Believe it or not, now that you’ve hopefully finished major revisions, the hardest part is really over! Your goal at this point is not so much to focus on content but on nitpicky copyediting which is so great for catching those careless mistakes that distract your readers (including <ahem> markers) from your main ideas.

Here’s a checklist for some finishing touches:

·        Check out your verb tenses. Don’t feel you have to completely avoid the “passive” tense (e.g., “the ball was caught”) but definitely try to have MORE subject-verb “active” sentences; they add power and agency to your writing (e.g., “Billy caught the ball”). Purdue’s Active/Passive Handout should help you here.

·        Also make sure your verbs are in the right tense. If you’re talking about literature, keep the tense in what is called “the literary present.” So a sentence in your essay to set up an example would read “When Hana tells Caravaggio about the English patient…” If you’re writing a historical paper though, past tense is more suitable.

·        Check for non-sexist language, especially in pronoun situations (e.g., “What does an artist look for in his (er, her…er, their…ARRRGHHH) imagery?”). The best way is to talk to your professors. You’ll find some that say they don’t mind the awkward “him/her” (or “him or her”) split, others who prefer one over the other, and still others who want you to avoid the sticky scenario altogether. Figure out preferences. Otherwise, read up on other strategies in Purdue’s Non-Sexist Language Handout

·        Read your essay out loud to listen for either awkward or long sentences that could be clarified or broken up to read better.

·        Check your punctuation. If you have problems with quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, or dashes, visit Paradigm Online Writing Assistant’s Basic Punctuation Guide as well as Purdue’s Catalogue of Punctuation Handouts.

·        Look for glaring grammatical flaws. Strunk’s Elements of Style and Purdue’s catalogues for Parts of Speech and Sentence Construction are great resources, as are any handbooks you use in your English courses. Be especially on the alert for mistakes you make often.

·        Check your diction (word choice). If you’re looking for a better word, look up some possibilities in Roget’s online Thesaurus or if you’re having usage problems (affect vs. effect for example), then check out But I didn’t Mean to Say That! by editor Pat Robidoux of the Writer’s Depot.

·        Prepare a Works Cited or References list. Set up footnotes or endnotes if you need them too. A Guide to Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers from the Writer’s Web gives you great advice on preparing all these pages. The University of Calgary even offers a Sample Works Cited page.

·        Now you can check your spelling both with a computer spell-checker and with your own eyes to catch those words that are spelled right but used in the wrong context (like there vs. their vs. they’re). For common problems, visit Purdue’s Spelling Handouts . Someone else’s eyes are great at this point because you’re probably too close to your own writing. You can also check words out the old-fashioned way–with a dictionary. or the Merriam-Webster WWWebster Dictionary are both good choices.

·        Work on the presentation of your paper: use a laser-printer if you can (or else your best ink-jet) on 8.5 x 11 inch paper, double space your lines, maintain 1 inch margins, start numbering pages on the second page of actual text, and prepare a title page with an original title somewhere in the centre and your vital student info in the bottom right hand corner. No duotangs needed; just a staple will do. Also make sure your font is very readable (Times New Roman is the most common) and in 12 point.

And you’re done! Congratulations!


We’ve been telling you all along to be critical whenever you read and reading over your draft is no exception. You hopefully turned off your “Critic” long enough to generate enough raw material in the last step; now turn it back on.

The point is not that what you wrote was bad, but let’s face it, not even professional writers tap out perfectly thought-out prose the first time at the keyboard. So now is the time to become your own audience and evaluate your work just as we told you to analyze texts while researching. Revision is RE-VISION. After letting your draft sit for a few days, look at your work with a new critical eye, critical for what doesn’t work and what does.

Before you go over the heuristic we’ve devised below to help you revise, remember that revision is not proofreading. Revision deals with underlying issues and content while proofreading deals largely with surface details and presentation. Like a funnel, you have to start at “higher order” concerns (how the essay and individual paragraphs hold together) and then move down to “lower order” concerns (sentences, word choice, mechanics).


·        Does your title give readers a good idea of what’s to come? (Have you even come up with one yet? Remember, “Assignment #3” is not a title!)

·        Is your thesis statement or research question clearly stated?

·        Is there enough lead-in in the introduction to establish the importance of and context for the statement/question? Is there too much? Too little? By the end of the introduction, is it clear to the audience what kind of material will follow? If so, are these expectations fulfilled, that is, do you follow through?

·        Is it clear where your introduction ends and body begins and where the body ends and the conclusion begins? In other words, are your paragraph indents meaningful?

·        At the same time, are there transitions between all sections and paragraphs to create flow and unity?

·        Does each body paragraph have a topic sentence? If you took your thesis/question and all your topic sentences, would that correspond to what you want to say in your paper? If not, do you need to revise your thesis/question or re-examine your subpoints?

·        Do the topic sentences (1) make a connection back with the thesis/question, (2) establish a link with the previous paragraph’s content (perhaps the chronological relationship, any comparisons/contrasts?) and (3) give enough information that the audience could guess where a particular paragraph’s development would lead?

