Editing (WritePhilosophy Guide)

Editing (WritePhilosophy Guide)

Have you ever submitted your first draft of a paper as your final submission? Chances are, if you don’t know the answer to that question, you haven’t been keeping track of your drafting process – and have probably submitted a paper which is closer to a first than a final draft as a result. As Cal Newport says, this approach, indifferent to drafting and editing, “produces mediocre papers of the type that drive professors, over time, to a slow, but ever darkening despair“. Let’s begin from the premise that driving your professor or your reader to an ever darkening despair is something to avoid. How do we draft, edit and proofread philosophical papers to ensure that what we’re turning in is high-quality?

Three stages of drafting

There are a minimum of three broad stages to the process of writing and re-writing a paper. The first is what might be called a Zero Draft. This is the stage at which you are just putting thoughts down on paper (or more likely, on word processor). Your zero draft probably doesn’t have a clear thesis statement or a coherent argument, and consists of a collection of thoughts relating to the topic. One way to avoid the zero draft becoming an onerous slog comes from the school of Write Early, Write Often. According to this writing philosophy, getting stuff down is key. Whenever you have a thought relating to a philosophical problem, jot it down right away. Write as much as you can about it. And then, file it somewhere meaningful in a file structure that will help you find it later, if you want to revisit that thought in a paper. In our guide to reading effectively, we advocated purposeful active reading of philosophical texts: this is part of a Write Early strategy, in which you’re getting your thoughts down even as you’re reading papers on a topic for the first time. But remember to write in your own words, preferably without referring directly to the text you’re reading while you’re writing, to avoid inadvertantly lifting phrases wholesale from the source – this will help you to avoid accidental plagiarism. I recommend using Word’s Dictate feature to get thoughts down rapidly, in your own words.

The next stage is to transform your collected thoughts into a coherent First Draft. What differentiates a First Draft from a Zero Draft is that it has all of the elements of a philosophy paper! It has a clear thesis statement and a line of argument which supports that thesis. It has an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. It cites sources in text and has a bibliography at the end. This is why students sometimes make the mistake of handing in their first draft, because the point at which you have a first draft is the first stage at which you have something that looks like a philosophy paper.

But there is at least one more step to go: transforming your First Draft into a Final Draft. This will take at least one, preferably more, rounds of editing and proofreading. Editing involves changing the structure, phrasing and content of your paper, while proofreading involves checking for errors, typos and grammatical mistakes. Both steps are vital, but it makes the most sense to perform editing first and then proofread your last-but-one draft to finally produce that Final Draft which goes to your reader. Ideally, you’d have some time between drafts. You can go from a First Draft to a Second Draft straightaway, but it’s inadvisable to jump straight from a First Draft to a Final Draft without giving your mind some time to work on your ideas in the background and getting some all-important detachment from your paper so that you see what you actually wrote, not what you think you wrote.


Editing is the process of progressively refining the structure and content of your paper to take it from that First Draft stage towards a Final Draft. Each pass through your paper is an edit, and you should perform at least one. The more important the paper, the more edits you should perform. There are a few tricks to help your editing process. Chief amongst them:

Remember your structure. In the Structure guide, we laid out a range of different structures for philosophy papers. Detect which of these structures you’re using in your paper. Take a look at the pros and cons for that structure in the guide. Consider whether you really wanted to use that structure, or might benefit from using one of the structures which gives your ideas and analysis the best chance to impress, such as ‘Down the Rabbit Hole‘. A complete change of structure will require quite a bit of effort, and a lot of ruthless cutting of material that doesn’t fit the new structure, so it’s best done in the first edit! In subsequent edits, keep your intended structure in mind: ensure that you don’t make any changes which disrupt the grand structure, and fix digressions or deviations which could take you away from the pure structure.

The Skeleton Test. In a skeleton outline, you take the first sentence of each paragraph of your paper and copy it into a separate document. Now, read just those first sentences alone. Does it make sense? Can you follow the entire structure of the paper from that skeleton alone? If not, you may need to go back and restructure your paragraphs.

