how to write an essay
 

Step 10: Language

According to Truman Capote, "The greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make." As you edit the language of your essay, you are trying to make music out of the words.

In this step the content of your essay should be solid. If the idea itself needs discarding, you shouldn't be tweaking the language; it would be a waste of time working on transitions if the organization and structure of your essay were in need of repair. Hence editing the language of your essay comes last. Here you are putting polish on a shoe that has already been sewn.

Editing the language can be tedious, but it is essential. You've got to proofread your essays dozens of times to catch all the rough spots and language errors. As you proofread you will be checking for misspellings, poor mechanics, bad grammar, awkward word flow and numerous other linguistic details that you can improve. Proofreading the language may take hours as you attempt to polish your language to the point that it is pleasing to read and has literary style.

Give Your Eyes Rest

The more you read your essay, the more blind you become to it. Soon you stop reading the words on the page and only begin reading what's in your mind, which you falsely transpose onto the page. The actual letters could be Hebrew, or Greek, for all it matters at that point.

Don't keep reading hour after hour until your mind registers the entire text at a glance, without seeing the details. What you must do is rest your eyes; take a break. Give yourself a day or two between revisions. (This is why you should not procrastinate your assignments.) When you come back to your essay with fresh eyes and a renewed perspective, you will see with added clarity all the rough phrasings and strange ideas that your eyes once glided over.

Know What to Look For

You can read your essay a thousand times over, but if you don't know what you're looking for, you will probably miss all the errors you're attempting to find. If you're going to work hard, make sure you're putting all your energy to a productive use. Know what to look for when you proofread. See the criteria in the Grades section of this site. There are twelve areas to look for: logic, evidence, development, focus, structure, unity, integration, in-text citation, works cited, grammar, clarity, style. Check off each category as you examine your essay. Another help for proofreading is to ask yourself the same questions in the Peer Review, conducting instead a "self-review." Finally, be sure to use the spell-checker and grammar-checker in Word.

Don't Plagiarize

You might want to ask a friend to read over your essay and give suggestions for change. This is usually advantageous. Some students, however, perhaps feeling pressure to bring their language level up to a more fluent, "A" level, might ask their friends to go beyond a few simple suggestions and instead to heavily edit or rewrite the language of their paper. While it is generally okay for another to get some feedback from others on ideas and language, your friend or family member cannot take upon the role of an editor, changing your sentences and thoughts to reflect a linguistic and analytical level that is not yours and which is beyond your ability. Passing off another's language as your own -- even if the ideas remain original to your own mind -- is considered plagiarism. Your work must be your own, and that includes the language and style, not just content.

Knowing that the work is your own, and that it represents your highest level of performance, you will feel a sense of achievement and personal growth that perhaps you have not experienced before. Each essay should seem to you that it is your best work to date. Only when you feel this way is the paper done.

Continue on to editing your language for clarity, style, and grammar.


Tom Johnson. tjohnson@aucegypt.edu. Last updated May 2004.