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Tips & Info: Revising Your Essay

Revision is a crucial part of the writing process. Rarely do polished essays (or any other form of writing) emerge from a first draft. Rather, good writing takes repeated effort. After writing the first draft, let it sit several hours or a day before you review it. This will help to give you a more objective perspective on what you've written. Also, get feedback from good editors who can help you to see your essay's strengths and weaknesses more clearly. Once you've taken these steps, rewriting should be a more directed and focused activity than writing the first draft.

WHAT DOES REVISION ENTAIL? In essence, it is a process of creating a clearer "vision" of your ideas on paper, of clarifying your thoughts so that the reader more fully comprehends them. Refining the rough draft requires adding to it as well as cutting away. You need to pinpoint areas where the reader might feel lost, confused, unsure of what you meant, unconvinced by your evidence or logic. (Outside readers are often very helpful in this regard.) Then smooth out the rough spots by eliminating areas of confusion and filling in missing pieces of information. Through this process of refinement, the rough draft will be transformed into a polished essay that captures your thoughts on paper and makes them clear to the reader.

REVISION CHECK-LIST So how do you get from rough draft to polished essay? Start by taking inventory of your essay. Review all items in the check-list below and try to evaluate how your essay measures up on each. To help in your evaluation, refer to the feedback you got on your essay. Ask for clarification and further help from advisors if necessary. Also, consult writing reference books to help you understand how to improve your writing. (See the Writing Reference Section of our Bookstore and the Writing Reference Room of our Library for recommended readings.)

  • General Content:
    • Does your essay help the reader to understand who you are?
    • Does it help to showcase your uniqueness and your strengths?
    • Does it ring true as an authentic piece, written by and about you?
    • Is it convincing?
    • Does it grab and hold the reader's attention?
    • Does it make a lasting, favorable impression?
    • Does it show that you have a clear sense of goals--both short-term and long-term?
    • Does it exhibit that you have a clear understanding of how attending University X or winning a certain scholarship or fellowship will help you achieve your goals?
    • Does it show that you have a clear sense of your academic interests? Obviously, an applicant for admission to graduate school should have more certainty about specific academic interests than someone applying to undergraduate college, but even the undergraduate college candidate should demonstrate clear likes in terms of academic subject-matter. For example, even if you are not certain exactly of which subjects you'd like to major in, do you prefer liberal arts subjects (social sciences, history, languages, philosophy, etc.) or hard science? Of course, these are not mutually exclusive likes, but often people have clear leanings towards general subject-areas even if they don't know specifically which subject (or subjects) they will major in. Your essay should make plain your general academic orientation at a minimum.
    • Does it demonstrate your knowledge about how attending the University X can help further your understanding of academic subjects which interest you? If possible, you should mention specific academic departments, programs, even faculty doing research within the school, that fit your interests. Applicants to undergraduate colleges who are not sure yet about their specific academic interests may be unable to formulate this kind of statement, but anyone seeking admission at a graduate or professional school should be capable.
    • Does it demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of why a particular subject or subjects interest you? In other words, does the essay help readers to understand why a certain subject(s) fascinates you?
    • Does it demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of how your past life and experiences fed into your academic interests?
    • Does it show that you have motivation, drive, and the capacity to succeed?
  • Topic and Thesis:
    • Does your topic directly and easily address the question asked?
    • Is your topic one that few others will likely write about?
    • Is your thesis clear?
    • Does your thesis connect to the topic and question asked?
    • Is your thesis consistently upheld and supported throughout the essay?
  • Organization, Structure, and Logic:
    • Are the three essay components (thesis, body, conclusion) intact and clearly distinct?
    • Are the three components clearly and logically linked so that the body supports the thesis and the conclusion ties them together?
    • Does your essay seem logical, make sense?
  • Paragraphs and Transitions:
    • Is each paragraph well-structured, with a clear leading idea of its own and supporting body?
    • Does each paragraph logically follow the preceding one and connect easily to the following one?
  • Sentences:
    • Is your sentence structure correct?
    • Is your usage of tense consistent and logical?
  • Words and Phrases:
    • Are all words spelled correctly?
    • Do all words and phrases mark proper usage?
    • Have you used as few words as possible to express your thoughts?
  • Mechanics:
    • Is your grammar correct?
    • Is your punctuation correct?

Once you've made your preliminary assessment, begin making changes on a copy of the essay. If possible, start with macro-level changes. Making minor changes first is feasible (and advisable if you are stuck on bigger adjustments) but realize that smaller changes may get deleted as you make macro-level changes later on. Keep adjusting until you feel you've made significant improvements and can say you've addressed the check-list items above as best you can.

Now set the essay aside again for a short time. When you go back to it, repeat the above process. If you feel confident about the new version, move on to the next steps below. If you still feel that the writing is not your best, it is advisable to show it to your advisors again. Ask for their feedback a second time, then revise again. Do this as many times as you feel necessary. It is not at all unusual for good writers to make several revisions before they feel satisfied.

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