So now you’re a pro at revision (step 1 in the revision process, that is). From my June 22 post, Revising Writing is Like Home Renovation, you know there are three steps in the writing revision process: Revise, Edit, Proofread. On July 20, we examined Step 1: Revise. This week, we tackle Step 2: Editing.
I’ve been using the house renovation analogy to illustrate the revision process. Step 1 in the house reno process meant making major structural changes. Step 2 involves doing the interior finishing work. In writing, Step 1: Revise meant assessing content and meaning—making sure you said what you meant to say. Step 2: Edit involves language issues in sentences and paragraphs—making sure you said what you meant to say the way you intended to (and should) say it.
When I edit, I begin by examining individual sentences and then look at how those sentences work together in their paragraphs.
Five main tasks comprise editing individual sentences. Although there is no rule about the order in which they must be done, the order below works well for me. The checklist may appear daunting at first, but applying it to each sentence one at a time makes things less so. Plus, the more experienced you get, the easier and more intuitive the process becomes.
Editing is not something you will do in a few minutes. If you think of it as a chore to be checked off, you will hate it. Instead, think of it as refining your masterpiece. You spent a long time writing your manuscript. Editing is a structured process for making it even more wonderful. Delight in each new improvement.
Check that each sentence is:
- no fragments or run-ons
- no redundancies (the month of June, the exact same thing)
- no loops (the [last] clown at the end of the line was riding a tricycle.)
- no verbosity (Matriculating students should be empowered to engage in convocation oratory, Graduates should give speeches)
- no empty openers/phrases (There is, at the end of the day)
- no empty modifiers (very, really)
- no clichés (dead as a doornail)
- no passive verbs (The grant proposals were reviewed, We reviewed the grant proposals)
- no non-specific adjectives (pretty, nice)
- no adverbs (terribly, understandably)
- no nominalization/vague nouns (presentation, aspect, manner)
- no abstractions (anger, belief)
- just-right vocabulary (waddled, grunted)
- no excessive clauses (A week ago last Saturday, Jake and I returned to the town where we both grew up to attend[ed our] a party with the people that we went to high school [reunion]with ten years in the past.)
- easily understood
- no grammatical errors
- no punctuation errors
- no spelling errors
If my sentence editing necessitates paragraph changes, I make those as they come up, but paragraph editing is also a separate process that I do after I finish all my sentence editing.
Once you are satisfied with individual sentences, assess whether they work together the way you intend (and the way they should).
Check that sentences:
- Maintain a consistent verb tense (Don’t begin in past tense, switch to present tense halfway through the paragraph, then jump back to past.)
- Flow (transition) smoothly from one to the next (At this level of writing, your sentences shouldn’t overflow with basic transitions like “secondly,” to conclude,” etc. Internal transitions should link ideas. I just showed you an example of this—synonyms meaning “sentence” (highlighted in red) and “transition” (highlighted in blue) carried the ideas across the previous two sentences without transition words between them.)
- Vary in length (This gives your writing a pleasing rhythm)
- Begin with different words (Try to begin all on the same page with different words; even better, make sure they begin with different parts of speech)
Rules Vary for Dialogue and Poetry
These guidelines work for essay or narrative fiction writing. When you write dialogue, you may need a character to speak in clichés, in sentences that frequently begin with “I,” or in long, rambling sentences. This is fine. Readers understand that traits such as these help to distinguish a character’s voice and personality.
Editing dialogue, then, requires reading it aloud.
- Does the speech sound natural? (The vocabulary and syntax [word order] we use when we write and speak can sometimes seem like two different languages.)
- Are the “sentences” breath-sized? (We speak in bits that we can produce between breaths. Written sentences that require a speaker to take frequent breaths are too long and need to be broken up.)
- Do you trip over the pronunciation of any words or phrases? (Speakers avoid tongue twisters; don’t give them scripts full of the nasties.)
Editing rules are different for poetry too. Although fragments and run-ons are acceptable, you can still check for concision, strength, clarity, and correctness. Decide which phrases constitute each poetic “sentence” and analyze those. Sentence length won’t be the same for poetry, particularly since you don’t have actual sentences. You may want to look more at rhythm and cadence than at specific “sentence” length.
Consider each stanza a paragraph and check for consistent verb tense and word variety. Flow will appear different, as well. Transitions may be harder to spot—you’ll definitely want to look for internal and implied transitions. Even if they are nonexistent though, that’s okay. Sometimes poetry pulls readers along, asking them fill in the blanks—making their own inferences or drawing their own conclusions.
This is a sample paragraph to show you exactly how I edit. I have typed in my thoughts exactly as I had them. Then I went through and edited the paragraph and showed you the edits as I made them. The original paragraph will probably sound lame, and I hope the final paragraph will sound a lot better! I wanted to let you see where I changed words, made sentences longer or shorter, standardized verb tenses, basically did all the things in my list above. I hope I’ve made enough errors in this sample paragraph to show you a good assortment of edits. I’m not trying to make errors; it’s just that I know my rough draft will need a variety of changes before it becvomes its final form. (I actually had to go back in and re-type “becvomes” because my spell-checker automatically fixed the word when I mis-typed it!
This sample paragraph will show you how I edit. I typed my thoughts exactly as I had them, then edited. Now you are seeing those changes. My original writing probably sounded lame, but I hope the final paragraph sounds a lot better! You can see where I changed words, lengthened or truncated sentences, standardized verb tenses—basically, all the things in my list above. The errors I’ve corrected and choices I’ve made to improve my writing should show you an assortment of edits. Can you believe this—I had to re-type “becvomes” after my spell-checker automatically fixed it!
Whew! You should be an expert editor now! If you have any questions, be sure to ask them in the comments section below.
Next up—Proofreading. After revision and editing, this should be a breeze.