If it seems like the sentences are out of order, it may well be that the paragraphs are too, and that your paper would benefit from swapping them over. Try that out – remembering to edit the content of the paragraphs too, to ensure everything still makes sense in the new order (you don’t want to swap a paragraph that contains the definition of a term to come after a paragraph that uses that term, for instance!)

Maybe the sentences don’t convey the content of the paragraph from which they’ve been excerpted. In that case, it’s the internal structure of the paragraph that needs reworking. Each paragraph should read like a mini-essay, with an introductory sentence which establishes what the paragraph will do (will it state the problem? Summarise someone’s argument? Make the case for your 3rd premise? and so on…), followed by the meat of doing what the paragraph needs to do, and ending with a sentence which relates this back to your thesis. Constantly reminding or clarifying how everything you’re doing serves your thesis, in this way, will ensure that you don’t go off track or lose your reader.

Perhaps a sentence just doesn’t really feel like it fits with the others. In this case, it might be that this paragraph is a digression which is not necessary to your paper. Check the paragraph for relevant material which you might wish to relocate to another paragraph, and then cut ruthlessly!

The First Reverse Test. There are two Reverse Tests which you should perform during this process: one in editing, the other in proofreading. The Reverse Test consists of reading your paper backwards, one sentence at a time. It is good for getting your head out of the zone of what you meant to write and looking instead at what you actually wrote. Start with the final sentence. Does it make sense one it’s own as the last thing in your paper? Is it a limp ending? Now, read the second-to-last sentence in the light of the final one. Can you see the relationship between the last sentence and the one that came before it? Are there any jumps or gaps in the reasoning that leads you from one to the other? This test is great for identifying logical leaps. If the sentence doesn’t follow on coherently from the one before it, you’re probably making some kind of logical jump that may have been obvious to you when writing, but might not be to your reader. See if you need to clarify either sentence, or perhaps add a linking sentence between them. Go all the way backwards through your paper, checking each sentence against the one before it, and you’ll soon have a much tighter paper which flows from sentence to sentence without any jarring disconnects. One place to be particularly careful when using this test is in the leap between the first sentence of one paragraph and the last sentence of the previous one. Even though your paragraph break denotes to the reader that you’re moving on to something new, it should be obvious why you’d go from one idea to the next. If you find you’ve written something like: “Another point is…” or “Also, …”, then you probably have a weak link between the paragraphs which should push you to reconsider your structure.

The Test of Time. This is the most important of all of the Tests which you can apply in your editing process. Save the document and close it. Walk away. Spend time doing other things, preferably unconnected to the topic you’re writing about. Write other papers, read in other areas, go for a walk, alphabetise your bookshelves. Give it as much time away as you can before returning to the paper. In the meantime, you will have been subconsiously mulling over the argument you made. You’ll also have given yourself time to detach yourself from the paper. If you give yourself enough time away that you can no longer recall the exact thought-processes that went into writing the paper, then it’s much easier to see the argument you’ve actually made and identify any gaps or jumps in your reasoning. The Reverse Test is good for this, but there is no substitute for time away. This is part of why our old work always looks so yucky to us when we return to it: we see all the things that a reader would notice, that we didn’t see when we originally wrote it because we were too close to the paper. Of course, to apply the Test of Time, you must start writing your paper well in advance of the deadline! Ideally, you’d have a least a week between completing your first draft and needing to submit your final draft, in order to give you several days between each pass at editing. That’s not always possible. But a Write Early, Write Often mentality, in which you don’t need to get over that initial hurdle of ‘starting to write’ that is so easily postponed, can do a lot to help overcome habitual procrastination.

