How To Edit & Proofread Your Academic Essay to Perfection

This is part of the Essay Writing Crash Course Blog Series.

The process of editing and proofreading is where you will turn your convoluted first draft into something valuable and worth reading.

We will begin by first defining “editing” and “proofreading, then move on to how to edit & proofread as well as what to look out for while doing these tasks.

What is “Editing”?

Editing is the process of changing, moving, condensing, re-writing and deciding what will be removed and what will be kept. The aim of editing is to ensure that you have coherently and succinctly put across your point in a persuasive manner.

What is “Proofreading”?

Proofreading is the process of highlighting the errors in the text and images, such as incorrect spelling and image sizing, clarity or other issues. It is to get your paper print ready.

How Do You Edit & Proofread Your Essay?

Step 1: Give Yourself Enough Time

The first step is to ensure you have given yourself enough time to edit and proofread, this includes the time you will need to have a break from your essay. The more you read your essay with no break, the fewer errors you will see. 

Recommended Timeframes:

(Don’t under-estimate the time you need!)

For a 1000-1500 essay I would recommend 3 days at minimum to edit, however more is better. It is ideal to have a first draft written at least a week before, preferably 2 weeks before, the deadline.

3000-5000 word essays need at minimum 1 week – but it won’t be very good editing – better 2 weeks to a month’s time to edit, but longer is beneficial too because you can give yourself a good break after the first round of editing. 

Dissertations at the 10,000 – 12,000 word mark would benefit from a minimum of 3 weeks to edit, but, from experience, you will be shattered and you won’t catch all the mistakes! Ideally, give yourself a 2-4 months to edit it, then you can take a break from it too.

If you are writing your PhD thesis, from watching my other half write his, you will need on average 6 months of editing time, but more likely a year…! (Especially if your supervisor has lots of comments.)

Step 2: Get Editing – 2 Strategies

When I am editing my work I usually use a combinations of 2 strategies, editing with pen and paper and then re-writing on my computer. You won’t go through your essay just once, more like 2-3 times at a minimum.

How to Edit with Pen & Paper

  1. Print out your essay double spaced and with large left and right margins. This gives you enough space to write notes, cross things out, re-write and add notes. I also like have sticky notes to hand if I run out of space in the margins or want to add a note to come back to later.
  2. Read through your essay and be ruthless. What this means is:
    • Cut anything and everything that is not relevant to the sentence, the point of the paragraph and does not answer the essay question.
    • Rewrite sentences if they need it, correct spellings and typos.
    • Mark out where you are missing evidence or support for your argument. Then find the evidence you need and write it in.
    • Rewrite vague language.
    • Make sure that every sentence is one that strengthens your argument.
    • Notice whether the order of your paragraphs makes sense. Rearrange if needed.
    • Divide paragraphs that are too long or contain more than one point.
    • Make sure you have included counter arguments where relevant.
    • Ensure your thesis statement accurately states what you have argued in your essay.
    • Ensure that your introduction accurately lays out the structure and content of your essay.
    • Ensure that you have included no new information in your conclusion; if you have, move it to a relevant place in your essay body or cut it.
  3. Once finished going through your essay, type up all the edits into your essay document.

How to Edit Your Essay on Your Computer

I like to edit on my computer when I do the second round of editing, this is purely because my eyes get tired looking at a computer screen and I find editing with pen and paper a bit more relaxing (sounds odd I know, but slashing with a pen across a page is quite cathartic).

In order to edit on the computer, you can do the above (pen & paper) strategy but I found another way while reading Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Essay Writing Guide which I find an incredibly valuable second step after my pen to paper editing. Here’s how:

  1. Open up the document that contains your essay draft. Open up a new document (this will be where you do your new draft). Save the file as “Essay-Name_Draft_002” this way you know that its version 2. Have the documents open side by side, you may find it useful to have a second screen for this.
  2. Copy the first paragraph of your essay into your fresh document. Separate the first sentence from the paragraph, then re-write the sentence. Your aim is to write the sentence better than you did before. You can experiment with cutting words, changing the word order, trying out different words. Re-write the sentence 2 more times (3 times in total), then choose which sounds better.
  3. Do this to all the sentences in the paragraph until you have a brand new and better written paragraph.
  4. You can either copy and paste this new paragraph into your original typed version, keep it in the document you’re in or moved to a brand new document that will only be for edited paragraphs.
  5. You will then repeat steps 2-4 to each paragraph in your essay until each paragraph has been improved to your utmost ability.

When It Feels Like an Insurmountable Task…

Editing is not an easy task.  You will challenge yourself a lot because you can only compete with yourself, however it is where you can really craft the language you use to ensure that the argument you are putting forward is as well reasoned, argued and coherent as you can make it. 

Editing and proofreading, if I had known as clearly as I do now, is where you can pick up some extra marks just through making sure your use of language is impeccable, and your spelling, punctuation and formatting is correct. So many essays miss out on easy marks just because the student hasn’t taken 10 minutes to check their spellings and grammar properly.

To make the editing a task more manageable, break it down into smaller tasks with enough time to complete them. You can do some maths to figure out how much time you need (including breaks) to edit your essay well. For example:

If your essay in 2,500 words long and each paragraph is roughly 200-250 words:

2,500 / 200 = 12.5 paragraphs OR  2,500 / 250 = 10 paragraphs

You have 10-13 paragraphs in total in your essay. (Rounding up for whole numbers.)

Your best concentration is editing 2 paragraphs a day. 

Thus, it will take you:
13 / 2 = 6.5 days OR  10 / 2 = 5 days

So, you can estimate that a 2, 500 word essay with 10-13 paragraphs will take you 5-7 days (rounding up for whole numbers.)

Once You Have Edited…Time to Do the Final Proofread and Format

The last stage of writing your essay is getting it ready for submission. The final read through (or couple read throughs) is to make sure that you:

  • Haven’t made an typos
  • Put a space in the wrong place
  • Missed a letter out or double typed a letter,
  • Ensure any images used are in the correct place on the page and haven’t moved out of place
  • Ensure all your evidence is cited correctly (with commas and full stops in the right place – yes you can lose marks for incorrect use!)
  • Formatted your bibliography correctly
  • Cover page made with correct information and formatting  
  • Page numbers and ID numbers on each page (if needed by your university)
  • Correct font, font size, margins, line spacing etc

This final part is more about getting it print ready. Make sure you check your school or university guidelines for how your essay should be formatted; different professors, departments and universities all have their preferred way.


Once you have finished, printed and submitted your essay, celebrate your achievement! 

Essay writing is a skill that we can keep improving throughout our lifetimes. It is a tool we can use to keep developing our ability to think and reason.

Thanks for joining me on the Essay Writing Crash Course Blog Series. I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles. If you would like to go even deeper into essay writing, you might be interested in my Academic Essay Writing: The Crash Course. An on-demand video course taking you through the entire essay writing series in more depth, and follow along lessons and examples.

Want to learn more about essay writing? Why not check out my essay writing crash course>>

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