Options For Editing

How do you know when your writing is done? Me, I'm never sure when it's done, when it's good enough. I mean, if it says basically what I want it to say, who cares how pretty it is?

I agree with Tom that writing need not be "pretty," but I wouldn't be satisfied with writing that "says basically what I want it to say." I want my writing to say exactly what I want it to say—which is where editing comes in.

Editing is finishing. Editing is making a text convey precisely what you intend in the clearest way possible. Editing is sentence-level work, attended to after a text's ideas are in order. Editing is polishing to make the paragraphs, the sentences, and the individual words communicate carefully, accurately, and correctly with clarity, style, and grace. Edit first for clarity, to make sure your purpose is clear to your audience. Edit also for a style appropriate for the occasion. Finally, edit for grace—some sense that this text is not only clearly and appropriately written, but that it is enjoyable, moving, and even memorable. At the same time, remember that editing is more a matter of making choices than following rules.


Sentences are written in relation to other sentences, seldom by themselves. Attention so far has been with the larger, more conceptual concerns in composing. This chapter focuses on the elements that make sentences strong. First, look at particular words within sentences, especially nouns, verbs, and modifiers. Second, consider the importance of rhythm and emphasis in whole sentences. And finally, identify and avoid the common problems of wordiness, clichés, jargon, passive constructions, and biased language. The following suggestions will help.

• Edit for concrete nouns. Nouns label or identify persons (man, Gregory), animals (dog, retriever), places (city, Boston), things (book, Ulysses), or ideas (conservation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition). Abstract nouns stand for general classes or categories of things (man, dog, city), while concrete nouns refer to specific particular things (Gregory, retriever, Boston). Notice that concrete nouns let you see specific images (not just any dog, but a retriever), which in turn appeal more strongly to a reader's senses (I can see the dog!) than abstract nouns, and create a more vivid and lively reading experience.

• Edit for action verbs. Action verbs do something in your sentences; they make something happen. Action verbs walk, stride, run, jump, fly, hum, sing, sail, swim, lean, fall, stop, look, listen, sit, state, decide, choose, and conclude—all these words and hundreds more are action verbs. But static verbs are words that simply appear to describe how something is, like the verbs are, appear, and is in this sentence. Action verbs, like concrete nouns, appeal to the senses, letting us see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something. Thus they too create more vivid images for readers, drawing them more deeply into our story.

Sometimes we write noun phrases as substitutes for action. In the sentence, We need to reach a decision, the phrase reach a decision substitutes for the simpler, stronger verb decide. Whenever you find yourself writing with noun phrases, consider how to transpose them into action verbs:

reach a decision decide make a choice choose hold a meeting meet formulate a plan plan arrive at a conclusion conclude have a discussion discuss

• Edit to modify carefully and selectively. Well-chosen modifiers can individualize both nouns and verbs, making them more detailed, concrete, and more appealing to the senses. Modifiers which amplify nouns are called adjectives (yellow car); those that amplify verbs are called adverbs (listen closely). Modifiers convey useful clarifying information and help us see situations more vividly and realistically.

It is possible, however, to add so many modifiers that they distract from, rather than enhance, the paragraph's central purpose. To describe a car as really ugly, dull, rusted, chipped, and pale yellow calls extra attention to the car; you'll need to decide whether that suits your purpose or creates a distraction. In other words, you can edit out modifiers as well as edit them in. But that's what editing is all about: looking carefully, trying out new things, settling for the effect that pleases you the most.

Finally, not all modifiers are created equal: Specific modifiers which add descriptive information about size, shape, color, texture, speed, and so on, appeal to your senses and usually make your writing more realistic and vivid. But more general modifiers such as the adjectives pretty, beautiful, good, bad, ugly, young, or old can actually weaken sentences by adding extra words that do not convey specific or vital information. And the adverbs very, really, and truly can have the same weakening effect because these words are so commonly overused that they provide no additional clarifying information.

• Edit for pleasing rhythms. Rhythm is the sound sentences make when you hear them out loud. Some rhythms sound natural, like a real person in a conversation. Such sentences are easy to follow and understand, and are usually pleasing to the ear. Others sound awkward and forced; they make comprehension difficult and offend the ear. In most cases of college writing, it pays to read your sentences out loud and see if they sound like a real human being talking. To make sentence clusters sound better, try increasing sentence variety and making parallel constructions.

Varied sentence patterns make sentence clusters more clear and enjoyable for readers. In the following example, the first long sentence is followed by a short one, creating an easily understood and pleasing rhythm:

We looked at the old yellow Pontiac, noticing its dented doors, rusty bumpers, and oil leak, and realized we could afford to fix them all. We bought it on the spot.

Parallel constructions repeat an identical grammatical pattern within the same sentence, which has the effect of reinforcing a comparison or contrast. Parallelism creates symmetry and balance, makes an idea easier to remember, and more pleasing to the ear.

A battle is being waged between environmental conservationists who support the reintroduction of wolves, and sheep and cattle farmers and western hunters who oppose it.

The parallelism is established by the repetition of the word who. The effect is to clearly separate these opposing forces into two distinct opponents, those who are for it and those who are against it.

• Edit for emphasis. As with paragraphs, so with sentences, the most emphatic place is last. When you end-weight a sentence, you place the information that is older, less essential, contextual, or introductory earlier in the sentence, so that the sentence ends with the idea you most want your reader to remember. Notice the difference in emphasis in the following version of the same idea:

1. If you want to buy the yellow car, act now.

2. Act now if you want to buy the yellow car.

Either is correct, but you would choose the first to emphasize the need to act, the second to emphasize the car itself. Which one you choose will depend upon the effect you want to convey.

