The process of editing is an ongoing activity for all writers. From the time they come up with a possible topic, they begin editing their ideas and directions in which to go. Once they begin to write, however, the editing takes a new path. Writers edit their own work by reading with fresh eyes and deciding if words need to be moved around or changed. They look for misspellings and awkward wording, and they rework for the sake of clarity. They ask themselves, “Is this saying what I think it does? Am I being as clear as possible? Is there a more concise or artful way that I can express this important idea?” They check their work for typos and unintentional repetition of words and phrases, and they check all the grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.
However, it is extremely important not to focus on editing too early in the writing process. If a student writes one sentence or paragraph and immediately begins to edit it, they may find that they lose the flow of their ideas. Suddenly, while focusing on how to spell a word, the whole rest of the essay gets put on hold. The inner editor or critic can inhibit writers, causing them to lose flow and to experience perfectionism and writer’s block. Most instructors recommend that writers ban their critics until they have completed their first drafts and revision has taken place. This saves writers the wasted effort that comes with closely editing material that doesn’t make the final cut anyway.
At later points during the document’s creation, an outside set of editorial eyes may be needed—those of a peer, instructor, colleague, or formal editor—to help move that piece of text toward excellence. In addition to the big-picture structural or information-based considerations, the need for a comma or better word may be the focus of editing efforts. Good editing allows the writer to submit the written creation with the confidence that it is the best it can be and stands as something to truly be proud of.
Grammar: The Grand Dame
According to Merriam-Webster, grammar is a system of rules that defines the structure of a language. For most of the USA, that system is Standard American English (SAE). Grammar is the way people use language rules and how words are used in a certain order to form phrases and clauses that relay a meaning for readers. The term “syntax” (the art of sentence structure) goes hand-in-hand with this.
Writers and speakers of any given language are aware that the rules related to grammar and usage of that language are largely appropriated not by formal instruction and memorization but informally and even subconsciously as one grows up listening, speaking and reading. So it’s important to note that, as those who use language every day, students already have internalized essential grammar rules. Most college writers struggle with only one or two main grammar blind-spots, like how to correctly use a comma or semicolon. Once they master these, they can confidently edit their own work.
Writing is all about decision-making. Writers need to ask, “How should I craft this sentence, this paragraph? Given the effect of two possible punctuation marks, which one should I use? What is the effect of this word instead of that one, so similar in meaning but carrying a more negative connotation?” In this way, writing is about making endless choices.
Precision of Words
Sometimes, in early drafting, writers fall back on words that are vague or boring. For example, consider sentences starting with “This” or “It.” Unless the previous sentence made it totally clear what the “This” or the “It” is, the reader will be confused. For example,
Instead of the following: “This is an exciting point in the movie.”
How about this?
“The surprise ending of movie is exciting.”
The same thing goes for starting a sentence with the personal pronoun “It.” See the two sentences below.
Instead of this: “It caused the audience to break into applause.”
Define the “It” like this. “The final scene caused the audience to break into applause.”
To note, this kind of sentence structure is essentially using words as “filler” to take up space within a sentence and creates a sort of vagueness for the reader who will wonder what the subject of the sentence might be. Sometimes such sentence construction is fine, but writers use it too often.
In addition, many students believe that using one of the following words adds an element of description or accentuation to their phrases; however, these specific words are overused by writers and should be given special consideration:
Trick #1: If writers conduct a global search for each of the three words above, they can use them as “red flags” to alert themselves to the perfect place to try to find a better way of saying what they want to say. How does one improve vocabulary? Use a thesaurus and read more.
What’s a word for “very scary”? Frightening.
What’s another way of saying “really hungry”? Famished.
On another note: The phrase “a lot” has generally outrun it’s usage by the time one reaches college. Generalizations are better avoided, as they are vague and imprecise. Academics prefer statistics and specific, verifiable statements.
