Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

How to Write and Improve Essay Content

Admit it, whenever your teacher or professor has required you to revise an essay that you’ve already turned in, you usually go back, run spell check, check for run-on sentences and punctuation problems, and then you want to call it a day, right?

It’s relatively easy to edit an essay you’ve written when all you have to do is check for problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation. Having to go back into something you’ve already labored over, crack it open and improve the content in a substantive way can feel pretty brutal. After all, if you were able to write better content, you would have done it in the first place, right?

But don’t feel hopeless. With a few basic principles in mind, you can learn how to go back through an essay you’ve already drafted and make substantive edits that sharpen and improve the content of that essay.

Is the Purpose of Your Essay Clear?

Most essays will have one of three basic purposes:

  1. To inform or describe
  2. To persuade
  3. To entertain

As you review an essay that you’ve written, ask yourself whether your purpose is clear. If it’s not, then you know there’s a content problem that you need to attend to. A fairly common problem that many students run into is discovering that after writing what should have been a persuasive paper, they have instead written more of an informative or descriptive paper. Often, a writer might lay out data and evidence in favor of a particular position, but might fail to actually make arguments in favor of that position.

For example, let’s say that you’ve written an essay that argues that the death penalty should be abolished in the U.S. In one of your body paragraphs, you find that you’ve presented some statistics showing that the death penalty doesn’t deter violent crime. But after presenting that data, you stopped and switched to another point without making an explicit argument as to why those data show that the death penalty should be done away with. If you ever discover that type of problem when you go back to edit your essay, it can be easy to fix. Identify each instance in which you’ve provided a fact or example in support of your position. Be sure that you’ve followed up each of those instances with a few persuasive statements arguing that those facts and examples support your main argument or prove your point correct.

With our death penalty example, you could state, perhaps, that those who support the death penalty cite the deterrent effects of capital punishment as a reason that it should be kept in place. You could make the argument that the opposition’s position is not a strong one, using the data as support. If, when you read back through your paper, you realize that it’s really not clear what your purpose was in the essay, you need to refocus on your thesis statement.

Do You Have a Clear Thesis Statement?

As you may know, your thesis statement is the sentence (or two) that communicates the main point of your essay. It usually appears in the first paragraph, and it’s often the last sentence in the first paragraph. If, when going back through your essay to improve your essay content, you discover that you don’t really have a thesis statement, don’t feel too guilty. All is not lost.

Just be sure now to develop and add one. If you’re in a time crunch, you may be able to do this by re-examining the essay question and thinking about the major points that you’ve made throughout the body paragraphs of your essay. If you have a few sentences in your introduction, any one of which might be a thesis statement, work on identifying one that most fully captures the main idea of your paper. Make any necessary tweaks to ensure that it accurately introduces the rest of your essay, and position it where it naturally fits in your first paragraph.

It can actually be beneficial to do substantive editing with your introductory paragraph after having written the rest of your essay, as you’ll then be in a position to know precisely what you need to introduce. You can really improve your thesis statement when you’re editing your paper. For example, if you’ve written a persuasive essay arguing that the death penalty should be abolished, you could go back and revise your thesis statement from this:

The death penalty should be outlawed in the United States.

To this:

The death penalty should be outlawed in the United States because it does not deter violent crimes, it is applied in a discriminatory fashion, and not all individuals sentenced to death in this country are guilty.

Going back and editing your essay for content allows you to strengthen a so-so thesis statement by tying it very specifically to what you’ve written about. When you review your thesis, be sure, also, to take a moment to review the essay prompt. It can be easy when writing an essay to get off track and lose focus. As you edit your essay, think about what you’ve been asked to do for the assignment. Ask yourself whether your thesis provides a reasonable response to the essay question.

Do You Have Good Main Points?

As you read back through the body paragraphs of your essay, quickly check each body paragraph, and ask yourself whether it has a clear main point. Does that main point support your thesis? If you find a paragraph that has gone off track, consider whether it’s so off point that you should delete it altogether or whether you can edit it to redirect its focus so that it’s more in line with the main point of your essay.