• Edit wordy sentences. Cut out words that do not pull their weight or add meaning, rhythm, or emphasis. Look,for example, at this set of sentences, each of which says essentially the same thing:

1. In almost every situation that I can think of, with few exceptions, it will make good sense for you to look for as many places as possible to cut out needless, redundant, and repetitive words from the papers and reports, paragraphs, and sentences you write for college assignments. [forty-eight words]

2. In most situations it makes good sense to cut out needless words from your college papers. [sixteen words]

3. Whenever possible, omit needless words from your writing. [eight words]

4. Omit needless words. [three words]

In the forty-eight-word sentence you can almost watch the writer finding his or her way while writing. By simply eliminating repetitious or awkward words, the same idea condenses to the sixteen-word sentence, saying much the same thing with one-third the number of words. Only the end is recast: "from the papers and reports, paragraphs, and sentences you write for college assignments" to "from your college papers."

Careful rephrasing reduces the sixteen-word sentence by half, resulting in a good strong eight-word sentence. If an even briefer imperative is called for, you write this three-word sentence, "Omit needless words." While the first sentence is wordy by any standard, each of the next three might serve well in different situations. When you edit to make language more concise, you need to think about the overall effect you intend to create. Sometimes the briefest construction is not the best construction for all purposes.

The best test of whether words are pulling their own weight, as well as whether they are rhythmic, balanced, and emphatic, is to read the passage out loud and let your ear tell you what's sharp and clear and what could be sharper and clearer.

• Edit out clichés. Clichés have been heard so often that they lose their power to convey an original thought. The test to apply is whether you write the phrase you remember hearing in the same exact words as before, especially more than once. If so, look for a fresher construction that is your own. Common clichés to avoid would include the following:

the last straw better late than never without further ado the handwriting on the wall tried and true last but not least lay the cards on the table jump starting the economy Each of these phrases once captured attention because it was new and fresh (usually a new metaphor or a pleasant alliteration); however, each has since been overused so that now we listen right through it, perhaps even noting that the writer is not very thoughtful or original.

• Edit passive constructions. A construction is passive when something is done to the subject of the sentence rather than the subject doing something: John wrote the letter is an active sentence, with the subject John doing the action in the sentence; however, The letter was written by John is passive.Not only is the second sentence needlessly longer by two words, it takes a second or two longer to understand since it seems an unnatural way to make that assertion. Passive constructions are indirect, tiresome, and risk putting readers to sleep.

• Edit biased language. Writing should not hurt people. Review your drafts to make sure your language doesn't discriminate against categories of people based on gender, race, ethnicity, or social class—issues about which most of your college instructors will be sensitive.

• Eliminate sexism. Sexist language is biased for or against one gender. The most common occurrence of sexist language is the use of the words man or men to stand for human beings or people, which seems to omit women from participation in the species. Since the 1970s, Americans have been sensitized to the not-so-subtle bias against women embedded in our historical use of the English language. Texts written in earlier decades took masculine sexist pronouns for granted, using the words man, men, he, him, and his to stand for all members of the human race. Consider Thomas Jefferson: "All men are created equal," or Tom Paine: "These are the times that try men's souls."

Texts written from the 1980s on usually try to avoid this gender bias, so that today we would prefer "All people are created equal" or "These are the times that try our souls," two of several possible fixes for this form of gender nearsightedness.

Eliminating sexism in current English is made more difficult because the language does not have a gender-neutral singular pronoun (he/she, him/her, his/hers) to match the gender-neutral plural pronouns (they, their, them). For example in the sentence "Everybody has his own opinion," the collective singular noun "everybody" needs a singular pronoun to match. So while it is grammatically correct to say "Everybody has his own opinion," the sentence is biased. It is grammatically incorrect to write: "Everybody has their own opinion," but it is gender neutral. To fix these problems, consider the following:

• Make the subject plural: People have their own opinions.

• Include both pronouns:Everybody has his or her own opinion.

• Eliminate the pronoun: Everybody has an opinion.

• Alternate masculine/feminine pronouns throughout your sentences or paragraphs.

• Avoid stereotypes. Don't prejudge individuals by lumping them into overly simplified categories based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual preference, religion, or age: "Get out of the way, old man" or "Don't behave like a baby." I am willing to repeat these examples here since we've all been babies and we're all growing older. But most other examples are too offensive to reproduce.

• Proofread. The last editing act is proofreading to make sure your manuscript is correct. Proofread for typing and spelling errors by using the spell check feature on your computer. Be aware that computers will not catch all errors, so proofread the old-fashioned way by reading slowly, line-by-line with a ruler.

Proofread for punctuation and paragraphing by reading your text out loud and looking for pauses, full stops, questions, and exclamations.

Proofread for each other. We all see mistakes in others' writing more easily than we do in our own. Proofread as a whole class by taping final drafts on the wall and roaming the class with pencils, reading each other's final drafts for both pleasure and correctness.


1. Replace vague abstract nouns with specific concrete nouns.

2. Replace static verbs with action verbs.

3. Add modifiers for detail, but delete them if they distract from your main point.

4. Write in the rhythm of natural speech unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise. (To check, read aloud.)

5. Begin sentences with old information, end with new. This strategy makes the end of your sentences stronger.

6. Make sure all words in your sentences contribute to the meaning you intend; if not, delete them.

7. Eliminate all clichés.

8. Make passive constructions active.

9. Delete or rephrase all stereotypes.

10. Proofread by computer spell check and also line-by-line with your intelligent eye.

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