It is easiest to edit your work if you understand the difference between three stages in your writing process: producing a zero draft, producing a first draft, and producing a final draft. After briefly outlining the difference, we will discuss how you can move almost effortlessly from a first draft to a final draft, increasing your final mark in the process.

Zero, first, and final drafts

When you first start writing your paper, your ideas might not be very well developed or clear, and you may not know exactly what literature you will refer to, and what you will leave out. You may go well over the word limit, or fall annoyingly short. Nevertheless, to avoid writer’s block, it is best to try to put something on paper. In fact, it is easiest to force yourself to write if you accept that any first attempts will be a complete mess. Because the first version is not something fit for the eyes of others, but a collection of your own private thoughts on a topic, without a clear argument, structure, or style, we call this version a zero draft. (There is a lovely short article on Cal Newport’s blog about a way to force yourself to take this step, being alone with your arguments, without simply churning out descriptions that don’t engage with the literature and are simply meeting a word limit!)

Once you are satisfied you have produced an argument, now hidden somewhere within the depths of your zero draft, it is time to turn this argument into a paper. So, you write an abstract (following our tips on abstract writing!) and flesh out the argument by considering what support it needs (following our tips on constructing an argument!). Eventually, you end up with a document that is miles away from the zero draft — this new document has an argument and support for that argument — but that is not very easy to read. Such an essay, with an argument but without a clear structure and style, is a first draft. Sadly, most students submit this draft after just a quick spell check. (This approach, simply submitting a draft as soon as it has an argument and meets the word limit, is what Cal Newport calls ‘writing-centric’. He also claims, incidentally, that this technique “produces mediocre papers of the type that drive professors, over time, to a slow, but ever darkening despair”. Ouch.) Luckily, there is an easy and quick fix for this problem: editing to produce a final draft.

The difference between a first draft and a final draft is structure and style. You want to let your argument shine, and the best way to do that is to make things as easy as possible for the reader. We will now outline two techniques for improving your structure and style, which have worked for us when we wrote our own essays, dissertations, thesis chapters and journal articles. As you will see, this kind of editing is very different from the kind of copy-editing most students do, which involves only checking for spelling, grammar and punctuation (you do check those, right?).

Strengthening your structure: the skeleton outline

A skeleton outline is an outline of a text that you construct after the essay has been written. Think of it as a very bad summary, the kind you did in school. To make a skeleton outline, you simply summarize each paragraph of the text in one sentence. This sentence needs to contain the main idea in the paragraph. (If you find yourself using more than one sentence, this is an indication that your paragraphs contain too many ideas and should be split!)

The nice thing about a skeleton outline is that it allows you to see exactly what the flow of information or argument is in a text. So, if you find yourself particularly admiring an article you come across, constructing the skeleton outline for that article allows you to peek into the writing process of the author. When we first started using skeleton outlines to analyse journal articles, it allowed us to see how much space other philosophers typically spend on reviewing the literature, and how much space they spend on their own argument. You can do the same thing for essays that you know got a good mark.

But you can also use the skeleton outline to solve structural problems with your own essay. We have already named one, finding whether some paragraphs contain too many ideas. But you can also improve the structure at a higher level.


  1. Print out your article and for each paragraph, either underline the topic sentences that you find, or write a summary phrase or sentence. Then use this to construct an outline.
  2. Once you have put the outline together, have a good look. Do your paragraphs have a logical order? Do you spend enough time on your own argument, and not too much on describing others’ work? Do you go off on a tangent anywhere?
  3. If you are not satisfied with the structure of your essay once you have made this outline, or if it diverges too much from what a typical analytic philosophy essay looks like, revise your skeleton outline. Move paragraphs around, note where you are missing information, and delete whatever is unrelated to your main argument.
  4. Restructure your argument around your new outline.

Putting your argument first

When you first start writing philosophy essays, you may find it difficult to structure your article entirely around your own position. Below are some tips for making sure your argument gets all the attention it deserves.

Write an abstract

This one is something we’ve already discussed in week 1: write an abstract for your paper, to make sure you know what message you want this essay to bring across. Have another look at the instructions there, especially the techniques for improving your essay through an abstract.

The four S structure

The four S structure is simply: say what you are going to say, say it, summarize it, and shut up. This structure goes strongly against what most beginning students do. Academic writing expert Wendy Belcher writes: “Many students love the mystery novel format. They believe readers will stop reading if told the argument too early, so they withold it. Such students want to reach the last sentence of their article and then reveal, ‘the butler did it’.” (Belcher 2009: 183) What works for Agatha Christie, unfortunately, does not work so well for philosophers. By stating your argument as early as possible, in your introduction, you help your readers anticipate what is coming. They can then evaluate, for each paragraph, whether it supports your argument. Moreover, readers who know how each paragraph is meant to fit into a larger structure are more likely to interpret your work generously, even when your writing becomes a little less clear. Having the bigger picture laid out for them early is key. One sneaky technique for doing this is to write your introduction and conclusion at the very last: summarize the main body of your text, and copy-paste it to start and finish of your article, then tweak the language slightly (‘I will argue’ vs. ‘I have argued’) and you’re all set.


In the publishing industry, people make a distinction between general editing and copy-editing. Editing the content of your paper, following our instructions above, is an example of general editing. Copy-editing comes after: it is meant to improve the formatting, style, spelling, grammar, and written English of your paper. Some of us find this by far the most tedious job; others love the straightforwardness of letting go of content, just you, a cup of tea, and the written word. (The latter also seem to own more than a few cats, and have a preference for quilting.) Whichever kind of person you are, bad copy-editing can bias a reader against you right from the start. So it is important to copy-edit properly. Just make sure, before you start, that your content is solid: it is frustrating to find out you have to delete a paragraph because it doesn’t fit the argument after you have just copy-edited that paragraph.


There are several ways of copy-editing. Find one that suits you.

  1. Delegate. This is by far the easiest option. If you know your written English is not at the standard you would like it to be, but you are unable to find the mistakes easily yourself (for instance because you are a non-native speaker), by all means let someone else copy-edit your paper for you. There are just three rules for this:
    1. This person is absolutely not allowed to recommend any changes in content, or ghostwrite your paper for you.
    2. Make sure they know what they are doing!
    3. In the end, you are the one who decides if the changes are necessary. Ask your copy-editor to either track changes in a document that you will then have to approve or reject, or give you a paper version with their changes added in red ink.
  2. Do it slowly. As CopyBlogger writes here: “Read slowly, as if each word is foreign to you. It’s time to scrutinize each word to make sure it’s the perfect fit for that sentence. A slow proofreading practice also helps you catch real-word typos, such as ‘my’ instead of ‘may,’ ‘through’ instead of ‘thorough,’ ‘most’ instead of ‘post,’ or ‘to’ instead of ‘too.’”. There are several ways to force yourself to be slow:
    1. Read out loud. One easy technique for spotting errors (especially things like subject-verb agreement) is to print out your paper and slowly read it aloud to yourself. You will find you catch problems that you would gloss over if you read your paper quietly.
    2. Read backward. This is another trick for going slowly over your paper. By starting with the last sentence, and reading back, you force yourself to pay more attention than you otherwise would.
  3. Spellcheck. By all means, make use of your word processor. Just remember this dreadful poem.

If you want to know more about copy-editing, for instance what to look out for when you are reading your own work, check out this helpful blog over at The Write Life.