Repetition of Words and Phrases
The unintentional repetition of words and phrases is one of the most common oversights writers make. They all have their go-to words—ones that come naturally to them when they speak and write. The general advice is for writers to use a thesaurus to find a synonym for the overused word. However, what if there isn’t a synonym for the word? Look at the paragraph below:
This past summer, I had the opportunity to intern at Sea Life Park. Sea Life Park is known for being an exciting destination for locals and tourists to experience the wonders of sea life from throughout the Pacific. At the park, green sea turtles, or Honu, thrive and even continue to have babies. In addition, dolphins and the Hawaiian monk seals provide visitors with the ability to view these majestic creatures but also learn about their significance within the Pacific Ocean ecosystem and their importance within island culture.
This writer’s paragraph isn’t bad. However, “Sea Life Park” is repeated twice in the first two sentences. In addition, in sentence three, he begins with “At the park” followed by another “sea.” He defended his construction and word choice by stating, “But there isn’t another word for ‘Sea Life Park’.” Indeed, the “find a synonym” strategy would not work in this case just like there isn’t a synonym for “parking lot” or “ice cream sundae.” So another trick has to be used.
Trick #2: If a synonym doesn’t exist, remove the repetitive words and combine the sentences.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to intern at Sea Life Park, known for being an exciting destination for locals and tourists to experience the wonders of sea life from throughout the Pacific.
Replacing the repeated phrase with a comma before “known” does the trick. But wait. The phrase “sea life” appears again a little later in this same sentence. Now what?
Trick #3: Use your creativity to craft an original way of saying the same thing. Instead of “Sea Life Park,” call it “the world-renowned marine playground committed to protection, preservation, and education” and the writer has not only fixed the repetition issue but also introduced wonderfully original prose.
Trick #4: Writers should read everything out loud so the ear can catch what the eye might miss.
Voice, for writers, is something uniquely their own. It’s the way they put words together and involves their distinctive way of looking at the world. It makes one writer’s work stand out from that of others in its originality and authenticity. Key, though, is understanding that the development of one’s writing voice takes time and is ever changing. That’s what makes it so exciting.
Here are samples of sentences from two famous writers. Though both these writers lived in America at approximately the same time, their “voices” are very different. What are the elements that make these sentences so different?
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. (Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”)
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care, a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor—he who fathered the edict that no woman should appear on the streets without an apron—remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. (William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily.”)
Style: Style is much broader than voice. Some writers have a writing style that’s complex and packed with personification, metaphor, and imagery. Other writers have a more straightforward style with more simplicity or directness.
Engaging the Reader
When it comes down to it, writers within the academic setting do best when they acknowledge that what they are trying to produce is reader-based prose—written content that informs the reader of the essential message the writer is wanting to convey and also does so in a manner that is engaging and well-received.
On this note, it is important that the reader is able to follow the path of words, images, and meaning that the writer is wanting to create. Readers can become distracted and disinterested by awkward word choices, unintentional repetition, and incorrect spelling, grammar, word usage, and punctuation.
All writers have words that give them hassles, even if they have learned how to spell those words. Does the word “essence” end with a “ce” or “se”? Does the word “privilege” spend any time on the “ledge”?
By the time one reaches college, one knows if spelling words correctly comes easily or not. And everyone knows that spell-checkers won’t pick up every mistake. Writers need to make time for careful editing and proofreading throughout the writing process with an extra special proofreading session before turning in any assignment. In addition, though, here is a trick that can actually help one become a better speller, even into adulthood.
Trick #5: Create a running list of all the words that you tend to misspell. If you find another word, add it to the list. Every time you sit down to write, scroll through your list. You’ll find that the spelling will become less of an issue.
Punctuation and Mechanics
Punctuation refers to the “symbols” writers use to help readers understand and process the information they wish to convey through the sentences they write. Somewhat like the notes and rests within a piece of music help musicians move quickly or slowly through a composition, punctuation marks are used for effect.
Mechanics are established rules within a language system, and sometimes include the individual decisions writers make regarding the use of capitalization, underlining, italicizing, numbers versus numerals, the placement of specific punctuation marks, and how this differs throughout English-speaking countries (e.g., “towards” in the UK is often “toward” in the US, and periods and commas always go inside quotation marks in the U.S. but not in Canada).
