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Writing Layers: Writing

What are writing layers?

Writing layers are a way of helping us to see a text in different ways in order to improve it. Every piece of writing consists of layers. Unpicking these different writing layers enables us to review the way we construct our writing. In doing so, we can improve various aspects of our writing, from our use of punctuation and choice of words, to the structure of our paragraphs and the broader focus of our writing.

There are a number of comparisons we can make to illustrate the layered nature of writing. For example, we can say that a text is composed like a symphony. The central idea or argument at the heart of our writing might be called the melody. The melody is delivered through a range of notes. In the context of writing, the central idea or argument (the melody), is delivered through the use of words and punctuation. We structure our movements in paragraphs. We return to the thesis like a chorus. Songs have tempo and tuning, but texts have grammar.

In order to orchestrate the piece, we need to understand all the parts. We organise the parts into writing layers. We’re going to use four layers: essay (or central argument), paragraph, sentence, and word. You can use this structure as a system for revising your texts. In the next sections, we will explore what to look out for in each layer.

Essay layer

  • Does the text respond to the task assigned?
  • Is the focus of the paper specific enough?
  • Are claims made throughout the essay supported with relevant, reliable evidence?
  • Is the bibliography or references page formatted according to the correct style guide?
  • Are margins and headings all formatted correctly?
  • Does the word count adhere to the guidelines set?
Tip: See the 'Delegate to Future You' tab of our rough drafting guide to learn how placeholders can streamline this part of the editing process.

Paragraph layer

  • Does the introduction clarify the argument and map out the text’s main points?
  • Does each paragraph have a structure? The most common paragraph structure is as follows:
    • Topic sentence: introduce the main point of the paragraph.
    • Introduce the evidence: quotes, statistics, data, concept.
    • Discuss the evidence: evaluate the information presented and analyse it in relation to your focus.
    • Takeaway or transition: either conclude your paragraph with a sentence or two that reinforces the purpose of the paragraph in relation to the topic sentence and your broader argument, or provide a transitionary statement that guides the reader to the next paragraph.
  • Does each paragraph have a single focus? If not, consider refining your focus or separating ideas into different paragraphs.
  • Do your paragraph topics flow in a logical and coherent order?
Tip: See our Crafting the Introduction guide and Introduction to Academic Writing guide for support with intro and body paragraph structure.

Sentence layer

  • Are there any long and convoluted sentences that could be broken down into two separate sentences?
  • Is there variation in the length and structure of your sentences?
  • Do too many sentences begin with the same word?
  • Is the correct punctuation used? (As a rule, commas are safest. Dashes, colons, and semi-colons are trickier.)
  • Are your parenthetical references (or footnotes, depending on your subject) correctly formatted? See our citing and referencing guide for support.
Tip: Try reading your work aloud to catch sentence-level issues like clunky phrasing or repetition.

Word layer

  • Are there any unnecessarily large words that impede the flow and clarity of your writing?
  • Are the meanings of any acronyms established clearly upon using them the first time?
  • Is specialist vocabulary used accurately and defined within reason?
  • Is the spelling accurate? Use your word processor's spellcheck feature: it isn't infallible, but it's usually correct.
  • Are the verbs varied but accessible?
Tip: Use thesaurus websites or tools, but don't abuse them. 'He strongly objects' is better academic writing than 'He maintains a pertinacious protestation' – aim for clear, accurate language.

Okay, so how do I actually do this?

As you are reading through your work, pay particular attention to one writing layer at a time. You may wish to focus on one particular area at a time, such as your use of punctuation within the word layer. It's generally best to begin with the biggest layers (essay and paragraph) and then work to the smaller layers (sentence and word).

Whichever way you choose to approach the revision and proofreading processes, ensure that you only ever work on a single layer at a time to help refine your focus. The bullet points above will help you to target particular areas of revision, but give some serious thought across all layers to style, structure, audience and the purpose of your text.