Polishing Your Paper

By Christopher Valencia |

Many of us have our own writing methods. Some of us lock ourselves in our rooms for several hours and crank out our first draft. Others write for one hour, stop, rest for another hour, and repeat this process until the first draft appears. But, regardless of your process, getting the initial draft out is the first big step. 

[Image Description: A cartoon monkey typing on a computer in a dark room]

But even after we have produced the first draft, we still need to clean up several things. We will need to scrap some ideas, reorganize the essay's structure, rewrite the thesis, or remove a section altogether! Eventually, after you have revised your second and third drafts, you will begin to get close to the finish line. 

Strong essays never appear out of thin air but require much polishing. Below, I will recommend a few short polishing tips for reviewing an initial or final draft. In polishing an essay, there are macro elements—overall structure and the main points of argument—and micro elements, or the small yet important details of the work. 

Essay Structure & Sentence Structure

First, let's look at the macro side of the essay. One professor pointed out that after we write our first or second drafts, our essays usually have a latent structure. But sometimes, some structures are less defined than others. To use my professor’s analogy, for some writers, the flesh of their essay appears at first – usually with decipherable limbs and organs scattered about – and then later, the skeleton within the essay is seen after the fact. Often, some parts of the flesh are amputated so that the structure of the skeleton can become more noticeable. After one writes their first, second, or even third draft, they will be able to see the structure – or skeleton – more clearly and make some definition decisions about it. After we do a few amputations in the body paragraphs, we can turn to the introduction.

In our introductions, we often have to lay a foundation and define key terms. After you finish your first few drafts, it is always good to go back to your introduction and “map” out the defined structure of your essay (as a side point, both humanities and scientific disciplines rely on this technique). Mapping involves creating a short section – usually after your thesis statement – that explains to your reader the overall direction of the essay. You can think of it as a map showing all the important upcoming stops. 

For example, write something like: “The first part of this essay reviews… Following this, the second part of the essay examines … After examining these examples, the third part synthesizes…”

On a micro level, many small points relate to the minute details of sentence structure. I will offer this point: generally, there are four types of sentence structures (simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, compound-complex sentence). You can generally find explanations about them online. But the main point I want to bring out here is that your sentences should have some variety. If many of your sentences are simple sentences, then that can be monotonous to the reader. Unless you want to sound like a robot, combine many different sentence structures to help create a sense of variety. 

Word Choice

Another way to polish your essay is to review its vocabulary. Of course, variety is important here, too. At times, we do not notice that we may be using the same word over and over again, making us sound like robots. Using a word multiple times is fine, especially if it is relevant to the argument. Still, we should also try to expand our vocabulary. 

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For example, we can include different verbs whenever we introduce a quote. A common verb that we use is express. We may write: “In this quote, the author expresses…” Many of us who write in English are very familiar with how often we may use the same verb. We can use several other verbs instead of express, such as explains, describes, suggests, argues, etc. (we can even use more basic ones: writes, notes, captures, depicts). Often, because we cite other authors in our academic work, it is good to try to use different verbs when quoting them. 

Appositional Phrases 

Another key point to remember, which may also help with variation, is appositional phrases. These involve using two noun phrases side by side in a clause. When these two noun phrases refer to the same person or thing, it is an appositional phrase. 

Example 1: [NP 1] Scotty the Bear, [NP 2] the mascot of UCR, has his own statue on campus.
Example 2: [NP 1] UC Riverside, [NP 2] a research public institution, opened its doors as a campus in 1954. 

Appositional phrases are a useful technique to add sentence variation amidst all the academic jargon we may use. 

Grouping Combinations 

Another way to add sentence variation is to use commas and semicolons. More commonly, we use commas to create list combinations. Most of us are familiar with this, so I will not go into much detail. As a short example, we can summarize an article using commas to recap its main points. For example, in this article, the author covers _______, _______, _______, and _______. 

Semicolons – which can be viewed as a thoughtful pause rather than an abrupt stop – can be used in the following. Usually, they can separate two independent clauses. For example: “The professor assigned a 10-page essay; the first draft of my essay is only five pages long.” To change it up, you can use linking words before semicolons. For example: “The professor assigned a 10-page essay; however, she was allowed to choose any topic to write about.”


Lastly, the final thing that needs to be polished is grammar. We can often misspell a word, especially if it is not commonly used. Thankfully, spell-check is available in many writing software programs these days. However, reviewing our essay and reading it out loud to catch any lingering mistakes is still good. We can also do a “word search” for any difficult words we think may have an error throughout the essay. Often, this can take the form of names with unique spellings (i.e., Mississippi, onomatopoeia, Dr. Dezeery) or words that look similar.

I hope these few polishing tips help you finalize your next paper. You can always come to the Graduate Writing Center and get suggestions, too! Feel free to schedule an appointment on our website. We will be more than happy to review your early or final draft and make some suggestions! Happy writing! 

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