How to Edit and Improve Essay Content

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  • 0:48 Purpose of The Essay
  • 2:28 Thesis Statement
  • 4:21 Main Points
  • 5:53 Details
  • 7:14 Organization
  • 8:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a JD.

Going back through an essay that you've written in order to make substantive content improvements can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there are some basic principles that you can apply to whip your essay into shape.

How to Write and Improve Essay Content

Admit it, whenever your teacher or professor has required you to revise an essay that you've already turned in, you usually go back, run spell check, check for run-on sentences and punctuation problems, and then you want to call it a day, right?

It's relatively easy to edit an essay you've written when all you have to do is check for problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation. Having to go back into something you've already labored over, crack it open and improve the content in a substantive way can feel pretty brutal. After all, if you were able to write better content, you would have done it in the first place, right?

But don't feel hopeless. With a few basic principles in mind, you can learn how to go back through an essay you've already drafted and make substantive edits that sharpen and improve the content of that essay.

Is the Purpose of Your Essay Clear?

Most essays will have one of three basic purposes:

  1. To inform or describe
  2. To persuade
  3. To entertain

As you review an essay that you've written, ask yourself whether your purpose is clear. If it's not, then you know there's a content problem that you need to attend to. A fairly common problem that many students run into is discovering that after writing what should have been a persuasive paper, they have instead written more of an informative or descriptive paper. Often, a writer might lay out data and evidence in favor of a particular position, but might fail to actually make arguments in favor of that position.

For example, let's say that you've written an essay that argues that the death penalty should be abolished in the U.S. In one of your body paragraphs, you find that you've presented some statistics showing that the death penalty doesn't deter violent crime. But after presenting that data, you stopped and switched to another point without making an explicit argument as to why those data show that the death penalty should be done away with. If you ever discover that type of problem when you go back to edit your essay, it can be easy to fix. Identify each instance in which you've provided a fact or example in support of your position. Be sure that you've followed up each of those instances with a few persuasive statements arguing that those facts and examples support your main argument or prove your point correct.

With our death penalty example, you could state, perhaps, that those who support the death penalty cite the deterrent effects of capital punishment as a reason that it should be kept in place. You could make the argument that the opposition's position is not a strong one, using the data as support. If, when you read back through your paper, you realize that it's really not clear what your purpose was in the essay, you need to refocus on your thesis statement.

Do You Have a Clear Thesis Statement?

As you may know, your thesis statement is the sentence (or two) that communicates the main point of your essay. It usually appears in the first paragraph, and it's often the last sentence in the first paragraph. If, when going back through your essay to improve your essay content, you discover that you don't really have a thesis statement, don't feel too guilty. All is not lost.

Just be sure now to develop and add one. If you're in a time crunch, you may be able to do this by re-examining the essay question and thinking about the major points that you've made throughout the body paragraphs of your essay. If you have a few sentences in your introduction, any one of which might be a thesis statement, work on identifying one that most fully captures the main idea of your paper. Make any necessary tweaks to ensure that it accurately introduces the rest of your essay, and position it where it naturally fits in your first paragraph.

It can actually be beneficial to do substantive editing with your introductory paragraph after having written the rest of your essay, as you'll then be in a position to know precisely what you need to introduce. You can really improve your thesis statement when you're editing your paper. For example, if you've written a persuasive essay arguing that the death penalty should be abolished, you could go back and revise your thesis statement from this:

The death penalty should be outlawed in the United States.

To this:

The death penalty should be outlawed in the United States because it does not deter violent crimes, it is applied in a discriminatory fashion, and not all individuals sentenced to death in this country are guilty.

Going back and editing your essay for content allows you to strengthen a so-so thesis statement by tying it very specifically to what you've written about. When you review your thesis, be sure, also, to take a moment to review the essay prompt. It can be easy when writing an essay to get off track and lose focus. As you edit your essay, think about what you've been asked to do for the assignment. Ask yourself whether your thesis provides a reasonable response to the essay question.

Do You Have Good Main Points?

As you read back through the body paragraphs of your essay, quickly check each body paragraph, and ask yourself whether it has a clear main point. Does that main point support your thesis? If you find a paragraph that has gone off track, consider whether it's so off point that you should delete it altogether or whether you can edit it to redirect its focus so that it's more in line with the main point of your essay.

So, let's say that you've written an essay arguing that your city should enact a law prohibiting individuals from using cell phones while driving. If, upon reviewing your essay, you stop at a paragraph that discusses other causes of distracted driving, like using car radios or eating while driving, you may decide that while you've stayed on the very broad topic of distracted driving, your paragraph has not stuck with your basic point about prohibiting cell phone use for drivers. While it can be painful to cut out a paragraph or more that you've worked hard on, if that paragraph really sticks out to you as being off-topic, you're better off cutting it out.

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