Tutorial: Editing your paper before submission


You know you should edit the paper, but how do you go about doing that?

This tutorial will give you step by step instructions for editing your paper before submission. These steps can apply to any paper, whether it is for a class or an academic journal or conference.

In this guide, we will go through the following steps:

  1. Making a checklist of requirements.
  2. Creating a Reverse Outline of your draft.
  3. Content editing for the writing and argument of the paper.
  4. Format editing for the paper’s appearance and style.
  5. Proofreading the final draft for any lingering troubles.

1. Check your requirements

There is nothing worse than having your paper be rejected or scored poorly because you missed a crucial part of the instructions. Many authors realize very late in the process that they have missed a step in the requirements and struggle at the last minute to fix it. The beginning of your editing stage is the time to double-check your requirements.

For class papers, look again at the assignment instructions and fill out the following checklist. Look for any specific requirements, e.g. that you reference a certain paper, use a certain framework, or include a certain data set. For journal articles or conference paper submissions, go to the website and find the “Submission Guidelines” or “Author Guide” section of the page. For example, the journal Nature has a “For Authors” section linked in their top navigation bar of their website. Most journals will have formatting guidelines only, but double-check the journal’s Focus and Scope to make sure your paper is the right fit.

Once you have found your requirements, it’s time to make a checklist. You can use the sample below or make your own.

  • Topic requirement:
  • Number of required sources:
  • Specific sources/framework/data to include:
  • Page or word count requirement:
  • Formatting requirement:
  • Style guide requirement (e.g. MLA, APA):
  • Other requirement:

Now that you have made your checklist, quickly scan your draft to see if you have fulfilled all of these requirements.

2. The Reverse Outline

A reverse outline (RO) is a way to edit your entire work for content to make certain your sections flow together and support your main point.

A RO is also a great way to take notes on a difficult or important paper.

You can do a RO by printing your paper and hand-writing in the left-hand margin, or by creating an outline in a word processor in a different window from your document on your computer. For the purposes of this tutorial, we will focus on creating an outline in a word processor. For more information on annotating your document by hand, look at the Purdue OWL Reverse Outline guide.

Here is an example of what you will be creating in the next 4 steps: sample reverse outline for a class research paper.

  1. Type your thesis statement at the top of the outline. Put it in bold text in a large font. This is going to be your guiding star for all of your editing. All of your paragraphs should move the argument about your thesis statement forward in some way.
  2. Count your paragraphs from your draft and make numbered lines for each paragraph. In these numbered lines, you will be writing a short summary about the paragraph itself.
    1. If you have different sections in your paper, make outline headings for each section. For example, if you have the sections Introduction, Background, Method, Analysis, and Conclusion, you should have 5 headings with each section’s paragraph numbers below.
    2. Get started with our Google doc template. (File -> Make a copy)
  3. In 10 words or fewer, sum up your main points.
    1. For each section heading, state in 10 words or fewer how the entire section contributes to your topic.
    2. For each paragraph, state in 10 words or fewer the main point of the paragraph.
    3. For each description, be specific. Instead of phrases like “contributes to the background knowledge”, use specifics like “describes similar uses of the framework”.
      • Bad: “Explains methodology.”
        Good: “Details about the screening procedure for potential participants.”
      • Bad: “First step of analysis.”
        Good: “Preliminary analysis for potential interactions between variables A and B”
      • Bad: “Relevance to larger questions.”
        Good: “Connects this study as follow-up to Smith and Jones (2011).”
  4. Note any trouble spots
    1. If you cannot explain the paragraph’s relevance, or if you cannot do it in fewer than 10 words, mark the entire line in orange.
      • This paragraph might need attention in your content editing process later. Your point may not be clear or you might have too much packed into one paragraph.
    2. If a paragraph’s summary seems out of place with its neighbors, mark it in yellow.
      • Look for better places to put this paragraph. Would it fit better at the end of the section? Could it be merged with the paragraph before .
    3. If any paragraph summary seems redundant or very similar to the ones around it, mark it in blue.
      • You might be repeating yourself. In the next step, consider merging it with previous or following paragraphs.

3. Content Editing

This is the part that most people associate with editing a paper. Here, you will need your Reverse Outline from Step 2 and your to-do list from Step 1, but don’t forget about that Requirements Checklist. You do not want to accidentally edit out something that is required and you want to make sure you stay on track, so keep that list handy and refer to it from time to time.

