Here are 10 simple editing tips you can apply to your next essay or research paper.
Ernest Hemingway wrote standing at his Royal Quiet de Luxe, which he kept on a bookshelf in his Havana home.
Nonetheless, this popular quote describing the hard work of writing is attributed to him:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
As a 21st century college student, you don’t pound out papers for your criminal justice or psychology courses on a manual typewriter. But as you labor over each word and sentence, you may sense tiny beads of blood dripping from your forehead onto your laptop.
At those moments, you might appreciate the words of another writer:
“I hate writing. I love having written.” Dorothy Parker
Writing is essential to success in an online degree program
If you’re pursuing a college degree online, then you know online degree programs require a lot of writing. From discussion posts and emails, to essays and research papers, writing is integral to learning.
And since writing is the primary basis upon which professors evaluate your knowledge, strong writing skills are also essential to your GPA.
By this point in your education, you probably accept the fact that the first words you tap on your computer are expendable. Knowing that effective writing requires rewriting frees you from the pressure to perfect your first draft. You understand that writing is a process that requires commitment and time.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.” C.J. Cherryh
How do you edit brilliantly? Try these techniques:
- Take time to step back. Put your writing aside for a day so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.
- Print your paper, grab a pen, and edit the old-fashioned way.
- Work in a different room or go outside. You’ll be surprised how a change of venue helps you see new ways to improve your work.
- Read your paper out loud.
- Ask someone who is not familiar with your topic to read it. Give that person a hard copy and a red pen.
- Read your paper multiple times, editing for one objective each time. For example, read once looking for passive voice, another time for wordiness or punctuation, etc.
What should you look for as you edit? Start with these 10 tips.
“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” Patricia Fuller
1. Hunt down adverbs.
You may use adverbs (words that modify verbs, such as “gently” and “quietly”) because you think they give your verbs a boost. However, adverbs – particularly those ending in ‘ly’ – can weaken your sentences. To find your adverbs, read through your paper one time underlining every verb (including the little ones such as is, was, and were) and check for any neighboring modifiers. Does the adverb add color and punch to your writing? If not, use a stronger, more vibrant verb instead.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Stephen King
2. Eliminate empty expressions.
Empty phrases add no value to your writing and usually can be trimmed to one or two words. A few examples are:
- In order to (to)
- A majority of (most)
- A number of (most)
- In the event that (if)
- Despite the fact that (although)
- Prior to (before)
- Due to the fact that (because)
Want more examples? Check out this list of 297 flabby words and phrases.
3. Cut redundant phrases.
Redundant phrases clutter writing and obscure meaning. For example:
- Absolutely essential (essential)
- End result (result)
- Completely filled (filled)
- Every single (every)
- Most well-known (best known)
- Revert back (revert to)
- The reason why (why)
Check out 200 of the most common redundancies on About.com
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dr. Seuss
4. Check for ‘ings’.
Find your ‘ing’ words and they can often lead you to phrases that can you can tighten up. “I will be starting my classes in May” can be shortened to “I start classes in May.”
5. Avoid vague nouns and verbs.
Be specific. Be colorful. Replace “The car came quickly around the corner” with “The car zipped around the corner.” Vague words like “thing,” “good,” and “bad” are boring. Painting pictures with specific words adds punch.
“I like good strong words that mean something.”
Louisa May Alcott
6. Break long sentences into two.
Do you have any long sentences that can be separated into two? Shorter sentences help the reader stay focused, and are easier and clearer to read.
7. Remove exclamation points.
If you need an exclamation point to add excitement to your sentence, then your sentence needs work. Exclamation points indicate laziness.
“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. Use “who” not “that” with people.
If you refer to a person, the correct preposition is “who,” not “that.” “The person who finishes the assignment gets an A” not “The person that finishes the assignment.”
9. Bury “very”.
Using the adverb very, indicates the need for a stronger adjective. The same principle applies to the word “really.”
“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain
10. Be active, not passive.
If whoever or whatever is performing the action is the subject of your sentence, you’re using the active voice. “The woman picked up the baby.” If the noun being acted upon is the subject and it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what in your sentence, then you’re using the passive voice. “The baby was picked up by the woman.” (Hint: look for the word ‘by’ in your sentences.)
Still unclear? Check out Grammar Girl. Then tighten up your writing by eliminating the passive voice.
“Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” E.B. White
While it has nothing to do with parts of speech, grammar, word choice, or punctuation, the best editing tip is start your essay or paper early. Composing a first draft just a night or two before the assignment is due does not provide sufficient germination time – time to step aside and return to edit with fresh eyes.
Bottom line, give it time.
What other editing tips can you suggest?
Image credit: Paolo Bono on Shutterstock.com.