The Writing Center

How to Edit Your Own Essay: Strategies for ESL Students


  1. Ask yourself, “What mistakes do I make most often?” If you are not sure, start to keep an error log. An error log is a written record that helps you keep track of the errors you repeatedly make in your essays. Categorize your errors into two parts:

    1. Errors that interfere with the meaning

    2. Errors that do not interfere with meaning

  2. List the three most frequent errors that DO interfere with meaning.

  3. Read through your paper looking only for the most common error that interferes with meaning. Using a ruler or piece of paper to cover everything except one line at a time can help focus your attention. Circle all the errors of that type that you find. By only focusing on one type of error at a time, the editing process will seem less overwhelming.

  4. Next, repeat step three, but now, looking only for your second most common error that interferes with meaning. Using a different color ink for each error type can help you visually distinguish between the error types.

  5. Repeat step three once again for your third most common error that interferes with meaning.

  6. Once you have identified these errors, take a look at our grammar handouts on the Writing Center website to learn more about the relevant rules and how to fix the errors.

Some Common Errors to Look Out For:

Incorrect Word Form: These are usually nouns— including gerunds & infinitives— adjective or adverb problems

Incorrect: He was a very diligence student.
Revised: He was a very diligent student.

The first sentence uses the noun form, “diligence,” whereas the sentence is describing the student, and therefore requires the adjective form, “diligent.”

Subject Verb Agreement: There is an incorrect subject-verb agreement

Incorrect: She think he will win the race.
Revised: She thinks he will win the race.

The verb “think” needs to be “thinks” because the subject (“she,” the person doing the thinking) is singular.

Incorrect Verb Form: When the verb is incorrectly formed (this is commonly an issue when combining the verb with another verb)

Incorrect: He was eat pizza at the party.
Revised: He was eating pizza at the party.

“Eat” is in the simple present verb form, which is only used when describing an action that happens habitually (always happens). The revised version needs the past progressive, “eating,” which expresses events or situations that were in progress at a particular time in the past. Helpful Note: a helping verb like “was” will never come before the simple present.

Checking for Common Verb Issues:

If you want to focus on verbs as you edit, highlight or underline all the verbs in your paper. Check all your verbs for:

  1. Subject-verb agreement: Is the subject singular or plural? Does the verb form agree?

  2. Modals (can, should, would, must, may): Did you use the base form of the main verb after the modal?

  3. “Be” verbs: Check the tense. Have you changed the tense? If so, why? Is the tense appropriate for the meaning? Is the verb in passive voice? If so, should it be?

One More Suggestion: After you have followed these steps, you may ask a knowledgeable friend (or tutor in the Writing Center) to read over your paper to look for problem areas.

Note: You may find it helpful to use the Longman Dictionary of American English during the self-editing process. This dictionary is designed specifically for non-native English speakers and provides valuable grammatical and syntactical information which dictionaries for native speakers lack.

Adapted from: Cogie, Jane, Kim Strain, and Sharon Lorinskas. “Avoiding the Proofreading Trap: The Value of the Error Correction Process.” The Writing Center Journal 19.2 (1999): 7-31.

Print Friendly and PDF