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A Simple 1st Step to a Strong Essay

Humor me for a moment and pull up a writing assignment that you began on the same day it was due. 

Got it? Now go ahead and give it a quick read. 

Back already? Deep breaths. Don’t worry, those cringe feelings in your gut are just your writerly muscles growing.

Now if that was painful, you’re not alone. Odds are, if you’re one of those flawed beings we call humans. Any writing assignment that you whip up in a few hours and ship off is going to be a minefield of grammatical errors, rhetorical flaws, and sentences that simply don’t make sense. 

Which leads us to ask: how could this happen? The essay made perfect sense when you hit the send button (quite confidently, I might add). And if the mistakes are now so obvious, why weren't you able to catch them the first time?

If I were a neuroscience major, I would tell you exactly why this happens. But since I’m not, I’ll keep it simple.

Right after drafting an essay you’re effectively blind to everything that’s wrong with it. 

No matter how good your writing seems when you’re doing it, if you think you’re going to finish your essay at 11:45pm and polish it to perfection by the 11:59pm deadline—think again. It doesn’t matter how much espresso you put in your Dutch Bros. After hours of writing, you’d have better luck echolocating dinner (think bats) than you would spotting that missed comma.

And while this humbling realization could lead to very meaningful reflections on the weakness of humanity (woe us!) or your own fallibility (woe me!), I’ll ask you to hold that junk off for now so we can talk about how we’re going to fix this.

Here’s the game plan: 

The key to editing is to put distance between yourself and your first draft. That means you’ve got options: drafting and editing at different times, reading your essay out loud to yourself, or even editing your essay in a different location than you drafted it. 

If there’s any way that you can get fresh eyes on an essay, you should take it—that includes peer edits as well. With these practices, you’ll catch countless flaws in your argument, sentences that don’t make sense, and parts of your essay that need patched up.

The best part of this? You can significantly improve your essays without massively increasing your time commitment. Yes, it’s in your best interest to put as much time into an essay as you can (insert lecture from your teacher here), but whether you’re writing an eight-page semester final or a one-paragraph response, simply separating your editing and drafting time will ensure you’re catching the simple mistakes that frequently cost students whole letter grades. Thirty minutes on Wednesday and Thursday is the same as one-hour on either, so do yourself (and your teacher) a favor by setting aside some editing time.

As one who has edited more essays than you ever want to read, or write, or think about, I’ve learned a simple truth: the key to any strong essay is good editing. Moreover, students who edit are students who grow. You can’t become a better writer except by finding the weaknesses in your writing and fixing them—and you’ll never find the weaknesses as long as you’re sending off first drafts.

So take the simple first step of creating the distance between yourself and your drafts—whether that’s by spacing out your writing time, reading your drafts out loud, or recruiting peer editors. Your readers will thank you for it.