As a student studying history, my classes are essay heavy. Whether it’s a short, 5-page paper, or a longer 10-to-15-page paper, I write a lot. And surely, I’m not alone; as Princeton students, we are expected to write a lot, whether it be academically, extracurricularly, or professionally. With so much writing, it becomes easy to grow tired and forgo editing. After all, with an outline and ‘rough draft’ in hand, it’s easier to call it a day and pray for an A.
The rewriting process is perhaps the most underrated yet important step when it comes to essay writing. Rewriting is not just about catching misuse of the dastardly Oxford comma or misspellings of common words but finding out what fundamental aspects of the essay work and do not work. This is asking yourself the basic questions: Does the essay make sense? Does the structure create a naturally flowing, cohesive essay? Are my references in order? Is everything grammatically correct?
With a new semester coming up ahead, and those dreaded 5-page or 10-to-15-page papers coming along with it, I thought it was best to outline some of the strategies I use to rewrite my essays. These are strategies I took away from Writing Seminar (mine being WRI 146: Constructing the Past), some of my history classes (most notably HIS 281: Approaches to European History), and my own writing exercises to rewrite and edit my essays. This list is not exhaustive, not meant to be followed point-by-point nor used for every type of essay; in fact, I would take this list as blend of different strategies to mix-and-match. Nevertheless, here it is!
- Print out the essay. After I finish writing a draft, the first step I take is to print out a copy of the essay to read and mark up. While editing in Word or another software is fine, I prefer the engagement of pen-to-paper editing. Such a process forces me to confront my writing tangibly, as I scratch out confusing sentences, scribble potential edits in the margins, and point out places for further elaboration. It’s also a great break from looking at a screen, which has been understandably strenuous for many of us in this age of digital learning!
- Collect thoughts onto one piece of paper. Typically, after I finish my first read-through, I take my thoughts and put them down onto an additional piece of paper to aggregate all of the important ideas and takeaways. This way, I will not become tripped up on the minutiae of my edits, but rather some of the big ideas: What is really holding this essay back?
- Open up a new document. Don’t delete your essay in rage, nor start fully afresh unless advised. Maintain the old essay but open up a new document alongside it. Usually, when I do this, I use the new document to freely write and make edits without removing the original words. This allows me to properly track my changes, as well as freely write without concern for forgetting what was there or what I intended to do.
- Divide the essay into its paragraphs. As we already know, one of the most basic elements of an essay is the paragraph. As such, paragraphs must be cohesive, understandable building blocks that represent the arc of the research and writing process. Thus, I typically open up a new Word document and break up my essay into its different paragraphs, labeling each as follows: [PARAGRAPH X: Short description here]. Breaking it down by paragraph allows me to capture the flow of the essay, easily spotting the discontinuities that might arise from jumbled or misplaced paragraphs. As I go on, I make edits accordingly: I break up complex paragraphs, rewrite confusing paragraphs, and move around out-of-place paragraphs.
- Use Zotero, please! I was a relatively late user for Zotero, which is a computer software/browser add-on that allows students to keep track of research sources. This is less a piece of general editing advice but one that simplifies the process. Using Zotero makes it much easier to create references and maintain a collective list of sources for whatever essay is being written. If you are ever confused by how to use Zotero, I would check out the workshops that PUL usually hosts during a regular semester to learn more. If you want even more information, check out some other PCUR material about Zotero!
These are some of the strategies I use to get the rewriting process started! By breaking down the rewriting process into its component pieces, the mountain of stress and uncertainty that comes with rewriting is smoothed over. Instead, it’s easier to take concrete steps to improve your essay the second time around, hopefully making the next semester less stressful.
— Austin Davis, Humanities Correspondent