·        With or without a formal concluding sentence, do you somewhere near the end of each paragraph remind readers why you are saying what you are saying by moving back up to abstract, general terms?

·        Does the order of paragraphs make sense? (e.g., maybe the transitions seem forced because they aren’t in the right order)

·        Are your paragraphs too short (say, fewer than 4 sentences) or too long ( longer than about 8)? Is there some combining or separating of issues that needs to take place? Or do you simply need to generate more content or delete irrelevant material?

·        Are your examples reliable, representative, and convincing? Are there enough of them (or too many) to develop the main idea of the paragraph in the word count you have available?

·        Are your sources convincing? Is there enough balance between your own insights and expert opinions?

·        Is anything that should be referenced, referenced?

·        Are all sources and direct quotations explained or have you left them standing on their own?

·        Has anything that goes off topic or is not essential (given your word limit) been cut? (TIP: whenever you know you have to cut something but you’re finding it hard to do, cut and paste it in a separate file so that you feel it hasn’t been obliterated. In a couple of weeks, you’ll probably go back and wonder why you were so attached to the passage in the first place!)

·        Does the conclusion say something different from your introduction? Does it leave a good lasting impression or is it wishy-washy?

As the folks at Ashland University’s Writing Center put it, there are 4 basic actions that will occur during the revisions you now hopefully plan to make:

ADD. Insert needed words, sentences, and paragraphs. If your additions require new content, return to the idea-gathering techniques.

CUT. Get rid of whatever goes off the topic or repeats what has already been said.

REPLACE. As needed, substitute new words, sentences, and paragraphs for what you have cut.

MOVE MATERIAL AROUND. Change the sequence of paragraphs if the material is not presented in logical order. Move sentences.

All of these actions are easily done electronically, but try not to do all your revision on the computer. Alternating between “screen” and “paper” copy is a great way to achieve perspective.

Now what about ‘lower order’ concerns? These issues are highly individualized so look through old marked papers for comments you received at the level of sentences and diction (word choice). Are there any trends you notice? Bring in a writing sample to a tutor and we can examine a piece for you and look for things you both do well and seem to have difficulty with. The most common mistakes are a lack of clarity (perhaps because you’re trying to sound “academic” or have forgotten that you’re writing to an audience) and general wordiness.

First visit our peer editing page and then come back to the links below for more advice.


Before you begin writing, you should have a thesis or question that you’re comfortable with and an outline that gives you structure on what you need to say and where. Now just take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write. “Sure, easier said than done,” you might be thinking. Fair enough, but we aren’t asking you to come up with polished prose. It can be as rough as you want it to be. And with practice, it does get easier and faster.

Believe it or not, drafting should be the least time-consuming step in the research paper process. Invention should take longer. Research should take longer. And revising should definitely take longer. If it’s taking you a month of Sundays just to eke out a thousand words, two things could be happening:

1.      you don’t have any clue what you should be saying (in which case you don’t have a focal point or outline yet and so are starting too early!) or . . .

2.      you’re revising while you draft so that you end up with one sentence an hour.

If it’s the latter (as it often is), separate your duties out. Within every writer, there is a Creator and a Critic. Write a letter to your Critic telling him or her to go to sleep for this step and wake up for the next one. Let your Creator shine for now.


With tentative thesis statement or research question in hand, you’ve got what will likely become the focal point of your paper. You have a focus, a goal, a purpose–in essence, the bones of your essay. But now you need flesh for those bones; that’s where research comes in.

The research step you are about to embark on will be exhilarating because now you can finally gather some proof for your readers about that controversial thesis. Or, you can finally explore the range of answers to your research question. By immersing yourself in a pool of outside knowledge and integrating it with your own ideas, the research step is what distinguishes this genre from other kinds of essays, namely the more personal or creative variety.

Before jumping into that pool, you may be asking, “Why not do an outline first?” Well, if you’re doing an argumentative paper, chances are that you already have some mental notes about your topic’s “sub-components” (the ones that might eventually break down into supporting paragraphs); it was probably those informal subpoints or reasons that helped you formulate your argument in the first place. Research-question writers probably have only vague ideas of what they might possibly come across in the debates they’re analyzing. In either case though, we suggest putting together an outline after you do research. You don’t want to narrow yourself too much at this point. A very clear thesis or question gives you enough direction to keep you on task, but still leaves you open to new angles on the subject.

Thesis or Question

We know the buildup to the actual research step is getting to be really intense, but you need to learn to pick and refine a topic before figuring out the focal point of your paper: your thesis statement or research question. You just can’t afford to waste time wandering aimlessly around the library, or even worse, in your paper. You need to know what your ultimate purpose is and what you need to know and do to get there.

During our explanation of the two main types of research essays you’re most likely to encounter in an assignment (analytical or argumentative), we briefly mentioned what is the keystone of each paper without which the paper would literally fall apart. For the argumentative paper, the keystone is the thesis statement; for the analytical paper, it is the unresolved topic or what is called the research question.

