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Insight: Engage

How to edit and proofread your responses

While it may be tempting to submit a first draft of your essay, it is important that you edit and proofread your work in order for your analysis to sing through loud and clear. This week Insight writer and English teacher Kate Macdonell gives tips on editing and proofreading your work.

The skills of editing and proofreading go hand in glove; although they are different skills, you need to develop both in order to improve the quality of your writing. Editing is largely to do with getting the content and structure right, as well as making expression clear and concise, while proofreading is more about correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar.

In a SAC or exam situation you have to do both tasks quickly, and you will likely not have time to do a proper edit. However, when you are drafting essays, you can and should be more rigorous in your approach to both of these skills, and particularly to your editing.


What should you look for when editing?

Editing can require several re-readings of your work with a pen in hand to mark areas of the essay that require further attention. You should eliminate any distractions and focus solely on the task at hand. Work from the macrocosmic level down to the microcosmic: that is, start with the big picture and work down to the sentence level.

For a text analysis, look for the following elements. You can use a similar approach for your analysis of argument and language.


Your response to the topic

Ensure that you have addressed ALL aspects of the topic. Sometimes essay topics can have two parts to them – make sure you have addressed both parts. For instance, consider one of last year’s exam topics on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘Shelley presents a natural world full of beauty but a society plagued by ugliness.’ Discuss.

With this topic, you need to address the issue of whether Shelley does in fact depict a natural world full of beauty AS WELL AS whether or not she presents a society plagued by ugliness. If you focus just on the natural world, you would be addressing only one half of the topic.

If you spot this error but are short of time, add some of the ‘missing’ terms of the topic into your introduction and some of the topic sentences. Try to ensure that what you add hangs together with what is already there; the response still needs to be cohesive. If you have more time, you will probably need to write an extra paragraph or two and may need to rewrite the introduction and conclusion in order to address the topic in full.


The quality of your argument

Your argument needs to be rigorous and consistent. Sometimes it can seem hard to make an argument interesting. With the Shelley topic above, for example, it could be easy to simply agree with the terms of the topic or to agree to a certain extent. To make the argument more interesting, however, you need to ask ‘so what?’ or ‘why?’. If you can answer either of these questions, your argument will have more direction and purpose.

If you are short of time, try to add a sentence at the end of two paragraphs that provides your assessor with an understanding of why the argument is interesting or significant. Why is it important that Shelley portrays both natural beauty and societal ugliness? What is her point?


The existence and clarity of your topic sentences

There needs to be a topic sentence in each paragraph. A topic sentence provides the focal point for the paragraph and alerts your assessor to how your argument will develop. I like them to appear in the first or second sentence of the paragraph, and definitely not at the end. They do not need to be complicated, but they do need to be clear.

For instance, consider this statement from one of last year’s exam topics on Burial Rites:

‘Regardless of their social position, the characters in Burial Rites feel powerless.’

This could elicit a topic sentence for one of the body paragraphs such as the following:

The isolating and inhospitable terrain of Illugastadir makes it difficult for Agnes and Sigga, who are effectively servants, to escape the control of their employer, Natan.  

This statement sets up the paragraph to discuss the three characters in terms that are clearly relevant to the topic. It signals to your reader what you are going to be writing about and why you are writing about it.

If you realise that you have left out the topic sentence from a paragraph, try to discern what the key point is that you are trying to make from the evidence that you have provided, then add a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph that summarises this point. (You can sometimes locate your main idea at the end of the paragraph, so look here if you are unsure as to what you were trying to say!)

If you are handwriting and there is no space left, write your extra sentences on another piece of paper (within the exam answer book if you are doing the exam) and ensure that your assessor knows exactly where they need to go in the main document. This needs to be absolutely clear.

The best way to improve your topic sentences is with practice. Try writing varied topic sentences and avoid beginning a topic sentence with the word ‘When’, which can lead you into a plot recount rather than analysis.


The quality of your evidence

You cannot include every piece of evidence from a text to support all of your ideas. However, you can ensure that your evidence is varied and that it is sourced from several different sections of the text – not just the first third of a novel! If you are studying short stories, for instance, use evidence from a number of different stories to show your understanding of the work as a whole.


The inclusion of rebuttal

Acknowledging an alternative take on your argument, and then placing pressure on the validity of that alternative point of view, can add depth and complexity to the analysis. This also shows a more nuanced understanding of the text. Words such as ‘although’ and ‘certainly’ can be effective springboards for incorporating an alternative point of view. You should then use words such as ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless’ to reassert your own contention. For example:

Certainly, it is possible to view the female characters in Burial Rites as being powerless and at the mercy of men. However, women such as Margret have considerable – if not necessarily total – agency within the domestic sphere, and strong individuals such as Agnes have at least some capacity to make choices without the intervention of a man.


The quality of your expression

Do not underestimate the power of a correctly punctuated sentence, carefully chosen vocabulary and eloquent prose. If you have time to recraft an awkward phrase, do it. Use a dictionary and thesaurus, if necessary, to get the language right.


What should you look for when proofreading?

Proofreading is the final check for errors and poor expression. After all the changes you make during editing, the whole essay needs a careful read-through to correct any introduced (or previously overlooked) mistakes, and to fine-tune your writing so it is clear and fluent.

In addition to fixing any incorrect spelling, look for the following errors and make small but effective corrections.

  • Long, unwieldy sentences – break them into two.
  • Unnecessary capital letters or sentences lacking a capital letter at the start.
  • Commas separating two complete sentences (or main clauses) – change the comma to a semicolon for a quick fix, but it’s probably better to make it a full stop and then follow with a capital letter.
  • Excessive repetition, especially of terms in the topic – replace some repeated words with synonyms.
  • A lack of paragraph breaks to clearly show the main points in your argument – in a handwritten piece, write NP in the margin and place a square bracket like this [ around the text where you think a new paragraph should begin.


Like writing, editing and proofreading are crafts that require practice and care to do well. Get into the habit of editing and proofreading your drafts in the lead-up to SACs and the exam; you will become quicker and more efficient at these processes and, with time, the quality of your first drafts will improve as well.



Want to know more about how to develop your writing skills? Insight’s Writing Skills by Melanie Napthine builds confidence and proficiency in expository, persuasive and creative writing, and includes strategies for editing and proofreading your work.

Writing Skills is produced by Insight Publications, an Australian educational publisher.


Photo credit: BeeBright/Shutterstock

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