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Editing and Proofreading

An online study guide from the Skills Centre, including guidance and electronic resources on how to efficiently edit and proofread your own work before submission.


Editing and proofreading banner. Black text on pink background.

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Essay and paragraph structure

Editing in 3 rounds

Rather than editing every aspect of your writing at the same time, aim to edit in rounds, focusing on three key elements in turn: a) structure and flow, b) academic style, spelling and grammar, and c) formatting and presentation. Editing in this way is much more time efficient: you can concentrate on one feature at a time, and move quickly through the text, particularly if you are using a standard paragraph model to structure your writing.

This image shows three circular arrows, indicating the three rounds of the editing process in sequence: flow and structure, style, spelling and grammar, and last, formatting issues.

Top tip: Try reading you essay backwards sentence by sentence, starting with the last line of the conclusion. This will help you to take a step back from your writing and to read more actively, rather than skimming over sections that you are already very familiar with.

A strong writing structure starts with your paragraphs as the building blocks of any argument. Each paragraph should neatly capture an idea from your essay, complete with supporting evidence and critical discussion. Following a four-part structure in every main body paragraph in your writing will help to ensure that your ideas are fully developed and follow a logical line of argument:

Topic sentence – The first sentence of your paragraph should introduce the main topic, theme or next step of your argument. Read this sentence on its own – it should neatly summarise what the reader can expect from your paragraph. If the paragraph links directly to the question or assessment criteria you’ve been set, think about what key words or synonyms would make this clear to the reader.
Introduce evidence - Before moving to your references, it is helpful to signpost to the reader what aspect of the literature you will talk about in more detail. Check you stay on topic here – paragraphs should have one clear idea backed up by evidence.
Evidence – When editing, double check your APA referencing is correctly, using the Library Referencing guide. Also double check subject and verb agreement: eg. Awona argues… vs. Awona et. al argue
Discussion – Your paragraph should end with your interpretation of the evidence (for ideas on what to include here, see our guide to critical writing). When editing, check the last sentence of your paragraphs – if they end with a reference, make sure you follow up with a brief evaluation of the evidence or explain how it links back to your essay title.

Essay structure

In the editing stage, it is important to check that your essay follows a clear line of argument and moves logically and methodically towards your conclusion. One way of checking this is to create a skeleton of your essay, helping you to identify the key message of each paragraph and to check that your ideas link together.

  1. Print out your essay and stick one post-it note next to each paragraph. Write down a bullet point that summarises the key point or argument of the paragraph.
  2. Line up your post-it notes in paragraph order and read them aloud, explaining how you jump from one key point to the next.
  3. If two ideas seem very different, go back to your essay and check that you clearly explain how you move from point A to point B in your writing. You may be able to add in a signposting word or phrase to make the link clearer. If you need to add an extra sentence or two to explain the link, do this at the start of the next paragraph, as this helps to keep your paragraphs focused on a single topic.
  4. If you find you have more than one point on a post-it note, this is a sign that your paragraph may be too dense. To solve this, either split your ideas to create two paragraphs or rewrite the topic sentence to accurately mirror the content of the paragraph.
Top tip: Editing your work in Word
If you’re working on a computer, split your document into two columns, so that the left-hand column is blank, and the right-hand column contains your draft essay. Then, next to each paragraph, type a sentence or bullet point that summarises the content or argument of the paragraph.

For more information on structuring your essays, including how to write introductions and conclusions, please see our guide to planning and structuring your assignments.


Editing to reduce your word count

1. Focus your key ideas

Most essays will only need to focus on 3-5 key pointsideas or perspectives from the literature. The quickest way to cut down your word count is to decide which of your key paragraphs are repeating or consolidating a previous idea without offering any new evidence or critical discussion. Cut (Ctrl+X) these 'padding' paragraphs and paste them into a new document to keep them safe. Then go back to your draft and check that your ideas flow and your paragraphs link clearly together.

2. Refine your introduction

It is often easy to include too much information in the introduction, but it should be no more than 10% of your overall word count. Ask yourself, how much background information does the reader need to know? For example, if you had been asked to "Critically reflect on how universities might work to decolonise the curriculum", it would not be relevant to give background information on how the curriculum has developed over the last 200 years up until present day, or to offer multiple definitions on what the curriculum is. Instead, you might give a key quote showing that this is a contemporary issue, or give a brief explanation of what it means to 'decolonise the curriculum'.

