How To Edit Your Writing

Writing is often considered the most difficult of the four key skills in English (compared to reading, speaking, and listening) because it demands the most precise use of language. This is because writing can be edited, and you do not need to commit to the first thing you produce. To be precise, good writing requires editing. Many writers have said there is no good writing, only rewriting (attributed variously to Robert Graves and Louis Brandeis). 

Indeed, you cannot apply all of the advice of this article, amongst other writing advice, during the act of writing itself. To put everything into practice, you must edit your text. The more time you can spend editing and rewrite, the better your writing will be.

Editing is not just about finding technical mistakes such as spelling errors. It is when you can make your writing as clear and effective as possible. It is a skill in itself, requiring as much practice as the act of writing. 

Note, though, that it is incredibly difficult for any writer to flawlessly edit their own work. With your own writing, you already understand what you want to say, so you cannot read it fresh, and are likely to miss errors. Edit your text to the best of your ability, but also seek a second opinion.

Where do you begin with editing? In professional editing, there are seven Cs to look out for. Ask yourself if your writing is:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Consistent
  • Correct
  • Coherent
  • Complete
  • Credible

You can start by rereading your work with three key goals in mind. Cover all these points by aiming for clarity, correctness, and consistency. If your writing is clear, correct, and consistent, it should also be concise, coherent, credible, and complete.

Clarity

Using simple writing with common terms and structures to present ideas is the easiest way to ensure your writing is clear. This includes using conventional systems of structure and paragraphing, and the most direct grammar (such as using the active voice instead of the passive). When you are editing your work, you can look out for all these ideas by hunting for unnecessary words and complex language or structures.

Unnecessary words include any word that does not add essential information to a sentence. These can be ineffective details or filler words, words that slip into writing in the same way as they do in speech. Common examples of filler words include the adverbs just and really, which often add little additional meaning. 

You may also find unnecessary prepositions and prepositional phrases, such as prepositions added to directions (climbed up onto) or dialogue (shouted out). 

Often we add such fillers out of habit rather than because they are needed. Identify these words by searching for adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions. Remember George Orwell’s tip: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (Politics and the English Language, 1946) Cutting out words both shorten and clarify your writing.

Complex language and structures require a more careful eye, due to their specific uses, as discussed in 2.1 Why Complicate Life? and 7.2 Specialist Vocabulary. Always ask if a complex word or structure is necessary, and consider why it is necessary. If you can’t answer why then it is probably not needed. 

Even when it is needed, look for the simplest and clearest way to present it. This can be as simple as explaining a word when it is first used, or rearranging a structure that has become unclear:

  • The astrobleme was being studied by three different departments. 

→ The astrobleme, a crater caused by a meteorite, was being studied by three different departments.

  • All books that were checked out by the captain of the chess club were stained with chocolate when they were returned by him.

→ All the books the captain of the chess club checked out were stained by chocolate when he returned them.

Exactly how you can identify and change such language will depend on the text itself. Pay attention to how your sentence components connect to each other. Is the subject of each verb clear? Is each prepositional phrase clearly connected to one object? Is it clear who or what your pronouns refer to? 

This may sound like a lot to consider, but bear in mind it is only in your complicated and longer sentences that these issues become problems. Confusion occurs in sentences with multiple verbs, sentences with multiple actors, and longer sentences in general, particularly those involving lots of additional information. These are the sentences to study carefully.

When using multiple verbs in a sentence, be careful that a confusing additional actor does not come between the subject and the verb. In such cases it may be easiest to restate the subject:

  • I went to the shop, where Jim worked, and met Carla.
  • I went to the shop, where Jim worked, and I met Carla.

This is a deliberately subtle example. The commas fairly clearly separate where Jim worked from the rest of the sentence, but restating the subject helps avoid potential confusion. In other situations, with another actor, it could become unclear which actor the additional information refers to, particularly when dealing with prepositional phrases and clauses connected with ambiguous pronouns:

  • An inconsistency was found in the report, which we needed to discuss. (Do we need to discuss the inconsistency or the report?)
  • They opened the door with a metal bar. (Does the metal bar describe the door or the tool used to open it?)

An inconsistency was found in the report, which we needed to discuss. (Do we need to discuss the inconsistency or the report?) They opened the door with a metal bar. (Does the metal bar describe the door or the tool used to open it?)

