Writing Commons: "Edit"

Edit

 Make your prose more precise, economical, and jargon-free by knowing how and when to edit.

Editing is an important part of the writing process. Once your document is fairly well-developed, you need to edit. While your instructors may prize thoughtful argument, rich description, and thorough research, they are also likely to value careful editing.

Editing involves making "local" changes--that is, changes at the sentence and word level as opposed to "global" or large-scale changes, such as deleting the first three pages of a four-page document. Editors typically reread their texts word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence, while considering stylistic principles as well as grammatical, punctuation, and mechanical errors. When editing, writers trim down overblown phrases and replace inexact words, among other things.

Proofreading

When we proofread a document, we are looking for small errors such as misspellings or accidental omissions.

Have you ever sent off an email message or submitted a school paper only to later discover that it was full of typographical errors? How could you have missed all of these errors?

The answer seems to have something to do with how our brains work. Our brains recognize patterns. This is part of the reason why people who read frequently tend to read faster than infrequent readers: their brains more speedily recognize and process patterns of words on the page.

Texts that we write ourselves are the texts that we can read fastest of all, because our brains are already deeply familiar with the patterns of our words.

But what helps us as readers can hurt us as writers. When we read our own work, our brains tend to quickly see the patterns that we put on the page rather than the individual words. We see what we meant to write, and not necessarily what we actually wrote. 

To our readers, however, who are not as familiar with our words, the errors are more apparent—and they detract from our credibility as authors.

To proofread effectively, we need to distance ourselves from the text and see it as our readers will see it.

Towards this end, consider the following proofreading strategies:

  • Allow as much time as possible between when you complete a document and when you proofread it. For example, if you finish writing in the evening, wait until morning to proofread.
  • Print out the document before attempting to proofread it. If this isn’t an option, try enlarging the text size on your screen. This larger view will make errors somewhat easier to see.
  • Read the document aloud. Read slowly. Make sure you are reading the text itself rather than reading from memory.
  • Read the document backwards—not word-by-word, but sentence-by-sentence. Again, read slowly.
  • Ask a friend or family member to read your paper out loud to you while you silently read along on a second copy of the paper. (This two-reader method is used by many professional proofreaders.)
  • Run your paper through a text-to-speech converter, and have a computer read it to you. The computer voice defamiliarizes your words and sets a steady pace that prevents you from skimming over sections of text that you know well. Free web-based online text-to-speech converters can be found at http://www.text2speech.org/ andhttp://www.yakitome.com. Two text-to-speech mobile apps are iSpeech (iOS) and Classic Text to Speech(Android).

Make your sentences pack a punch. Eliminate unnecessary "to be" verbs.

In our daily speech and in rough drafts, we tend to rely heavily on the various forms of the verb to be.

The verb to be is unlike any other verb because it is inert--that is, it doesn't show any action. For example, in the sentence "The researcher is a professor at Duke" the verb is merely connects the subject with what grammarians call the subject complement. We could just as easily say "The professor at Duke is a researcher" without changing the meaning of the sentence.

It would be nearly impossible to draft documents without some linking verbs. Because you diminish the vigor of a document by using an excessive number of is and are constructions, you should try to limit their frequency. Finally, note that the progressive form of a linking verb—which involves using to be as an auxiliary verb with a participle--is much more acceptable. The advantage of the progressive form is that it illustrates action progressing over time, enabling us to shape concise sentences that indicate something is currently happening: "The coauthors are disagreeing about the order in which their names should be listed when the book is published."

It is and there are constructions often lead to sluggish, passive sentences, so you should limit their frequency, as illustrated below.

Sample: While it is crucial for us to speak out on behalf of education, it is important that we do so in a manner consistent withstatute and administrative rules.

Revision: We need to speak out on behalf of education while observing statute and administrative rules.

Sample: According to the certification theory, there is no intrinsic relation between creativity and IQ.

Revision: Certification theory posits no intrinsic relation between creativity and IQ.

However, some it is and there are constructions allow you to be more succinct and avoid repetition of a subject rather than placing the true subject at the beginning of the sentence, so you should not attempt to eliminate all such constructions.

Eliminate choppy writing by avoiding unnecessary prepositions.

When used in moderation, prepositions are invaluable: they work as connecting words, linking the object of the preposition to a word that appears earlier in the sentence. Like linking verbs, however, prepositions do not convey action, nor do they subordinate one thought to another. Instead, they merely link chunks of meaning that readers must gather together in order to understand the sentence.

Prepositional Phrases Create a Choppy Style

When used excessively, as demonstrated by the following example, prepositional phrases create a choppy, list-like style:

Sample: The major objective of this study was to determine the perceived effects of the union on monetary and on non-monetary aspects of compensation over the period in which respondents to the survey had been union members.

Because this sentence occurs in the conclusion of a five-page published essay, a careful editor should probably have eliminated this sentence altogether. Let's face it: If the readers still don't have the point after five pages, there is little hope for them. Nevertheless, the editor and author could have improved the sentence by reducing the number of prepositions:

Sample: This study examines how the union affects monetary and non-monetary aspects of compensation.