So, let’s say that you’ve written an essay arguing that your city should enact a law prohibiting individuals from using cell phones while driving. If, upon reviewing your essay, you stop at a paragraph that discusses other causes of distracted driving, like using car radios or eating while driving, you may decide that while you’ve stayed on the very broad topic of distracted driving, your paragraph has not stuck with your basic point about prohibiting cell phone use for drivers. While it can be painful to cut out a paragraph or more that you’ve worked hard on, if that paragraph really sticks out to you as being off-topic, you’re better off cutting it out.

Next, consider whether you’ve left out any major points. For example, if you’re writing an informative essay in which you explain the major causal factors that have contributed to global climate change, do a quick review to see if you’ve included all of the major factors that you came across in your research or that you initially planned on during your prewriting. It may be the case that some big points from your prewriting or planning phase don’t fit well in your essay, in which case, it’s a good thing to have left them out. But if there’s an important point that’s missing, you’ll want to take the time to construct a paragraph (or more) to address it.

Have You Included Sufficient Details?

If you’ve ever submitted an essay to a teacher or professor and gotten it back with comments saying, ‘support this assertion’ or ‘how is that the case,’ then you understand the importance of including supporting details in your papers. It’s great if you’ve written an essay that makes stellar major points, but if you read back through it and see that the body of the essay is very vague, and your points are really general, then you still have some work ahead of you.

Using our climate change informative essay example again, let’s say that you’ve explained in your essay that industrial activities have raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, in turn contributing to global warming. Let’s say that you’ve also explained what a few of those industrial activities are. That list of activities would count as details, but that would very likely not be sufficient. As you go back to edit and revise your essay, work on explaining how those activities have increased carbon dioxide levels. What’s the scientific process involved? Employ details to describe how those increased levels lead to climate change.

Remember to read back through your essay with a critical eye. Do you have a lot of general, vague statements? Do you have any unproven assertions? You may be able to spot this problem by looking for topic sections in your essay that are short, or at least shorter than the other sections of your paper. Don’t skimp on details, and be sure that your explanations and arguments are always supported.

Is Your Essay Well Organized?

Organization might be the toughest thing to check for when you go back through what you’ve written to try to edit and improve the content of your paper. It’s one thing to insert a few details or even insert a new section, but making major rearrangements to a paper that’s already done can feel impossible. But there’s a relatively pain-free method you can use to work on improving your paper’s organization.

Just like taking vitamins and flossing, outlining our papers before we write them is one of those things that we know we should do, but that can be hard to get into the habit of doing. If you didn’t outline your paper ahead of time – or even if you did – try outlining your paper after you’ve written it, when you’re in the editing and revising stage.

Just do a quick list of the points you’ve made on a sheet of paper. If your paper is six pages or fewer, you might scribble down the big point from each paragraph. If you’ve got a longer paper, you might go subsection by subsection. Once you’ve listed out your major points, go back and read through your list. Does the progression make sense to you? For example, if you’ve explained the process of how climate change occurs, have you skipped any steps that need to be filled in?

Pay attention also to repetitiveness. Perhaps you’ve written that paper from earlier arguing against the death penalty. Perhaps your first two body paragraphs argue that the death penalty does not deter violent crimes. Then, you argue later in your paper that too many people have been sentenced to death only to be exonerated later on. But, you then mention a few times again that there’s no crime deterrence factor in states that have the death penalty.

Doing a post-outline can help you see when you’ve looped back and touched on points that you’ve already covered in other places. In the editing process, you can move those stray points back up to where they belong.

Lesson Summary

When you go back to edit an essay that you’ve already written, it’s relatively easy to catch misspellings or add missing commas. It’s tougher to really dig through your paper and make substantive changes to improve the actual content of what you’ve written. But there are some straightforward steps that you can take to make this process a lot easier. And your papers will be better for it. Remember to ensure that:

  • Your purpose is clear
  • Your thesis statement is effective and clear
  • Your main ideas are on point with your thesis
  • There are sufficient details to support your major points
  • Your points are organized well
Join the conversation