HSC English Essays are almost a way of life when it comes to the senior years, and a lot of the time you end up feeling like they’re all you ever do.
But despite all the enforced practice, many students end up feeling unsure of their essay writing skills or not getting the marks they think they deserve.
Why does this happen? Because most students only write an essay once.
That’s not to say that you should write a full essay then write it out word for word a few times, rather that most students don’t go through a process of editing and developing their work.
So if you want to get more marks, don’t do the dumb thing and submit the first draft of your essay. As obvious as it is, do the smart thing and submit the final edit of the script! That’s why it’s super important to always draft, rewrite and polish your essays – and we’re here to teach you how!
Why is Editing Important?
Editing is one of those things that literally everyone could benefit from but very few people actually do or do well.
The process of actually going over your own work with a critical eye and figuring out how you can improve it helps you in lots of different ways.
For one, editing allows you to improve on the task at hand, be it a class essay, a practice response or just something you’ve written for fun.
It also allows you to look at your work critically and identify any issues or weaknesses with your writing and work to fix them.
This in turn makes you more aware of where your writing needs improvement and therefore allows you to be more aware of these things and hopefully improve on them in the future.
Editing is really just setting you up for future success!
The fact of the matter is that even if you’re not making massive changes, an unedited essay is never going to be as good as an edited one. It may be a difference of a few spelling errors, some clunky sentences or a misused quote, but your teacher will always know whether or not you’ve edited your essay, and it can mean the difference between a Band 4 and a Band 5 response.
“But hang on,” you say, “The Band system is only used to mark HSC exams, and those essays are all written on the spot. How is editing going to have any impact on that?
The fact of the matter is that if you start getting into the habit of editing now, you’ll start to gradually improve your essay writing skills all on your own.
That means that by the time you get to the HSC you’ll actually have developed the skills and improvements that allow you to write a better essay than you could have before. Plus, if you’re the kind to pre-prepare essays and memorise them (or even just memorise key points) you’ll need to be editing those beforehand.
Either way, editing is a process that can have a totally awesome impact on your HSC as well as class work and assignments!
Step 1: Planning
The quickest route to a lame essay is to just write it off the bat without doing any planning or thinking ahead.
While it’s true that some people can just come up with awesome ideas on the spot, you need to do at least a little bit of planning if you want them to come together neatly. Plus planning ahead makes it way easier to actually get started on your essay and can help kick procrastination’s butt!
You can start by reading over the question and creating an essay plan dot-pointing the key elements of what you’re planning to say if your response.
You can include everything from what themes you plan to explore, what techniques you’ll analyse, author context, etc., if you think it’s important stick it in there!
Because this is the first stage of the essay it doesn’t have to be anywhere near perfect, it’s just about getting your ideas down on the page.
This planning stage varies from person to person, as everyone likes to draft their essays in different ways, so yours doesn’t need to look like the example below. If you do get stuck though it’s a handy guide to what your dot points may look like! It only covers the planning of a body paragraph but you get the idea.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Question: People’s perspectives of the world can shape their sense of belonging.
- Text: The Hobbit, dir. Peter Jackson 2012
- Theme: people’s perspectives of how they fit into the world shapes their sense of belonging
- Focus on main character (Bilbo) and his love of his home (Bag End) + town (The Shire) and how he perceives himself to belong there/fit into this world
- Props like maps show he is interested in the outside world but stays where he feels he fits in
- Costuming links to props through similar colours and textures to show connection
- Lighting creates a warm and inviting visual environment, earthy and warm colours are used to emphasise
Though it seems very basic, this is more than enough information to start building an essay out of. We’ve got our text, our theme, a brief point on what we’re focussing on and then a few techniques we could include. And all in 5 minutes of work!
Just repeat these for each of your body paragraphs (and your intro/conclusion if you want) and you’ll be ready to write in no time at all.
Step 2: Writing
Now it’s time to start doing the actual writing. You don’t have to worry about getting things perfect, this is all about taking your notes and putting them into an essay format!
That said, this definitely isn’t the time to slack off.
You still want to be putting your best foot forward, so make sure to pay attention to things like spelling, grammar and sentence structure.
That will just make it easier for you to edit and improve your writing later in the process.