For examples, see Table 1:
|All compound sentences need either a semicolon or a comma conjunction combination. Make sure that a comma is included if there are two independent clauses. Omit the comma if the second clause is subordinate.||Example: Unless the surf is bad, we are going to surf in the morning. Example: The surf is great; we’re going surfing.|
|Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. In the U.S., current style guides place commas and periods inside quotation marks.||Example: She said, “I’m not going with you.” Example: While she said, “I’m sick,” she still came with us.|
|Absolutes: Avoid them in most all cases.||Example: Like all other eighteen-year-old girls, I love drama.|
|Use the subjunctive form of the verb with the words “if” and “wish” (i.e., use “were” not “was”).||Example: I wish I were taller. If I were taller, I could play professional volleyball.|
|Using “so” and “that” right next to each other is often not needed unless you want to make your sentence sound more like an announcement of sorts.||Example: I took a culinary class so
|Using “so” to mean “really” or “very” without using “that” is an error.||Example: I am so grateful to have been a part of a family that has nurtured and emphasized the importance of our heritage. This sentence should read as: I am grateful to have been part of a family who has nurtured and emphasized the importance of our heritage.”|
|A person “who” versus a person “that.”||Example: I was furious when this happened because the person who was our advisor made the wrong decision.|
|Only use single quotes when within double quotes.
(In UK English, the two would be reversed.)
|Example: She declared, “At that moment, that ‘Ah-ha’ moment, I decided to completely move in.”|
|No “etc.” (which is the abbreviation for et cetera) in formal academic writing in most disciplines.||Example: I would lose the ball, fumble passes, and miss shots, etc. It’s enough to phrase this sentence as: I would falter in many ways including losing the ball, fumbling passes, and missing shots.|
|Avoid exclamation points in academic writing unless you want it to sound like you are yelling.||Example: I got ready and made it to the bus on time. The period works just fine here.|
|Be especially mindful of singular and plural subjects with subject-verb agreement.||Example: The source of the problems were my father’s lack of work.
This sentence should read as follows:
Example: The source [singular] of the problems was [singular] my father’s lack of work.
|Colons cannot directly follow verbs.||Example:Incorrect: They all harmoniously incorporate elements such as: romance, humor, and, of course, drama.
Better: They all harmoniously incorporate elements such as romance, humor, and, of course, drama.
(The “such as” does the trick.)
|Do not address the reader directly (i.e., no “you”) unless you mean to.||Example:
Incorrect: If you need to buy books, you should go to the college bookstore.
Better: Students who need to buy books can go to the college bookstore.
|Avoid italics for emphasis and keep them just for foreign words||Incorrect: And one should never follow my footsteps. (The word “never” does not need italicizing.)|
|The correlative conjunction “not only” needs both words “but” and “also.” But the “also” could be replaced by a comma at the end of the sentence and an “as well.”||Example: I saw how this was not only a significant aspect of my family but also of my culture. Note that no commas are needed within this sentence. Many times people like to add them with this “not only/but (also)” pair unnecessarily.|
|When explaining the “reason” for something happening, you almost always do not need the word “why.”||Example: It just so happens that teenagers and adults see the world differently, hence the reason [why] adults sometimes cannot comprehend teenage struggles the way teens do. Omit the “why” as it’s not needed.|
- Search your draft using the “find” tool for words like “it,” “this,” “really,” “very,” “just” or “you.” See if you can find ways to eliminate these words to make your language sharper, more precise.
- Read the sentences of your essay in backward order, starting with the last sentence in the essay, and then the one above it, all the way up to the first sentence in the essay. This is a great way to find fragments or to hear where the language is repetitive or unclear.
- Make an appointment with a tutor or your instructor. Ask for help doing a close editing of two paragraphs with an eye to learning how to identify typical errors in your work, and then apply your learning to the rest of your essay.
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) provides free writing resources and instructional material. Visit The Purdue OWL (Purdue U Writing Lab, 2019).