance.
  2. Is this the right place for this argument? If not, move the paragraphs elsewhere. Often, when you first encounter the full flow of the paper, some rearrangement makes sense. Be ready to shuffle to maximize impact.

When this pass is complete, your paper should consist soley of important, compelling arguments, presented in the most effective order. Some significant cutting and shifting probably took place. If it didn’t, you’re probably not doing the process justice.

The Out Loud Pass

Now that your arguments have been whipped into shape, it’s time to ensure that the paper reads like the erudite scholarly effort you want it to be. When you see students obessively reviewing their paper again and again, this is typically the goal they are trying to achieve. Here will explain how to accomplish this in just a single pass through the paper. How is this possible? The key is using your voice…

The out loud pass works as follows: Print out a copy of your paper. Lock yourself in your room. Begin reading your paper out loud, with careful articulation. As you move through the work, sentence by sentence, keep your ears tuned for the following:

  1. Clumsy sentences. Is the wording awkward when you read it?
  2. Bad transitions. Does the movement from one line of reasoning to another seem abrupt or strained?
  3. Mistakes. Is a word spelled wrong? A word missing? A grammer mistake?
  4. Lack of clarity. Is a sentence labored? Is there a simpler way of saying what you are trying to say? Can it be cut all together?

Every time you notice one of these red flags, make a mark on your print out and then keep going. After you finish a major section (e.g., around one or two pages), stop, return to the document on your computer, and fix all the places you marked. Rewind and re-read, out loud, each of these fixes to make sure that the new version reads smoothly. Then continue.

The key to this phase is to ensure that every word gets read out loud in its final fixed form. Something about the act of articulation can root out those subtle mistakes and awkard complexity in a way that reading silently — even dozens of times — will fail to do.

The Sanity Pass

The final pass allows you to answer the key question as you finish up the paper-writing process: “Am I insane, or have I put together a damn good paper?” The goal of this final pass is to experience your work in one uninterrupted flow. To savor your arguments. To experience the work in the same way your professor will.

Print out a copy, settle into a comfortable chair, and read through the entire paper. If you stumble across the occasional stubborn mistake, just make a quick mark and keep moving. Enjoy your efforts. After this pass is complete, return to your document and make any small edits you encountered. You’re now ready to hand in a stand out work.

Timing the Three Phases

The key to the three-pass editing process is to seperate the out loud pass from the other two. The out loud pass takes time. It takes energy. If you do it right after the argument adjustment pass you’ll be too fatigued and sick of your writing to accomplish the out loud portion correctly.

With this in mind, quarantine the out loud pass to its own day. The sanity pass can be done close to the deadline. Indeed, some students do it the morning of the due date to get excited about the paper before handing it in. So the out loud pass can occur as soon as the day before a deadline, with the argument adjustment pass happening two days before. Just be sure to keep the out loud portion isolated from the others and the whole process will transpire with a minimum of pain.

11 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Edit Your Paper in Three Passes or Less”

  1. What you’ve written here is similar to the way I edited and redrafted essays. But I didn’t do anything like the third ‘Sanity Pass’. You’re quite right, that third pass is a wise move. I think I’d have enjoyed that pass if I was thinking “Am I completely insane!?” all the way through reading. I’m still laughing at the amusing – albeit sensible – idea.

    I really wish I’d done that now!

    Seriously, next time I’ve got an essay to write…

  2. The out-loud pass needs to be slow; reading every word. By the time you get to that stage you know what you WANT to say. It’s all to easy to skip over mistakes or fill in missing words if you go through this step too quickly. If you find yourself doing that you can always start at the end and read the paper out loud backwards, sentence by sentence. That won’t help with transitions, but it can be invaluable to breaking you out of the rut of repetition so that you see the errors.

  3. @Rebecca:

    I really agree. The downside, I guess, is that slow = painful. That’s why I really had to be sure to attack this phase fresh and on a different day from the rest of my work on the paper. (though for smaller papers I didn’t always get away with this!)

  4. Great strategy!

    Since my sophomore year in college (I’m a senior now), I’ve been on the senior staff of an undergraduate research publication. (Actually, it was founded in my sophomore year). For the past two years I’ve been training editors and advising them through the revisions process with potential authors. We use a very similar, but as of yet uncodified, system.

    The first thing we do when meeting with authors is we present their own argument to them, as we understood it. We try to punch holes in it, and offer the author advice on how to make his or her thesis more compelling.

    Then, we focus on moving, splitting, and merging paragraphs to come up with the best structure.

    Finally, in the third step, we do “low-level” edits: fix grammar and spelling, and tighten up loose or clumsy sentences.

  5. I love your posts. I’m captivated, even though I haven’t been in school for years. Just spotted a typo: awkard.

    “The key to this phase is to ensure that every word gets read out loud in its final fixed form. Something about the act of articulation can root out those subtle mistakes and awkard complexity in a way that reading silently — even dozens of times — will fail to do.”


  6. The reading aloud phase can also be handled by having a friend read your paper to you. Print out two copies, one for each of you, and mark quickly areas that need editing. This method not only makes it easy to spot missing words and improper usage, but when the reader stumbles through a sentence, you might grasp quickly the need to simplify.


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