For now you’re aiming to turn dot points into full paragraphs of around 250 words, which can seem like a task and a half. It doesn’t have to be though!
By using the STEEL method to turn your notes into an essay you can quickly and easily develop some super awesome body paragraphs and just fit the introduction and conclusion around them.
Let’s recap STEEL, just for those who may need a refresher:
We want to immediately take a stance on the question, so our statement has to show what position we’re taking and hint a bit at how we’re going to go about arguing it.
Technique + Example
While this is where you’ll be bringing in your literary techniques, it’s not as simple as listing them off. Try to introduce your technique with the quote that acts as your example, as this makes your response smoother and more sophisticated.
Here’s where you’re going to start talking about just how the techniques and examples you’ve chosen actually reflect your argument. This is the ‘why’ – why you’ve included them, why they’re relevant and why they prove your point.
Now you need to link back to the question as well as the other text if you’re writing a comparative essay.
So let’s put STEEL into practice and turn those example dot points into a paragraph!
People’s perspectives of how they fit into the world shapes their sense of belonging is an idea that is seen in The Hobbit through Bilbo’s love of the Shire. In the start of the film props are used to show that Bilbo knows a lot about the world outside the Shire, with maps showing far away places symbolising that he is interested in the outside world but has chosen not to leave the part of the world he feels he fits in. To leave would make him feel isolated.
Lighting is another technique used, with warm bright lighting used in scenes in Bilbo’s house/the Shire to create a sense of happiness, while scenes set in other places in the world use dark lighting to show he doesn’t belong there and is uncomfortable. Finally Bilbo’s costumes are made of the same materials as many things in his home at Bag End, showing audiences visually that he feels connected to his home and perceives himself to fit there. All these techniques prove that even though Bilbo knows about the bigger world he understands where he fits in and belongs.
The paragraph above definitely isn’t perfect, but by using STEEL and our notes from before we’ve managed to turn a few dot points into a fully formed essay paragraph. Even though there’s room for editing and improvement, by getting this down on paper we’re one step closer to the perfect essay.
Step 3: Editing
To (mis)quote Olivia Newton John; let’s get critical, critical!
Okay so I’m pretty sure those weren’t the lyrics, but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s time for you to look over your essay with a critical eye and figure out what isn’t working.
I’m not saying you need to tear your essay to shreds, but the most important part of editing your essay is being honest, so if something doesn’t sound quite right don’t let it slide.
Generally it’s best to go over and edit your essays in the morning, as your mind will be bright and awake and you’ll be way less likely to miss any silly things. Plus you will have had at least 8 hours away from your essay while you slept, so you’re looking at it with fresh eyes.
When it comes to the actual editing there are lots of ways to do it.
- Read your essay out loud and circle anything that doesn’t sound right
- Use the ‘Review’ feature in Microsoft word to track changes you make
- Go over it with a highlighter and pick out things that need improvement
It’s really up to you how you edit, but the main idea is that you’re picking up on things that need changing or want improvement.
Things to pay particular mind of include spelling, grammar, sentence structure and the overall flow of the essay.
You should also look out to make sure all your elements of STEEL are coming across, your themes make sense and you’re really answering.
For example, here’s our draft paragraph:
And here’s the edited paragraph:
The Hobbit looks at how one’s perspective of how they fit into the world can bring about a sense of belonging, as seen through Bilbo’s love of the Shire. Props are used throughout the first few scenes of the film to establish that Bilbo has read widely of the world outside Hobbiton, with books and maps detailing foreign places shown symbolically throughout his home. The fact that he is clearly so interested in the outside world yet has no desire to leave the Shire clearly demonstrates that he feels he belongs there, and recognises that leaving his home would lead to severe alienation. Lighting is used to support this, as all the scenes of Hobbiton and the Shire are well-lit and tinted with warm hues, evoking a sense of happiness and contentment. Meanwhile, the majority of the scenes set outside of Bilbo’s hometown are darker and blue-toned, a technique used to emphasise Bilbo’s discomfort and alienation. This sense of connection to his home is cemented in Bilbo’s costuming, his clothes made of materials with the same worn textures and earthy colours that are seen throughout his home, Bag End. Through this a visual link between him and his home is established and proves to the viewer just how connected to it he feels. These techniques are therefore used to demonstrate that while Bilbo has a vast knowledge of the world around him, he also understands how he fits into it and where he belongs.