  • They opened the door using a metal bar.

In other cases, it may be necessary to elaborate. Longer sentences are sometimes needed to add clarity. Considering our other example, explicitly describing what has been discussed works better than using a pronoun:

  • An inconsistency was found in the report, so we needed t to discuss a revision.

This makes the relationships within the sentence clearer, even though the sentence becomes longer. With longer sentences, also pay attention to lists, to ensure that all the actors of verbs are clear, and that the correct number of words are present. A common mistake in lists is not attributing conjunctions correctly:

  • We wanted a new chair, a desk, a computer with a mouse and a keyboard.

In the above sentence, the main list should be three items, a new chair, a desk, and a computer with a mouse and a keyboard. There is missing conjunction. The meaning may still be clear, but it is technically incorrect and it could be argued that the keyboard is unrelated to the computer. In situations where the nouns are closely related and their attribution is important, this error could lead to a lot of confusion:

  • The visiting team includes a business analyst with an intern, a sales manager with a personal assistant and a secretary.
  • The visiting team includes a business analyst with an intern, and a sales manager with a personal assistant and a secretary.

In this example, the list could include three items (a business analyst +1, a sales manager +1 and a secretary) or two items (a business analyst +1 and a sales manager +2), depending on the additional conjunction. In a context where such information was used, for example, to buy travel tickets, the ambiguous list could lead to a purchasing mistake.

These are only starting points to look out for in editing for clarity. Spotting unclear language takes practice and a strong understanding of the building blocks of English, in order to keep an eye on the relationships between different components within sentences. These basic principles, however, should help you develop an attitude to seek clarity in your writing.

Correctness

Being correct in your writing means using accurate language. This requires correct punctuation, correct spelling, and correct words and structures, as well as correct (or at least correctly connected) ideas. 

Accuracy is more important in writing than any other language skill, as mistakes in writing can look unprofessional or unprepared, and do not benefit from the social cues that make spoken mistakes easier to interpret. There is also less excuse for inaccurate writing, as it can be revised and plenty of tools exist to help improve your language.

Punctuation and spelling can be studied and learnt as a discipline, and computer software provides a lot of help in this area. If you have a spell-check available, use it strategically and pay attention to your mistakes so that you learn from them. 

Computer spell-checks cannot spot everything (for example, consider homonyms with different spellings but the same sound), so be sure to re-read your writing thoroughly and check all the punctuation and spelling yourself. Take the time to look up words you are unsure of.

Editing in such a way, and committing to such editing, frees you up to write more fluently. Many students avoid writing practice because it can be time-consuming, and searching for the right words and spellings interrupts their flow.

If this is the case for you, write to complete your ideas and edit the language afterwards. Various analogies exist for the process of writing that compare the first draft to generating material that you can later shape. 

There is no need to expect any writing to be perfect on a first attempt. When you have words on the page, it is easier to rearrange and improve them than if you have no words at all.

Correctness may depend on purpose. The internet contains many lists of “common mistakes” and “words that don’t mean what you think they mean” in English. In some cases these are useful, but in others they refer to archaic or stylistically specific uses. 

Being accurate and technically correct is not always as simple as following reference books. English is based on patterns, not rules, and language use and vocabulary is constantly evolving. Common usage of any grammatical structure or vocabulary creates patterns that are popularly understood.

When editing for accuracy, your understanding of English in practical use becomes very important. For example, the word decimate was originally taken from the Romans to mean kill one in ten, but in modern use it is used to mean destroy. The original use is very rare, and unlikely to be understood without a clear context. With such a word, the meaning which is more common and generally understood (i.e. the modern use) is more correct. 

Conversely, in specific niches you may find names and titles (for example, scientific theories) that do not follow typical naming or grammatical conventions. In such cases, if everyone writing in that niche uses an unusual form of a title, and it is that audience you are writing for, the unusual form would be more correct.

Language rules attempt to record, and share, the patterns that emerge, but they do not dictate them. The way we use English develops based on people’s practical use rather than by following books. With this in mind, refer to the most respected (and up to date) reference books for advice, and be wary of discussions surrounding these books, particularly for newer language or words in transition.