The Detective Test. There should be absolutely no mysteries in your paper. Begin at the beginning and start reading. Stop regularly (at least once per paragraph) and ask yourself three questions from the perspective of a reader, not an author. Do I know why that was just said? Do I know where it came from? Would I know what’s coming next? If the answer to any of these is ‘no’, then you need to take the mystery away. The reader should not have to piece together your rationale for including some material: clarify this by relating it clearly back to your thesis or at least to one of your premises. If you can’t do that, cut it – it’s a digression! The reader should never be in any doubt whatsoever as to the provenance of any material, claim or phrasing. It should be entirely clear what is your own work, and when something is not your own it should be entirely clear whose it is. The reader should never need to dig or pull up Google to answer this. Finally, the reader should always have a good sense of what’s coming next. Your introduction should do a lot to help with this, but you should also add clear signposting throughout the paper so that the reader knows where they are in the argument and so can follow what’s coming next. This is particularly important with structures which go into great detail on a specific point, following a thread down and further down the rabbit hole: give the reader regular anchoring to remind them how we got to where we are.

The Delete Test. One of the most radical tests: highlight each sentence, paragraph, or word that you are not totally sure about. Delete it. (Remember to make a backup of your work!) Does the work still make sense without it? If so, you can probably cut it.

If your work can pass all of these tests, then you might have a draft ready for proofreading! There are just a few more checks to go – but don’t neglect them, as poor proofreading is sure to aggravate your reader and lose you their goodwill. A little time spent proofreading will pay off many times over.


Checking for spelling and grammar, eliminating typos, and checking that all of your references are in place is a crucial last step in turning your last-but-one draft into a Final Draft. Audit your references first. Are there any sources in the bibliography that you didn’t cite in text? (if so, do you need to add citations, or remove the item?) Are there any sources referenced in text which are missing from the bibliography? Check over the references themselves, making sure they contain all the information needed. This is especially necessary if you’re using referencing management software, as sometimes this can go wrong or data can be missing when downloaded from online repositories.

Next, it’s time to check for grammatical and spelling errors. A natural first step is to run your word processor’s inbuilt checks. But this is never enough. Typos get mist most often because their also reel words. But you face the same problem as in the Editing stage: you’re too close to the paper to detect your own errors! You’re reading what you meant to write, not what you actually wrote. Fortunately, there are a few ways to get around this.

The Second Reverse Test. Perform another Reverse Test, reading through the paper backwards, sentence by sentence. This time, you’re looking at each sentence in isolation. Viewing it this way, devoid of context, helps you to see the sentence on its own merits and spot grammatical errors.

The Sound Test. You’re more likely to spot bad grammar when you read your paper out loud. Find somewhere you won’t disturb others, and read the whole paper aloud. This test is great for detecting overly complex syntax or flowery language. As a rule, if it doesn’t sound like something you’d ever say out loud, it’s too complex. Find simpler synonyms for a few words, or try to break down the sentence into shorter self-contained sentences. Remember that each sentence should try to convey one and only thing.

Check for Banned Words. The Banned Words article in this guide gives a list of words and phrases which harm your written style, clarity and philosophical credibility. These include weasel words which allow you to avoid being specific (“Some people argue…”, “It could be said…”, etc.), terms with philosophical means which are often used differently in ordinary language (e.g. “A valid point”, “logical”, “nature”) and phrases which waste a lot of words which could be put to better use (e.g. “In order to…”, “In the event that…”, “And also”, “At this point in time”). You can use the Find function in your word processor to check for these phrases and make sure you’re not abusing any.

The Robot Test. The best way to notice any typos, repetition and missing words is to get someone else to read your paper aloud. This used to be difficult to achieve, involving buying pints to compensate reluctant friends. But it’s now trivial by using text-to-speech software. Microsoft Word has a built-in text-to-speech function. Go to the Review tab on the ribbon at the top, and click “Read Aloud“. A monotonous robot will then read your paper to you. You’ll be amazed how many errors you catch by listening to your paper through once using this feature. If you don’t have Read Aloud on Word (an old version or a different word processor), you can find plenty of text-to-speech applications online.

Latest edit: 03/03/2021 by CJ Blunt