To help identify and eliminate prepositions, isolate them by putting slashes between prepositional phrases and other basic sentence parts as illustrated here:

/Furthermore,/ /in response/ /to the increased pressure/ /to publish/ /in academia/ /the past decade/ /and the growing complexity/ /of the academic areas and research tools/, /one should expect/ /to find/ /increased emphasis/ /on cost-cutting techniques/ //by academic writers/. /An increase/ /in cost/ /can probably be observed/ /by investigating/ /the changing trends/ /in the multiple authorship/ /of articles/ /over time./

Edit for Economy

Be concise. Once you have written a solid draft, a document that has been well researched, take a step back and question whether or not you can delete half of the words. In a world where billions of instant messages and emails are sent daily, brevity is a virtue. People love conciseness. They respect writers and leaders who can explain difficult matters simply.

Tips for Pruning Your Sentences

The following paragraph hurts the eyes and ears of a successful writer:

"Writing that is redundant and states the obvious and says the same thing over and over again is irritating for readers who want writers to get to the point right away. On the other hand, as I am sure you can understand, it is equally important for writers to avoid confusion when they write and to put down as much information--that is, as many words--as the reader needs in order to understand what the writer means when he or she says what he or she says. Also, of course, when you are writing, it is important for you to remember that readers are reading your words and that you need to be somewhat entertaining--even when the subject is technical when conveying information, so that your readers will keep reading and not go off and do something else like play ice hockey."

 Writers abhor wordiness. All of the empty phrases in the above can be translated into one sentence:

"Balance conciseness with the reader's need for information and voice" 

No matter how much you appreciate the sounds of the words you have used, editing for economy may mean cutting the length of your document in half! By using the editing strategies already discussed, you have begun to chip away needless abstractions, unnecessary jargon, awkward passive constructions, weak verbs, tangled sentence patterns, unnecessary nouns, and strings of prepositional phrases. Yet by evaluating the content in light of your audience and the tone that you hope to establish, you can still find ways to eliminate unnecessary transitions, definitions, references, and examples. In your search for precision and persuasive appeal, you should also delete unnecessary repetitions--redundant adjectives, repeated phrases, and synonyms. Remember, you add clarity and grace by presenting an idea simply. Cutting away unnecessary "deadwood" can eliminate much that interferes with communication.

Semicolons

Use a semicolon to join two sentences or to punctuate a series or list of appositives that already includes commas.

The semicolon offers a "higher" form of punctuation than the comma or dash. Unlike commas or dashes, the semicolon can correctly be used to separate sentences. If readers tend to pause for a half-second when they come to a comma, they pause for three-quarters of a second when they reach a semicolon. Writers use semicolons two major ways.

Use a Semicolon to Join Two Sentences

You can show that ideas are closely related by using a semicolon rather than a period between them.

  • The secretary's fingers burned across the typewriter; the financial statements would be picked up by the client in one hour.
  • The question, though, is not economics; it is professional objectivity.
  • Breast cancer used to be the biggest killer for women; now it's lung cancer.

Use a Semicolon to Punctuate a Series or List of Appositives That Already Includes Commas

When elements in a series require internal commas to ensure clarity, then semicolons must be used to separate those elements:

  • A perfect vacation would be long, relaxing, and cheap; include personable, sweet, flexible people; and make everything else seem trivial.
  • The delegates were from Sacramento, California; Jacksonville, Florida; Providence, Rhode Island; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • A good proofreader must have good grammar, punctuation, and spelling skills; must like to read; and must have patience.

Note, however, that you are wise to avoid using unnecessary semicolons. Experienced writers and readers would prefer the second sentence because it avoids self-conscious punctuation.

  • He was dressed in white pants; a white, Mexican wedding shirt; and sandals.
  • He was dressed in a white, Mexican wedding shirt, white pants, and sandals.

Dashes and Parentheses

Create emphasis and define terms by interrupting the flow of a sentence by using a dash; know when the dash must be used as opposed to the comma.

Some stylists view the dash with great suspicion--the sort of suspicion that a man in the 1990s who wears a plaid leisure suit to work would arouse. Some people erroneously believe that the dash is acceptable only in informal discourse. However, the dash can provide you with subtle ways to repeat modifiers and dramatic ways to emphasize your point.

Use a Dash after a Series or List of Appositives

When you introduce a long series or list of appositives before the subject and verb, you are placing high demands on the reader's short-term memory. Therefore, use this pattern rarely and only for emphasis. This pattern is particularly appropriate in conclusions, when you are bringing together the major threads of your discussion or argument. Finally, you should place a summary word after the dash and preferably before the subject of the sentence, as indicated by the following examples. The most common summary words that writers use are all, those, this, each, what, none, such, these.

