Teaching Writing: Editing

This is part of a series of blog posts about guiding students through different stages of the writing process.

This post focuses on editing, the stage of the writing process in which we think about words and sentences. These strategies can be used in conjunction with one another or separately.

If revision is where the magic happens, editing is where we make it sparkle. When the draft has been completed from beginning to end, when it has been revised for coherence, when it has transitions that support the logical flow of ideas, the time arrives to attend to polishing our prose at the word and sentence level.This stage of the writing process is difficult for a variety of reasons. One is the sheer multitude of things to think about–format and citation style, spelling, subject verb agreement, pronoun antecedent agreement, sentence variety, verb tense and timeframe, register.

Another is the writer’s proximity to their own writing. When we try to edit our own work, we have to work hard to see what is actually on the page and not to think we see what we know we meant to say. Putting a draft in time out for a week helps us to get this distance, but for most of us in the academic environment, a week is unrealistic.

Twenty-four hours, or even two hours, away from a draft before we edit is preferable to no break at all. A short break before a close deadline combined with the editing activities outlined below can help writers to see the words we’ve actually put on the page.

These activities are designed to help the student writers in my classroom spot the kinds of errors that I see over and over again in the writing produced by this population of students. Of course, for each writer, some of these activities are more useful than others. This model of choosing a thing to focus on, highlighting it, and noticing patterns can be adapted to draw attention to other kinds of common errors.

To prepare for this activity, students come to class with a complete draft printed out on paper and writing utensils in at least two colors.

1) Source Use
Are you signaling the beginning and the end of direct quotes and paraphrases from your sources?

  • Scan your paper for “.
    • Each time you see an instance of “, you should be able to draw a line to its partner at the other end of the direct quote or article title.
    • Make sure that your ” are hugging the words they go around. There shouldn’t be a space between the open quotes, the quoted material and the end quotes. “like this” not ” like this “
    • Make sure that each direct quotation from a source is followed by a parenthetical citation (Author page).
    • For help with formatting direct quotes in MLA style see Purdue OWL  or in APA style Purdue OWL.
  • Scan your paper for parenthetical citations (Author page) for MLA style or (Author Year page) for APA style.
    • If the parenthetical citation comes at the end of a direct quote, check formatting as above.
    • If the parenthetical citation comes at the end of a paraphrase, check that you have used an attributive tag in your sentence to indicate where your source’s ideas began. For help with attributive tags, see They Say, I Say Part 1 and Index of Templates.
  • Scan your paper for numbers and statistics.
    • If you did not do the survey or statistical analysis, you need to give credit to the sources who did that work. A parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence is usually adequate.

2) Sentence Variety
Are your sentences too short and choppy? Are they too long and convoluted?

  • Pick a paragraph from the body of your essay, so not the introduction or the conclusion.
  • In that paragraph, highlight or circle all the marks of end punctuation . ? !
  • Zoom out and look at the pattern of highlights in that paragraph without paying attention to the words.
    • Do you have a whole bunch of end punctuation highlights in a cluster? Five highlights in three lines of text, for example, might indicate choppy sentences that could be combined.
    • Do you have a span of several lines without any end punctuation? Only two highlights in six lines of text, for example, might indicate run-on sentences or complicated sentences that are hard to follow. Consider editing to break up run-on sentences and to simplify complicated ones.
    • If your highlights show a mix of short and long sentences, move on.
  • Zoom in on this paragraph and look at the words at the beginning of each sentence.
    • If you are staring sentences with the same words over and over (It, The, I, There are common), consider editing some of these to reduce repetition.
    • If you are starting sentences with the same structure over and over (prepositional phrase, adverb), consider revising to reduce repetition.
    • NB: Epanaphora is an exception to this. Sometimes, as in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we use repetition of words and sentence structure on purpose. Most of the time, though, what we want in an academic essay is variety.
    • For more examples related to sentence variety, see “Strategies for Variation” from the Purdue OWL.

3) Pronoun Use
Is it clear who/what your pronouns are referring to?

