These are all simple ways to make sure your essay doesn’t make common surface-level errors. As you know, these can hurt your credibility with readers.
Use these as a final-final step, after you’re convinced that the essay is already as good as it possibly can be. That is, these work best after you’ve already done the bigger editing tasks of considering how your organization, evidence, and ideas fit seamlessly together to create the experience you want for your reader.
Open a digital copy of your writing in a word processor or web browser, and then type control-F. (That is, hold the control button down, and while you’re holding it, type F.) This should bring up a search bar, allowing you to search the page for any word. (F is for find.)
1. Search for then and make sure that it refers to time passing. If it’s a comparison, it should be than.
2. Some words often feel vague to readers; search for each of them and consider replacing them with more concrete words. These include good, great, interesting, wonderful, and truly.
3. Search for which.
- If it’s at the beginning of a sentence, you probably have a sentence fragment. Combine it with the previous sentence by turning the previous period into a comma.
- Check to see if there is a comma before which, which is generally the best way to punctuate it. (The word that usually doesn’t have a comma before it.)
- When which is in the middle of a sentence, it often introduces a clause that is surrounded by commas on both sides. Like this:
The pizza, which had mushrooms, smelled funny.
It’s common for people to forget the second comma.
4. Search for its and it’s and make sure you’re using them correctly. (Not sure which is which? Google it.)
5. Search for any sentence that begins with if, when, while, because, since, although, or as. (Yes, you should search for each one of these separately.) If a sentence starts with any of these words, there should be a comma separating that first clause from the rest of the sentence. Like this:
If you’re hungry, you should eat.
When you’re angry, don’t punch anything.
Because you’re ridiculous, you wear all those silly clothes.
Notice the commas?
Note that when those words occur in the middle of sentences, they usually don’t need commas before them.
6. Search for any place where you use a comma followed by and or but. So your search box will look like “, and” but without the quotation marks. (Don’t forget to include a space after the comma when you search.) Check to make sure everything after the comma+and or comma+but is a complete sentence. (Just read it out loud. Does it sound like a complete sentence?) (This doesn’t apply when the comma+and is part of a list, like I ate fish, chips, and pizza.) You’re trying to avoid this subtle mistake:
I’m an excellent typist, and an excellent cook.
Notice that if I read out loud the part after the comma+and, it’s not a complete sentence. (“An excellent cook.”) So I need to fix it to make that second part a complete sentence. And that’s easy: I’ll just add a subject to the second part of the sentence.
I’m an excellent typist, and I’m an excellent cook.
Of course, sometimes that makes sentences feel unnecessarily bulky, so I sometimes opt for simply removing the comma. The following sentence is also correct:
I’m an excellent typist and an excellent cook.
7. Make sure that all commas and periods are inside quotation marks. To do so, search for “, and for “. (that is, a quotation mark followed immediately by a comma or period on the outside with no space in between). When you find one, put the period or comma inside the quotation marks.
The only exception to this rule is when you have a parenthetical citation. That is, both of the following sentences use commas in the correct place:
Rutherford dismissed the viscount’s “careless fanaticism,” but he secretly sympathized with him.
Rutherford dismissed the viscount’s “careless fanaticism” (Hurwitzer 58), but he secretly sympathized with him.
Writers often punctuate the second example correctly, but they often mistakenly put the comma outside the quotation marks in the first example. Control-F can help.
UPDATE: I shared the original post above with my friends on Twitter and Facebook, asking if I had forgotten anything. Luckily, I have some really smart friends who suggested a few more things to include. I know that when any page gets this long, its usefulness suffers, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll add ’em anyway. Take what you will.
(I also want to credit two helpful sources that I forgot to include the first time around: years ago, Nick Carbone gave me the idea of using control-F in a writing class, and an earlier version of this sheet was heavily influenced by this pdf over at Duke of Definition, a page focused primarily on secondary English classes.)
On to the new ideas:
8. (From Steven Hopkins) Passive voice often takes away some of the punch from your writing, and it sometimes even makes it hard to figure out who is doing what. Contrast the following passive-voice sentence with its active alternative. Passive: The bill was ignored in the Senate committee. (Wait, who did the ignoring? That might be important!) Active: Senator Constantine ignored the bill in the Senate committee. (Ah, that guy again.)
To find these sentence constructions easily, search for versions of the to be verb (including be, is, was, been, and being). Then rewrite the sentence so that the person or thing acting out the main verb is named (like in my example above).
9. (From Brad Deutsch) Search for think and believe. Can you remove them to make a stronger statement that means the same thing?
For example, here’s a sentence using believe: “I believe Mugabe’s actions were particularly deplorable.”
Here’s a better version with believe simply taken out: “Mugabe’s actions were particularly deplorable.” (The audience understands that you believe it, because you’re the one writing it.)
10. (From Marc Santos) Search for opening parentheses and make sure they close later on. Same goes for quotation marks!
11. (From Matt Flamm) Search for a few of the most commonly mistaken words that spellcheck won’t catch. These include conscious/conscience, causal/casual, defiantly/definitely, and anything else that another reader has caught for you in the past.
12. (From Lindsay Jacoby) Search for the word that and make sure that it’s not renaming a person; if it is, you can usually safely change it to who.
You’re trying to avoid this subtle problem: People that go to country dances are good conversationalists.
Rewrite it by simply replacing the that with a who: People who go to country dances are good conversationalists.
13. (From Lindsay Jacoby): While you’re searching for that, go ahead and search for this, these, and those as well, and make sure they’re not lonely. They’re lonely if they’re not followed by a noun–which often leaves readers thinking, “Wait, what exactly does that pronoun refer to, anyway?” (Of course, your context might make the noun’s identity so exceptionally clear that a lonely pronoun can be acceptable–but it’s more common for people to err on the side of leaving them too lonely.)
These sentences all use lonely pronouns, leaving them sad (and even a bit confusing):
This should be required reading if we’re to avoid repeating our past mistakes.
And why aren’t these included on next year’s program?
There’s no way you’ll catch me outside in those.
But they can easily be fixed by adding a clear noun after the this, these, or those:
This report should be required reading if we’re to avoid repeating our past mistakes.
And why aren’t these competitive eaters included on next year’s program?
There’s no way you’ll catch me outside in those shoulder pads.
CC-licensed image: carlosgomez, “Finally usable, Pages.“