  • Jealousy, lust, hate, greed--these are the raw emotions we will explore.
  • Lying, stealing, cheating, committing adultery--which is the greatest sin?
  • To struggle with meaning, to edit, to combine sentences--these activities are well known to the struggling writer.
  • Wining and dining his friends, stroking people's egos, maintaining a good appearance, and spending money--all were part of his scheme to gain influence.

Use Dashes When You Wish to Emphasize a Parenthetical Element

Commas are usually sufficient punctuation to set off parenthetical elements. In some instances, however, you can use a dash instead, especially if you want to make the insertion more noticeable:

  • The building next to ours--the one with the all-cedar exterior--was engulfed in flames.

When you want to whisper rather than shout, you can place the modifiers inside parentheses:

  • The secret I have to tell you (the one I've been hinting about) will surprise you.

Use Dashes to Embed a Series or List of Appositives

A single appositive or modifier can easily be set off from the rest of the sentence in commas, but you must use dashes when you insert a series of appositives or modifiers. After all, how else will the reader know when the series is over?

  • The essential qualities of an effective writer--discipline, effort, inspiration--can be learned by regular writing.
  • With the help of her assistant--a high-speed personal computer--she produced a delightful letter.

Use Dashes to Set off an Emphatic Repetition

You can emphasize an important point by placing a dash or comma at the end of the sentence and then repeating a key word or phrase:

  • Hal is a computer, the ultimate computer.
  • Mrs. Leavitt is a gambler, a compulsive gambler.
  • He was disturbed by the warning--the warning that everyone else ignored.
  • All rapists should be severely punished--punished in a way they will never forget.

Colons

Use the colon when the first sentence anticipates the second sentence or phrase, thereby creating an emphatic tone.

The colon provides a dramatic and somewhat underutilized way to bring a little spark to your writing. Beyond normal business correspondence (Dear Sir or Madam:), you can use the colon before quotations, formal statements and explanations. The colon enables you to highlight a semantic relationship--that is, a movement from a general statement to a specific clarification. The colon also provides a dramatic way to tease the reader's curiosity:

  • As a modern ordeal by torture, litigation excels: It is exorbitantly expensive, agonizingly slow, and exquisitely designed to avoid any resemblance to fairness or justice.

You can also use the colon before an instruction or example:

  • An intelligent writer knows how to polish documents: revise the document countless times.

Although usage does differ, most stylists agree that you should not capitalize the first letter after the colon unless the colon is introducing a quotation or formal statement:

  • You'll be surprised by what his former employees wrote in the character report: "His attitude toward his new associates was rude and pretentious." This sentence can easily be revised:

Note that a colon must always follow an independent clause. You should never place a colon between a verb and its direct object. Incorrect: Our choices are: rescind our offer, go ahead with our plans, try to renegotiate the deal.

  • We have three choices: a, b, c.
  • Our choices are the following: a, b, c.

Because the colon works as the equivalent to for example or such as, it would be redundant and incorrect to write

  • We have a number of options, such as: a, b, c.

Apostrophes

Use an apostrophe to denote ownership to a singular or plural noun and indefinite pronoun by adding an -'s if the word doesn't end in -s.

Of all forms of punctuation, the apostrophe appears to be in greatest peril of extinction. For proof that the apostrophe should be placed on an endangered species list in some grammarian's office, one needs only to consult the popular press or a sample of student themes. However, because of its ability to denote ownership in a concise way (by avoiding the use of a preposition), the apostrophe plays an important role in the English language. Despite the frequency of its misuse, the apostrophe is a fairly simple form of punctuation to master. You can denote ownership to a singular or plural noun and indefinite pronoun by adding an -'s if the word doesn't end in -s:

  • They worked on Susan's computer.
  • The children's toys are clustering the house again.
  • You expect me to do a week's worth of typing in two days.
  • The people's choice was Bill Clinton.
  • When it is someone else's turn to have his or her writing critiqued by the group, remember to be conscientious.

When a singular noun ends in -s, traditional grammarians recommend adding an -'s:

  • She loves Keats's poems.
  • The business's direct-mailing campaign worked wonders.
  • John Adams's letters illustrate his reflective spirit.

However, this usage can be cumbersome. Consequently, the following usage is also correct:

  • John Keats' conscience and life spirit energize his poems.
  • John Adams' ideas are worth examination.

When a plural noun ends in -s, you only need to add an apostrophe:

  • The judge confiscated the drivers' licenses.
  • She won two months' free groceries.
  • The writers' guild meets Monday.

With compound subjects, when you wish to denote individual ownership, you should add an -'s to each noun:

  • Dr. Wilson's and Mr. Speinberg's lawsuits were caused by poor communication.

Or, you can demonstrate joint ownership by placing the -'s after the second subject:

  • Pat and Joe's new car is hot!
  • This is my father-in-law and mother-in-law's office.

Finally, always use an apostrophe when you form a contraction. The apostrophe is positioned where letters are dropped:

it is it's
they are they're
you are you're

who is

who's

can not

can't

she will

she'll

were not

weren't
Last modified: Tuesday, October 6, 2015, 2:43 PM