• Abbie Tibbott

How to Edit History Essays

Let's face it, if you're a history student, essays are going to be a massive part of the way that you'll be graded and evaluated. Having the ability to write a comprehensive, well-structured essay is one of the top skills you'll need to master at university, so it's important that you get the basics sorted as soon as you can. Once you've written an essay, there's always the temptation to give it a quick proofread and submit, but if you're after the top marks, it's vital that you learn to edit your work in order to release its full potential.

Editing can be a chore, and I've spent many dull hours in the library trawling through my work. Thankfully, after four years, I feel like I have a good system for editing, so I'm going to share it here today. If you're consistent with your work ethic, a system will eventually fall into place for you, but I've compiled my best advice to get you started.


Get organised

Written the essay? Great! Honestly, getting the first draft done can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. Now it's time to organise yourself for the next steps. I write my notes digitally, but I always recommend printing off your first draft to edit on paper. It gives your eyes a break from the screen, and I'd recommend taking your draft to a quiet area away from your typical workspace, as a change of scenery never does any harm. Along with your draft, get hold of your original plan, some stationary and some headphones.


The first glance

Read through your essay from start to finish. If editing a dissertation, break this down by chapter or into chunks of 1000 words instead. In your first glance, highlight or underline anything that doesn't make sense, or that interrupts the flow of your work, such as:

  • Repetition - sentence-starters, phrases and conjunctions, as well as your content, such as making the same point twice within a paragraph.

  • Clunky language - if a phrase feels awkward to read, try saying it quietly out loud to see if it sounds odd.

  • Overlong sentences - these make your work seem descriptive.

  • Misspelling

  • Overlong paragraphs - try splitting these up.

  • Unusually short sections - these paragraphs are either underdeveloped, and need work, or can be deleted as they're irrelevant tangents.

After your first look, check your plan to see if you have missed out any important points that you need to cover. After this step, you should have a good enough idea of the state your essay is in, and be able to plan out your deadlines.


The content work

Still on paper, go back to everything that you've highlighted so far, and find replacements. Use an online thesaurus to change repetitive wording, shorten your sentences and fix any mistakes. Writing in everything you need to do will transform your edit on paper into your new plan.

Working on your content is very important, so if you have identified missing footnotes or gaps in knowledge, now is the perfect time to wrap up those pieces of research before you edit on your PC. I'd also advise checking the beginning and end of every paragraph, primarily to make sure that you have clearly signposted your arguments, and summarised your findings. Making sure that your essay links together between paragraphs will prevent your coursework from feeling disjointed. I received feedback on some of my first submissions that they read like a first draft, mainly because my sections didn't link together. Don't make the mistake I did!


PC editing

With your edit on paper finished, now is the time to transfer everything onto your electronic copy. You may find that during this stage, you are able to condense phrasing and sections even more than on paper, which is a useful way to save some words along the way. Fill in the gaps in your knowledge, and transform your essay into its second draft stage. By the end of this step, your essay should be grammatically correct, easy to read and accurate.

Any missing footnotes should be added in here, to save confusion when you refine your arguments in the next step. Please don't leave this until last! I have a blog on referencing and citations, so check that out if you need any tips. I generally format my footnotes at this stage, complete with shortening.


The second draft

Congratulations, the dullest part of the process is behind you! Now you have your edit on your PC, it's your choice whether you want to print your essay for this step, or continue editing on your computer. I generally tend to do it digitally as it helps with the formatting in the final stage.

By now, your essay should read as a cohesive piece, so how much time you can dedicate to this step depends on your planning. Go through each paragraph, evaluating it for a few key elements:

  • Signposting - the first sentence should clarify the argument you are about to make.

  • The argument - evidence is key here, so check that you have used a range of sources, and that they are cited correctly.

  • Evaluation - have you determined how much your argument contributes to the answering of the question? Do this near the end of your section, and don't be afraid to trash a view that you don't agree with. It will show your marker that you've considered other opinions and why, based on your evidence, that they aren't valid.

  • Clarity - make your arguments easy to understand, by using clear, formal language that is easy to understand. Complex language will confuse your work, so keep it nice and clear.

  • Strength - your introduction should outline your point of view from the offset, and this view should be carried through your entire essay, even if alternative arguments are discussed. The conclusion should not introduce any new arguments, and should instead serve as space to evaluate your most significant evidence, and how it proves your argument.

This element of the process may seem daunting, but considering and implementing the above points will significantly improve the clarity and cohesiveness of your work, therefore improving your marks. Lecturers like to see that you have taken the time to refine your work, and it is obvious when a student has submitted work that hasn't included this step. Descriptive writing will lack the analytical reasoning that makes a good history essay, so spend some time identifying your most important points, and making sure that they are clearly identified and discussed. If you find that you are lacking evidence needed to make these points impressive, please don't worry! This is all a learning process, and if you need to go back and bulk up your evidence, you still have time.



Having a piece that you're happy with is a great feeling, so this step shouldn't cause much stress. Here is a checklist of things to consider when formatting your essay:

  • Personal details - student number, name, module code and date.

  • Line spacing.

  • Margins.

  • Compressing images.

  • Font.

  • Text size.

  • Appendix.

  • Bibliography.

These should all be outlined in a formatting guide, or within a handbook issued by your department. If you're unsure, please ask your lecturer for more details, the same applies to referencing too. You will lose marks if things aren't formatted correctly, as the system is designed that way to make everyone's work look the same. Your appendix and bibliography should be done by this point, and added to the end of your essay with the correct structure. I know that some people choose to format as they go along, but make sure that everything's correct before the final step.


Final draft

You're so close, I promise! By now, your essay should be submission-worthy, but there's still the opportunity to make it that little bit better. For this step, you can either copy-and-paste your essay into Google Translate, or use the 'read aloud' feature within Microsoft Word. Having an essay read aloud to you will give you a fantastic insight into how it flows, so follow along as you listen, and change anything you're not happy with. Usually it's just little things, such as noticing a bit of repetition or some odd phrasing, but it's a quick way to help with the structure. Reading aloud works well too, or give your essay to a friend to see whether they can identify any problems. Reading your work again and again means that sometimes you will miss things, so this is a great way to catch any issues.

I'd also recommend going through your references again, making sure there are no formatting errors or missing citations. Plagiarism at university is a big deal, and departments take it very seriously, so academic misconduct could land you in trouble. If it's unintentional, you'll probably just have a meeting where they warn you about future consequences, but it's honestly easily avoided by just checking through before submission. Also, the bibliography might be pretty easy to put together, but make sure the referencing is actually correct, as it's an easy way to get downgraded.


Over the finish line

Get it submitted! You're done, so when you're happy, hit submit. Make sure to follow the instructions on the submission software and keep hold of your email receipt, as this is the way you can prove your submission time. Submitting late will usually incur a penalty, so give yourself plenty of room to navigate any issues.

If your university uses Turnitin, you may be allowed to run your essay through a draft submission box to check for plagiarism, so make sure you have actually submitted your final copy! I wouldn't worry about your Turnitin score, as it seems to be irrelevant as long as everything is cited correctly. The lower the score doesn't equate to higher marks, so I generally ignore it.

This was a long one, so thank you for making it to the end! Editing is definitely where the magic happens, so leave yourself a bit of time to follow these steps and procure a polished piece of work.

Happy studying!