In this article I’d just like to share a few general tips on editing, and then we’ll look at a specific paragraph and see what editing looks like in practice. Now in terms of what I recommend to pretty much all students, I really suggest that people take a little bit of extra time and set their assignment aside for a day or two and then come back to it. And then they’re going to see the writing with a new pair of eyes, because when you’re in the trenches so to speak, your vision is very limited. You you don’t really get a sense of the big picture. You’re so attached to what you have written it’s just very difficult to create that distance that’s necessary for good editing. Now obviously people procrastinate and I do too, but whenever possible do set aside some extra time. Printing it out can help as well.
When you keep focusing on the screen and you keep seeing the same bit of text in the same place, then printing it out really helps to kind of break through that barrier, and you’re going to see all kinds of mistakes that you hadn’t noticed before. Another good strategy in relation to this is to change the font — the size, and maybe even the type or the spacing — and you’re really going to see the text in a different way. Reading aloud also helps. Now some people suggest that you read your essay backwards one sentence at a time! That does help in terms of figuring out if the sentences are complete, but beyond that I don’t think it’s super helpful. So I wouldn’t recommend it, but you can do it if you like.
You can obviously run a spellcheck or a grammar check. That’s definitely a good place to start, but don’t rely on that as as the be and end all. You can also go for help. You can find a friend, or go to a teacher, or hire a tutor — whatever you like. I do think this is valuable and often overlooked — especially just going to a friend and saying, "Hey, is this clear to you?
What am I trying to argue?" It’s really good to try to get that friend to express in his or her own words what the actual argument of the paper is. Don’t just say, "well, did you get it?" and the friend says, "Yep, I got it," and move on. That doesn’t really help. You really want to say, "Okay, you read it. What is it saying?" And then if you get the right message back in some detail then you know you’re on the right track. Also ask some other specific questions. Where did you get stuck?
Would you like more proof at a certain point? It’s really the specific questions that are going to help here. You can also often go to your teacher or to a Writing Centre if you’re at a university that that has one. Don’t be shy to do this. I know some professors at universities can be kind of condescending sometimes — a little grumpy, a little standoffish — but they’re also lots of wonderful, kind professors who are more than happy when somebody walks in through the door in office hours or makes an appointment and is willing to actually go through a paper and do some editing. Aright, so hopefully that gives you some general tips. Let’s look next at an actual paragraph here, and this one needs a lot of work, but at least we’ve got a start here.
I’m not going to read through this, but you can do it yourself. Just pause the article for a second and then we’ll talk here about some things that you can do. The first thing I usually recommend is to look at the big picture first. What’s the big picture? Before you start fine-tuning all kinds of details you need to have a sense of the big picture. In this case what we seem to be saying here is that we have a song … called "Time On Her Side," and it has some ambiguous lyrics.
At the end of the paragraph we have some more specific arguments actually. It turns out that it’s not just the lyrics that are ambiguous, but it’s also the woman being described here that seems to have a kind of mysterious appeal. Now notice what I just did there with my pen. I started underlining things. and I really recommend that your first step to editing when you’ve printed it out is just to go through the paragraph and try to figure out what is the structure. What is it this actually saying? So try to create a kind of map of the paragraph, and you can do that by underlining.
You can also write little notes in the margins. So, for instance, right now what we figured out is that there’s a song, it has some ambiguous lyrics ,there’s the title, and there’s a woman who’s also mysterious. Then if we look at the stuff in-between we might say "Okay, here is a quotation, so we’re just going to bracket that a little bit. We have some questions here about the meaning. Then it says that ‘At most we can say that the song is about the longing for a young woman.’ So we might as well underline that. Okay, and then this is compared to the siren call … so the sirens who lead sailors to their death.
And then there’s another quote and then we get to this idea of something being seductively ambiguous, and then there’s the beauty and vitality of a woman, and then we come back to death." Aright, so we have a sense then of the structure of this and then we have to decide, well, are we happy with this structure? Does it make sense to us? Are there going to be points that need more proof? Are we going to have to move some things around? And I would say in this case, yes, we do need to move some things around, because the end of our paragraph is much better than the beginning. The beginning just says, well, the song is kind of ambiguous.
That doesn’t really help very much, so somehow we’re going to have to take this end piece and probably move it to the beginning somehow, because that’s our general argument. And there are some things that we could say. We could say, well, the ambiguity of the lyrics really enhances the song, because the song is about ambiguity. Or you could say the ambiguity of the lyrics reflects the ambiguity of the woman who is being described. But whatever you want to say, our final argument is actually much more specific.
