5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays
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As with anything subjective, we usually tend to be kinder evaluators of our own writing than of other people’s. It’s for this reason that authors like to have a long list of willing proofreaders, and ideally, you should too — personal statements only get stronger with a second opinion.
However, your editor of choice won’t always be available, and if you only ask other people for edits, eventually the text is going to start sounding more like them and less like you. So you should be actively proofreading your own writing as well, and looking to strike a balance between other people’s input and your own. For some students, this means evaluating (and critiquing) their own writing in a creative light for the very first time. But don’t worry, we understand. That’s why we’ve prepared a list of techniques for the first-time self-editor so that you can quickly diagnose your own writing from the comfort of your own home.
1. Give yourself a break.
Yes, you read that right. As tempting as six straight hours of editing and then submission may sound to Type A personalities (we see you), editing simply isn’t a task that can be rushed. In fact, the more and more you continuously pore over the same text, the more you start subconsciously memorizing things. And before you know it, you’re reading for what you expect to see on the page over what’s actually there, and you’ll be more likely to brush over mistakes simply because you’re used to seeing them there. The more you proofread or edit in one sitting, the less effective you actually are.
Combat this by letting your writing sit for a while between edits. For a 650 word essay, we recommend one to two days, and longer for essays with higher word counts. This way, you’ll be looking at the essay with relatively fresh eyes each time. You should still take breaks even if you’re rushing a last-minute essay (power naps are especially useful); it can be the difference between catching a consistent spelling mistake or not seeing it at all.
2. Read it out loud.
Writers always talk about the “flow” of a piece, and a great way to check for flow in writing is to hear it read aloud. And it’s not just an aesthetic procedure; grammar mistakes often sound wrong when spoken but “look right” on the paper (using the wrong verb tenses, for instance). Minor inconsistencies also are more obvious when read aloud — for instance, if you accidentally use the same adjective twice in the same sentence, or delete part of a sentence but forget to add in its replacement.
If possible, you should try getting someone else to read your essay aloud for you. Hearing your own words in a different voice and with a different inflection can help you see how other people are actually interpreting your text. It’s also a helpful way to catch spelling mistakes and incorrect homonyms; most people typically will pause and correct your text if they come across any of those when reading out loud.
3. Print things out/Mark things up!
Fun fact: there are different fonts optimized for paper reading and computer reading. Times New Roman is a paper-friendly font, while Georgia is a screen-friendly font. This is because people read slightly differently on screens and on paper. If you’re like most people, your personal statements are probably all composed on-screen, so printing things out will shake things up a bit and reveal mistakes that weren’t there before.
Also, you might also want to print things out in a different font size, as this will most likely change the way the words are arranged on the page and where the ends of lines are. Sometimes, because of the way things are spaced out on a page, we may forget commas or spaces simply because they’re at the end of a line. Printing it out in this way will help you catch these mistakes.
Another good thing about printing things is that it lets you write comments and make marks on your own writing. This way, you can see consistent mistakes that you’ve made and can isolate specific portions of your text on the page. A good technique is to go through and highlight or underline each one of your punctuation marks, and then go through each one of them individually in context. You’ll be able to see if you’ve been using them correctly in the overall flow of your sentences, and it’s also a good way to help you catch homonym mistakes (its and it’s, for example).
4. Reverse it!
This technique is exactly what it sounds like. Separate your text by words, by sentences, by paragraphs — whatever you feel most comfortable with, and work from the end of the narrative to the beginning. Bigger chunks are recommended when you want to check for content cohesiveness and story pacing, while smaller chunks tend to bring out grammar mistakes and style faux pas.
Working backwards forces you to look at your essay using a different logic than the one you had in your head when you wrote the essay. By working outside of this logic, you’ll be able to detect if some of your ideas need more background information, or if you’ve given too many words to one part of your essay over another, or if your essay ended too suddenly. The same idea applies to the smaller chunks; sometimes, a grammar mistake that looks right going forwards will be very obvious when approached backwards.
5. Once more, with feeling!
It helps to structure the way you edit and proofread so that each time you go through the paper, you’re looking for a specific type of error. This way, you won’t get tired and overwhelmed as quickly (going over writing is actually really exhausting). We recommend that you start with content and then work your way down to the specific details. The questions you should be asking yourself during the first pass should involve the main message of your essay and the prompt — or in other words, what you’re saying in your essay. Did you answer all parts of the prompt thoroughly? Have you been personal enough? Does this essay seem like it can be written by any other applicant?
After you’ve addressed your content, you should move to more specific elements of your storytelling, like tone and pace — how you’re saying things in your essay. Does your written voice give off a positive image of you? Are the rhetorical devices you use appropriate? Does the way you envision your future seem too vague? Finally, when you’re done with that, you can zero in on grammar mistakes and writing aesthetics — the finishing touches.
Keep in mind that it’s good practice to look at your paper at least once thoroughly for both content and style before handing it off to a volunteer editor (or a paid one). It makes for less frustrated editors, and they can work at hunting down bigger mistakes that you wouldn’t have been able to find yourself instead of picking at garden-variety grammar errors. It’s also a good idea to edit yourself between other people’s edits, just so you can make sure the essay still sounds like you. After all, the more you work with your writing and get your hands dirty, the more personality your writing will have. And the more personality your writing has, the more it’ll stand out among a pile of other applications.
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