  1. Save a copy: Open your original draft and save it as a copy for your edits. You want to keep your original draft in case you inadvertently delete something or want to refer back to your previous draft to see how far you’ve come.
  2. Make a game plan: Look at your Step 1 to-do list and each mark you made on your Reverse Outline and decide which steps are easy to handle and which are difficult. Do the easy ones first, because they are also easiest to un-do if you do not like the results.
    1. Tip: Usually, merging paragraphs or splitting one long paragraph into two parts is easy. Moving a paragraph from one section to another is a bit more difficult because you have to make it flow with the rest of the section. Rewriting a paragraph to make it relevant can be difficult.
    2. Tip: Save any format editing for later so you don’t have to re-do any work that you might change with your content edits. If your to-do list includes citation reformatting, for example, save this for last in case you realize you need to include a new reference in your paper during this Content Editing step.
  3. Edit for content: Go through your plan. Edit the content, always keeping in mind your thesis statement. Save regularly.
  4. Update your RO: As you edit a paragraph and finish it, update your Reverse Outline to reflect your changes. Make sure your new edits fit in well with the content in your Reverse Outline.
  5. Re-check your requirements: When you have finished editing, double-check those requirements from Step 1. Make another checkmark for each requirement if your revised draft fills the requirements.

4. Format Editing

Now that you have your content where you want it, it’s time to make sure your paper looks its best and is ready for submission.

Format is very important for papers and includes font face and style, margins, captions for figures and tables, and citation style.

  1. Check your requirements. Find your requirements checklist from Step 1 and your to-do list. Look for any formatting requirements. Some instructions will specify formatting down to the margin size, while others will tell you to follow an accepted style guide like the ones from the MLA or APA.
  2. Find your style guide. For those with a style guide to follow, the Purdue OWL is an excellent resource for APA, MLA, and Chicago style formatting. There are many others, including House Styles for some journals and large organizations, which can usually be found on their website. Your library may also have resources on its website. For other styles, a Google search will help you find a guide online.
    1. If no style guide is specified and the requirements do not specify any specific styles, you can usually pick one that you are familiar with as long as you are consistent. Choose a style that is common for your discipline. Avoid making one up for yourself.
  3. Make your edits one at a time. It is not generally recommended to try to format everything at once. Some formats (e.g. margin size) are easy to do and can apply to the entire document. Here is a recommended sequence for doing your formatting:
    1. Set your margin size.
    2. Set any page number / footer / header information that is required.
    3. Check your font face and styles to make sure they match any requirements.
    4. Set the styles of your section headings to match the style guide.
    5. Check your in-text citations one at a time to make sure they follow the correct style. Cross-reference these to your references list at the end of the document, if applicable.
      1. In your references list, mark each reference that is used in the text. For any that are not referenced in the text itself, you may be able to delete these from your references list.
      2. Note any references that do not appear in your list for addition in the next step.
    6. Format your references list / bibliography.
      1. Add any references that you discovered were missing in step 3e.
      2. Make sure to attend closely to use of italics and punctuation required by the style.
Note: Steps 3e and 3f can be made much easier by a citation management program like EndNote or Mendeley. If you are using a program like this to generate your references list, consult the help files for these programs on how to do any conversions that you might need to do.

5. Final Proofreading

Proofreading is the final step. You want to leave your final proofreading for last because you might make substantial changes in the previous sections that will need to be proofread. Of course, you can fix any typos or errors that you find as you edit the other sections, but you need to do one final proofreading step.

Note: everyone benefits from an extra set of eyes on their work, even the best writers. Have a colleague or a professional editor look over your paper (and offer to do the same in return for them to practice your own editing skills). If you need help with this, we can connect you to an editor who can be your extra set of eyes -- more information can be found at the end of this section.

  1. Spell check. If your word processing program has a spell check function, turn this on and run the checker, attending to each change individually instead of accepting all of them in bulk. You never know when a discipline-specific term might not be found in the spell checker’s dictionary and might be automatically corrected to another word entirely. Save yourself the embarrassment of autocorrect by taking the time to go step by step!
  2. Grammar check. Some word processors offer grammar checking. You can run this check as well, and look at each individual change to make certain it makes sense for your paper.
  3. Readthrough. After you use the automatic mechanical tools at your disposal, read through your paper. This is best done after a time away from the paper. If you have been working closely with the paper, your familiarity with it may cause you to skip over words as you read and not be as attentive.
    1. Tip: If you do not have the luxury of time to step away from the paper, you can alleviate this problem by proofreading the paper in reverse -- that is, start with the final concluding sentence of the paper and work backwards.
    2. Tip: Reading the paper out loud can also be useful in this step to help with grammar and wording. Any time you stumble on a word or sentence as you are reading it out loud, check the grammar and spelling for what made you stumble.

Concluding thoughts

Editing a scholarly paper is a process that can be learned by any scholar, and with practice, will become easier. However, sometimes having a professional editor can be a great help with your work. Freelancing sites like UpWork (http://www.upwork.com) have many excellent editors with profiles that you can search for someone who can help you with your work. You can also visit the Stanford INK program’s tutorial on editing scholarly papers (http://ink.stanford.edu/paper), which has a submission form to hire an editor from their team. (Full disclosure: the author of this tutorial is one of the editors available for hire from the INK program.)

By following the steps in this guide, you will be on your way to a more polished paper, whether it is a class assignment or a journal article.

Adapted from: http://ink.stanford.edu/paper
Author: Lauren B. Collister, Ph.D. Scholarly Communications Librarian, University of Pittsburgh


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