The introduction functions primarily as a road map that tells the reader what to expect from the essay, and should not be used to discuss detail on any key topics or examples.

3. Quality over quantity

Think about your evidence as offering quality over quantity. Include the sources that contribute most to your argument or offer an interesting perspective from the literature. The focus of your paragraphs should be on offering critical analysis and evaluation in your own words, rather than referring to a large number of sources.

4. Cut unnecessary adjectives

Look out for double adjectives – these are often a feature of creative or descriptive writing but are unnecessary in academic writing:

  • One of the most significant and impactful changes in modern cinema has been the introduction of 3D technologies.
  • This policy has serious and wide-reaching implications for mature students applying for university.
  • Effective communication and productive conversations are an important and essential aspect of working in a team.

5. Replace verb phrases with nouns

Look for verb phrases that can be replaced with a noun:

Replace... with...
Communicating with others in a timely and efficient manner… (9 words) Effective communication… (2 words)
 A search of the literature databases was carried out and any papers published more than five years ago were not included as these are not relevant to the current setting. The search also filtered out papers not written in English for the researcher’s understanding. (44 words) Inclusion criteria for publication date and language ensured the literature search returned relevant papers. (14 words)

Language and style

Language and academic style

Don’t feel under pressure to use complex language or multi-part sentences: strong academic writing is all about use objective language to create a logical and structured argument. Writing for university comes with a set of expectations to follow, but there is also plenty of space to bring your opinions and unique perspective on a topic into your essays. Here are the key conventions to follow when writing to help ensure your ideas are communicated as clearly as possible:

Avoid conversational language & colloquial expressions

"kids in education today"

"kind of" or "a bit"

Solution: Use more formal language

"Pupils in the contemporary education system"


Don't shorten words (contractions)


Solution: Write words in their full form

Do not
Will not
Have not

Don't be vague and non-specific 

"lots of people are writing about this topic"

"Many older people have diabetes"

Solution: Give specific details where possible e.g. quantities, numbers, and names.

"Several scholars have written about this topic (Brown, 2016; Campbell, 2018; Marshall, 2011; Yates, 2017)"

"According to statistics, 26% of people aged 60-69 in England have diabetes (Diabetes UK, 2016)"

Avoid repeating the same words/variations of them in the same sentence

"However, although Davies (2007) argues that genetics are crucial in personality development, Jones (2011) argues that environmental influences are just as crucial"

Solution: Pay extra attention to your vocabulary when proofreading. Use synonyms to vary this:

"However, although Davies (2007) argues that genetics are crucial in personality development, Jones (2011) contends that environmental influences are just as important.”

For a full guide to academic writing style, please see our introduction to academic writing guide.


The formatting and presentation of your assignments will differ across departments and faculties. Always check your module handbook for answers to the following questions:
Ensure your name and/or student number are on your work
Add page numbers and figure/table numbers
Do you need a reference list or bibliography?
Use the specified font size and line spacing
Is there guidance for headers, footers, or margins?
Are all sections present, in the right order, with appendices, headings, and subheadings? 
Do you need a title page and table of contents?
Top tip: Hallam Digital Skills offers guides on formatting long documents.

Academic integrity and plaigiarism

Academic integrity and plagiarism
Academic integrity is about ensuring that any evidence used in your writing is referenced and acknowledged, so that the reader can differentiate between your perspective on a topic and ideas grounded in the literature. If you're new to referencing, and want to find out more about what plagiarism mean at university, please see our guide to referencing.
Along with accurate APA referencing, the following tips and questions will help you to avoid plagiarism and provide enough information for other people to trace and read the sources you include:
  • Are your claims accurate and evidenced?
  • Have you used tentative 'hedging' language? These words - including could, should, perhaps, possibly, potentially – allow you to offer your opinion as just one possible interpretation or perspective on a topic.
  • Is it always clear when you are citing someone else?
  • Have you used your own words (paraphrasing) as well as direct quotations? Paraphrased sentences still need to be referenced so that the reader can easily see which sources influenced your ideas, but these references do not need to include a page number. 
  • Use anti-plagiarism software (Turnitin or other free plagiarism checkers) to help with checking your work.
  • Use Studiosity (an online writing feedback service available via Blackboard) to get tips on your referencing and paraphrasing.


For a full guide to APA referencing at Sheffield Hallam, including workshops and examples of how to reference a wide range of sources, visit the library referencing homepage.