Rather than giving you some abstract definitions right off the bat, let’s see them both in action in an example that demonstrates the different angles each would take on the same subject.

Once you’ve seen a thesis and question at work in a real-life (ok, made-up) paper scenario, it will be useful to cover some defining features of thesis statements and research questions and some strategies for coming up with good ones.

When you do come up with a good one on your own, make sure it passes The “So What?” Test or you cannot pass Go and collect your 200 research dollars.

Don’t worry though; remember that at this point in the process, your thesis or question will be tentative. It may change after you do research or as you write and that’s perfectly okay. But even if it turns out to be a popular view or question, your purpose should come from your mind first, not library books. This is one of the main reasons we’re having you think about the point of your paper now before you read what the experts in your field have to say.


Before you even consider the “topics” issue, take some time now to find out how to save yourself headaches and agony by thoroughly understanding the assignment.

Good. Now that you have some guidelines on what you’ll be doing, you need something to do it on: a topic.

Either luckily or unluckily depending on your own need for guidance, the professor may not only dole out the assignment but even hand out sheets of possible topics or actual thesis statements to defend. Here’s a shortened version of one for a correspondence course on Shakespeare:


Choose one of the topics below and write a short essay clearly arguing a thesis that you have formed based on that topic.

How does Love’s Labor’s Lost parody conventions of courtly love?

Some critics have argued that nothing happens in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Is this true?

How do we know from Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting that their romance is doomed?

How does Romeo and Juliet introduce the relation between love and death?

Remember: unless otherwise specified that you must only choose from the options given to you, don’t be shy about taking the initiative to approach your professor with ideas of your own as long as it’s not because the suggested topics look “too hard.” Your topic should exist at the same level (or above!) any suggested topics. But you should also look for something you’d be motivated to do.

You may even be forced to go on your own with very little direction. Assignments often give students a word or page count and a deadline, with the only real direction about “subject matter” being that the paper has to look at some topic covered in the course in a more in-depth fashion. For example, in a first-year poetry course I took, one of our assignments, though it did not require secondary sources, was on a little slip of paper that read:

Write an essay of approximately 1,000 words (3-4 double spaced pages) in which you discuss your response to one of the poems we have discussed in the lectures or tutorials. Pay careful attention to the narrative elements: speaker, tone, diction, point of view, characters, setting, and/or plot. In paying close attention to both the text and your reaction to it, you will need to reflect on what you think the poem is about and the view of life it presents.

You’ll still have to go through the idea-generation stage even if you’re given a sheet of topics or possible theses. But locating something that might pique your interest off that sheet is pretty self-explanatory: follow your instincts. However, for the other, more-vaguely-expressed extreme in assignments as shown above, how are you supposed to come up with a topic of and on your own to generate ideas about?

Now that you don’t feel that mental fuel tank is empty to begin with, it’s time to fill it up.

Don’t be immediately scared of a topic or “topics” in general. Too often, students are exasperated from the beginning because they don’t feel they have any authority or knowledge about their subject area. That’s not a great attitude to start with. Have faith in your own smarts and course work. You’ll start the research in the next step. Nobody’s expecting you to be an expert or get your paper published in a journal, so just start jotting down ideas about things related to your topic. You may even want to keep a journal to keep everything in one place. So step one is to relax.


Be sure though not just to put down things you think you should write about or might want to write about but basically just anything that comes to mind when you look at the topic. The important thing here is not to edit your meanderings; this is not the step for second-guessing what you’ve written. Connotations, associations, related concepts, connections–that’s what you’re looking for to get a topic. To accomplish this, try some specific invention techniques.

The real key to successful papers that you can actually enjoy writing <gasp!> is motivation, which is why your topic choice is so important. During your idea-generation activities, once you have started seeing great things jumping out at you, finish your “session” and then make a list of why a potential topic is important. To do this:

First think of yourself–is this something you believe in? that sounds fun? that you sincerely want to learn more about? that intrigues you? Even when you’re given a set topic in advance, you can always frame it to suit your needs and style–so get something out of it. Or if you have more freedom, maybe it turns out that your favorite poet’s work (from some English course you took a few semesters ago) fits into your unit on feminism. Why not see if you can explore that further now? Or maybe you’re doing a double major…why not substantiate your decision and try and connect the two fields in a paper? Perhaps symbolic imagery or the French Revolution has always been something you wanted to really dig your hands into but never had a chance. The possibilities are endless. So go ahead and be selfish. Your paper will be the better for it.

Then think of the audience – will other people familiar with this subject care to read what you’re writing? Do you have something to say or are you babbling and wasting space? Use common sense and intuition here. It might be loads of fun to talk about the evolution of the toilet paper roll, but if you suspect your readers will find themselves going “Yeah, so what?” and just reading for reading’s sake, you’ll be in trouble and your grade will reflect it.