  • Pick a paragraph from the body of your essay, so not the introduction or the conclusion. Probably a different paragraph from the one you used for sentence variety.
  • Highlight or circle all the personal and demonstrative pronouns in this paragraph. Those include:
    I, me, mine, we, us, ours
    you, yours
    he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its
    they, them, theirs
    this, that, these, those
  • Now focus on the third person pronouns and the demonstrative pronouns:
    he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its
    they, them, theirs
    this, that, these, those

    • Draw an arrow from each of these pronouns to the noun or noun phrase it refers to.
    • If you can’t draw an arrow backwards in the text to the pronoun’s antecedent, consider editing your sentence to use a noun or noun phrase instead of a pronoun. They and it frequently fall into this group. Be more specific! Who or what do you actually mean?
    • If the arrow you draw crosses several lines of text or crosses a paragraph break, consider editing to repeat the noun or noun phrase or use a synonym.
  • Focus next on the second person pronouns:
    you, yours

    • Consider editing to remove all of these. Chances are the purpose is to make a general statement, so just make the general statement.
    • Although speakers of American English use the second person a lot in conversation, it really doesn’t work the same way in academic writing. It has as much chance of alienating your reader as it has of drawing them in.
  • Finally, focus on the first person pronouns:
    I, me, mine, we, us, ours

    • Consider editing to reduce the use of the first person, especially if you notice a pile of highlights in a single sentence.
    • For each highlighted first person pronoun, ask yourself, “Is this a place where I should be in the spotlight? Or should some other idea in the sentence get the attention?” Most often, the answer is that your ideas should get the attention.
    • At some point in the past, you might have been told that the first person should never be used in formal/academic writing. This isn’t really true. Successful academic writers use the first person all the time, but they are very careful with it. This is also a point where academic fields differ, so be sure to follow the appropriate style guide.

4) The be verb
Are your verbs active and specific?

  • Pick a paragraph from the body of your essay, so not the introduction or the conclusion. Probably a different paragraph from the one you used for sentence variety and pronoun use.
  • Highlight or circle all the instances of the be verb:
    is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, become
  • Scan for passive voice. This most often looks like this:
    was/were + verb
    Ex: The ball was thrown.

    • Consider revising to active voice.
      Ex: The child threw the ball.
    • Passive voice hides the agent of the action in the sentence. The first example above doesn’t say who threw the ball. Maybe because the agent is unknown, or maybe because we want to keep the agent a secret. Sometimes we need the passive voice for these reasons. Too much passive voice makes writing feel weak, though.
    • This is also a point where academic fields differ, so be sure to follow the appropriate style guide.
  • Scan for active voice, when the be verb is the main verb in the sentence.
    Ex: Books are interesting because of the information in them.

    • Consider revising to make the verb more specific, more vivid, more dynamic.
      Ex: Books contain interesting information.
      Ex: Books provide interesting information.
      Ex: Books offer readers information that they might not otherwise encounter. 
    • Often the more specific verb that replaces the be verb is already present in the sentence as an adjective, a noun, or a preposition.

5) Reading End to Beginning

These activities above will draw your attention to some common errors that occur in early drafts, but there are lots of other possible errors.  One way to help yourself get the distance you need from your own writing in oder to spot errors like repeated words or spelling errors that result in a different word (spellcheck doesn’t spot these!) is to read your essay from end to beginning.

  • Flip to the last page of your essay.
  • Read the last sentence in isolation from the rest of the paragraph.
  • Ask yourself: Does this sentence make sense? Does it sound good?
  • Correct any typographical errors like repeated words or misspellings.
  • Repeat the above steps one sentence at a time, moving backwards through your essay.


Notes and Resources

Purdue OWL – The Academic Writing section has several pages that go over things discussed here as well as other similar aspects of academic writing.

Paramedic Method – This set of activities was inspired by Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method and adjusted for the specific student populations I work with.

For more sustained study of sentence structure in American academic writing, work with the The Complete Sentence Workout Book.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Writing: Editing”

  1. First, the most difficult part is editing the writing, perhaps for me, because sometimes I write and shut down the device, and then I return after two days. I forget what I thought and researched because of the severity of the responsibilities that I do, but the most difficult part was accomplished for me.

  2. For me sometimes I make the mistake of writing all of my thoughts and then because of that making grammatical errors. This was helpful as a way to look back and re-read my paper.

  3. The most difficult part of editing for me is having to catch grammatical errors. If I read it in my head I tend to not see it. I have to read it out loud but again I might miss it sometimes

    1. What you describe is a pretty common experience. Reading out loud helps, but sometimes that’s not enough. The activities in this post help you to focus on specific pieces of grammar, punctuation, or usage without reading through your paper from beginning to end. They separate the process of checking for errors from the reading process.

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