By addressing all the issues we picked up on in the first draft of the essay paragraph we’ve already improved it by leaps and bounds!
Adding more sophisticated language, fleshing out our analysis and being more specific overall really helped lengthen the response.
At the same time little things like flow and sentence structure improved as well. Already we’re seeing just how much of an impact editing can have.
Step 4: Polishing
It’s time to recruit a friend, family member or teacher because you’re about to get some peer reviews!
When you’re writing an essay it’s easy to forget that the marker won’t always know everything you know, so you may be leaving out vital information because you already know it.
At the same time, you always know exactly what you’re trying to say, but there’s no way of knowing if it’s actually coming across clearly unless you get someone else to read it. That’s why we get peer reviews.
Basically all you have to do if give your edited essay to someone else to read and have them give you feedback on it.
Now, if you’re giving it to a tutor, teacher or even a classmate they probably know what they’re looking for, but sometimes the person you give your response to won’t be sure how to review it. For cases like that we’ve put together a handy checklist of things to look out for.
Peer Review Things To Note
- Sentences that are too long, too wordy or don’t flow well
- Overt repetition of words/phrases/ideas and rambling
- Poor spelling/grammar
- Text titles not underlined, quotes not in italics
- Lack of quotes/literary techniques
- Paragraphs that seem much longer/shorter than 250 words
- Anything that doesn’t make sense (sentences, phrases, etc.)
- Doesn’t seem to answer the question
Whenever you find an instance of one of the above things make sure to highlight it and write a brief note.
This may just be pointing out the issue (e.g. ‘repetition of a word’) or actually explaining why the issue is a problem (e.g. ‘this sentence doesn’t make sense because you haven’t mentioned who the characters are that you’re writing about’).
Once you’ve had your response peer reviewed it’s time to go back in one final time and make any last changes to your essay. You probably won’t have as many things to change, as you will have already done some awesome editing in the last section.
Remember, you don’t always have to change everything that your peer review mentions – sometimes you may have a valid reason for keeping a sentence long, your choice or words, etc.
At the same time though you want to take on the advice and make sure you consider just how much it could improve your essay. Then just go in and make those final edits!
Let’s take a look at our peer-reviewed paragraph:
And here’s the revised paragraph based on those notes!
The Hobbit looks at how one’s perspective of how they fit into the world can bring about a sense of belonging, as seen through Bilbo’s love of the Shire. Props are used throughout the first few scenes of the film to establish that Bilbo has read widely of the world outside the Shire, shown symbolically through his collection of maps and books on foreign places. The fact that he is so interested in the outside world yet has no desire to leave the Shire clearly demonstrates that he feels he belongs there, and recognises that leaving his home would lead to severe alienation. Lighting is used to support this, as all the scenes of the Shire are well-lit and tinted with warm hues, evoking a sense of happiness and contentment. Meanwhile, the majority of the scenes set outside of Bilbo’s hometown are darker and blue-toned, a technique used to emphasise Bilbo’s discomfort and alienation. This sense of connection to his home is cemented in Bilbo’s costuming, his clothes made of materials with the same worn textures and earthy colours that are seen throughout his home, Bag End. Through this a visual link between him and his home is established and proves to the viewer just how connected to it he feels. These techniques are therefore used to demonstrate that while Bilbo is curious in his perspective of the world, he also recognises and is comfortable with where he belongs in it.
In this paragraph we were pretty lucky because most of the changes were small, but sometimes you may have to change a whole sentence or section of your paragraph. Just remember that you’re only working on improving your essay by editing, so just keep up the good work and your perfect essay will be ready to go!
You’re pretty much done! Throughout this process you’ve rewritten four versions of your essay and gone through three stages of editing, so what you’re left with should be one kickass response.
The main points to take away from the whole thing is that editing is incredibly important but also incredibly useful, because it’s the best way to identify any mistakes before you really make them.
By finding problems in your work and addressing them before you hand it in you’re ensuring the best possible out come for yourself.
Just keep editing and following our guide to drafting, rewriting and polishing your essays and you’ll be on your way to the top of the class in no time!
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Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently deferring her studies until she starts her Bachelor of Communication at UTS in the spring.