And we’re going to have to move that back to the beginning and figure out what we’re saying here. What is good though is that our topic sentence, as it’s called … so our topic sentence, the first opening bit here, does give us a clearer sense of what poem or song we’re talking about, who the artist is … it gives us a general scope, and that definitely helps. But again we need to just improve it a little bit. Once we’ve got this big picture figured out, then we can move to what you might call micro- editing. Then you can move to kind of the specifics of the writing, and I would suggest you don’t do this too quickly. Really try to get the big picture figured out first, and be ready to move stuff around, because if you’re not then you’re just doing little touch-ups. And if you have something that doesn’t work and you’re just doing kind of cosmetic stuff it’s just putting makeup on a rhinoceros or something.
It just doesn’t really help that much. I’m not sure why you’d do that anyway, but alright. So let’s move on then to some specific editing, and give some examples of what you can do. Obviously you should ask yourself some questions. So did I prove my point?
Did I prove the point? Do I have enough evidence? Do I need to give some more quotations, some more examples? Did I provide specific and detailed kinds of proof? So is it detailed enough or do I need to do something there as well?
Does everything connect — and we call this coherence — does everything connect? And I think a wonderful thing to do is to go from each sentence to the next and think of it as a kind of necklace with pearls on it. I mean all these individual points. That’s a very ugly necklace! But you want that thread to keep going all the way through. Does everything connect clearly to the next point? Once we’ve got that figured out then we can zoom in even more and that’s when the editing takes place in terms of specific wording.
So I’m going to give just a few examples of the kind of specific editing you can do here. One thing you can … think about is the tone of your writing — so the tone — and I’ll give a couple of examples here. If you write, for instance, "Take the following lines," "take" is an imperative. It’s like ordering your reader. Is that really what you want to do?
Maybe you should switch it up a bit. You can tone it down a bit by saying, "Take, for example, the following lines." Maybe that makes it a little bit less aggressive. Or you can reword this introduction, and be more specific about what these lines actually have to say. After this we also have this question "What does that even mean?" Now that’s a very colloquial kind of phrasing. "Colloquial" means slang, so maybe that question isn’t the best. Maybe we want something else.
We can also then … once we have these these questions a little bit better or we or we leave them out … we can also think, well, have we really explained the quotation in detail. So in this case we might say something like the quote starts with this very conventional image of a garden rose and then we end with this bizarre notion that the golden shadow is stinging, and maybe we can talk about this in more detail. We can say, well, the move from something very conventional and stereotypical to something very strange and enigmatic — that’s representative of the poem or the lyrics of the song as a whole. We see this all the time, and once we start to do that kind of analysis then we go, yeah, that’s much better. That’s a lot more detailed. Another thing we can do as we focus on word choice is we can go through the … writing and try to figure out, well, which words are the best and which ones can we improve?
Don’t use a thesaurus here. That tends to just change the register of your writing, but try to really find better word choices. I’ll give some examples here. Let’s have a quick look at the verbs. Here we say the song "is about." Whenever you use this word "is" … "is" is not the strongest verb in terms of being the most descriptive.
A lot of people rely on "is" all the time. Here we have "is compared" — that’s a passive voiced verb. I think there’s another one here as well: "In other words, it’s." There’s another "is" that’s kind of hiding there as well. So if you can improve those and make them more specific, that can really help. In this case you might say something like "the song describes." That’s much better. In the second example here ("is compared") maybe you want to say, well, "the speaker compares," and make it active, you know.
Those are some choices you have. Another example of a verb that needs some help is this one here: "also give off." Now first of all this is not quite right because here we have the beauty and vitality — these sound like two things, but really they’re being described as one. It’s the same kind of thing, as it’s one concept. So then we would say "gives off," but even that sounds a little bit colloquial. Maybe we could say something like "exudes." Maybe that sounds better. Or if you still don’t like that you can just rewrite entirely.
Another thing to look for is are your quotations integrated properly. This quotation is not. It’s just sitting there. Doesn’t have an introduction. It’s hard to make sense of, so make sure you integrate your quotations with what’s often called the signal phrase — a phrase that says, "Hey, there’s a quotation coming.
Look out!" There’s something you need to do here. We need to make sense of it and then there’s all kinds of other grammatical issues you can edit for as well. So, for instance, the last sentence here is a fragment sentence. It’s not complete. It’s also very melodramatic. So maybe we’re going to scratch that or rewrite that and do something with it. In the end here we went into a lot of detail in terms of how you can edit, but when I have students come into my office to talk about their writing, this is what I like to do with them — go through their writing and say, "how can we really make this better?
How can we focus on the details, improve your writing." And I think if you get into this habit then eventually it becomes second nature and you start to do increasingly more editing as you write so you don’t have to leave everything to the end. Your writing will become sharper, more interesting, more compelling, and that’s ultimately what we want.