The rules of the English language are useful because they help avoid confusion and prevent misunderstandings. This is the first and most important reason to be correct in your English: to make sure what you’re saying makes sense (and says what you want to say). A misspelled word, a misplaced comma, an inappropriate adjective, or inaccurate use of tenses can all confuse or change the meaning of a sentence. So remember, throughout editing, that the purpose of editing for accuracy is to be clearly understood, not merely to satisfy the rules.

So how do you ensure accurateness? First, make it a personal quest to challenge everything. This will give you an appreciation for the most important rules and why they matter. The following example shows a misuse of punctuation:

  • The man growled, “You’re finished in this town”.

While the meaning in this example is clear, the misplaced full stop/period takes the reader out of the moment, drawing attention to the writing and its inaccuracy. This is a big mistake if you are telling a story, not because it affects understanding, but because it affects the reading experience. Even a small mistake like this can thus have a recognisable negative result.

Some areas of writing are more ambiguous. With punctuation, you may find debate when dealing with commas and conjunctions. For example, there is debate surrounding serial commas, and there is not always a right answer for the best way to use it.

However, while the best choice may be debatable, there are almost always wrong choices, which reduce clarity. In cases where you have more flexible options, questioning whether or not your decision affects the clarity can help answer which choice (if any) is correct.

Identifying wrong choices helps you to recognise why the rules matter:

  • I have visited ten countries.
  • I visited ten countries.

In this example, the choice of tense is important, as without more context the past simple statement sounds incomplete. When we talk about built experience, such as locations we have been to, the present perfect effectively tells us up to now, while the past simple suggests this experience was completed in the past, and so invites the question when? However, if your sentence goes on to answer that question, the past simple tense is correct:

  • I visited ten countries in my twenties.
  • I visited ten countries on a business trip.

Consider another example:

  • I won’t have cereal as I have already eaten breakfast.
  • I won’t have cereal as I already ate breakfast.

Here, the present perfect is technically more accurate, linking the past action to the present condition, but it is not entirely necessary as the past simple, telling us the action was completed in the recent past, conveys a very similar message (particularly brought closer in meaning by already). 

There is a technical difference in grammar, but both options are likely to be understood the same way by a reader. Such concerns necessarily relate to context. In some contexts, two words may similarly be used interchangeably while in different contexts they could highlight an important difference.

There are also cases when rules are debated with little real purpose. The argument over split infinitives (placing an adverb between a verb and its particle) is a case in point. 

This was done in the original Star Trek franchise, where the character Captain Kirk determined “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, with boldly separating to and go. This emphasises how the action is done. 

However, some argue that split infinitives should be avoided. It does not appear to affect the meaning (no one would interpret to go boldly, boldly to go, or to boldly go differently), so why does the rule exist?

Answering why shows how important accuracy is. In the case of the tense choices, when we ask why I have visited is important, it is because I visited refers to a specific time and will sound incomplete without the reader knowing what that time period was. In the case of the split infinitive, there appears to be little difference in meaning. 

So why does it matter? You can find out by looking at where the rule comes from. This information is often available online, for instance through websites like Wikipedia. The split infinitive was first identified as disagreeable in the nineteenth century. 

In 1834, an anonymous passage in American literature presented a rule that the participle and verb “must not be separated”. Certain grammarians followed with explanations that the split infinitive was a “disagreeable affection”, “a common fault”, and “flying in the face of common usage”. According to those writers, the split infinitive is inaccurate because it is different or does not look elegant. These are bad reasons for restricting your use of language.

When doing such research, do check the sources, though; Wikipedia typically has citations to help you verify information. Also, consider wider reading in such areas. 

There are many excellent books exploring language history, including Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (1990). Continually hunting for answers why will not only help you identify when your writing needs improving, it will help you remember and apply the important rules in the future. You can also decide which rules are less important.

A final point to recognise is that no one can reach a level of perfect accuracy alone. Your ultimate purpose should be to be understood, and you cannot truly tell if your writing will be properly understood until you share it. In some contexts, this is less important than in others. For example, in email correspondence, personal practice and first drafts, you do not need every detail to be perfect, but for more serious writing, do not be afraid to ask for help. In fact, expect to need help. 

Even a native English speaker must edit and rewrite, and have others check their writing before it can be accurate. I have been writing all my life, and I need at least two or three rounds of editing with other people before I can confidently publish anything without errors (if then!).

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