Chapter 5

Editing Your Writing: Tips and Tricks

You can spend many hours creating a memo or proposal, but if the first thing readers encounter when they pick up your document is an embarrassing typographical error, some of the good work you’ve done will instantly be undone. Alternatively, if your ideas are wonderful but the document is wordy and repetitive, your readers may not even heed what you are trying to say.

The good news: careful editing can turn a weak document into a powerful piece of writing. Editing takes place on many levels. It can range from a quick review of a short e-mail message to an exhaustive, and possibly exhausting, revision process involving many document drafts with contributions from multiple writers. This chapter describes tips and tricks used by professional writers and editors, as well as a series of checklists to remind you what to look for as you review your writing. With a systematic approach to editing, you can enhance your ability to address organizational flaws, improve sentence structure and word choice, and find and fix mistakes.

The discussion on the following pages focuses on how to edit your own writing, but most of the concepts apply whether you are revising your document or someone else’s. Keep in mind that effective editing sometimes requires ruthlessness. One cannot afford to be timid or indifferent about making changes when important communications are at stake!

1. Invest in a reference library.

Consider purchasing one or more of the following:

a good dictionary

A small paperback dictionary is helpful, but not sufficient. Smaller dictionaries have the advantage of being more portable, but they also contain less content, so words you need may not be included. If you purchase a print dictionary, buy one with some heft! If you use an online dictionary, make sure the content comes from a reliable source. Your dictionary should also be fairly current, as language is constantly evolving: over time new words are born, old ones can mutate, and other words die.

a grammar book

Syntaxis Press offers A Grammar Guide for Business Professionals. Alternatively, go to a local bookstore and browse the reference section for books whose layout and content you feel comfortable with. Look up a few grammatical issues in the ones that appeal to you most and read the explanations provided in order to determine which book(s) will be most helpful to you.

a style guide

A style guide typically offers advice on an array of writing, usage, and grammar points, but may also provide guidance on layout, format, and various other issues affecting the content and appearance of a piece of writing. There are a number of excellent style guides available. One respected reference work is The Chicago Manual of Style, which is available in print or through an online subscription at www.chicagomanualofstyle.org.

2. Use your reference books.

It is unfortunately rather common for people to buy dictionaries and other language guides and then leave them unopened on the shelf. Reference books aren’t helpful unless their owners refer to them! The more you use them, the more you will learn and the more adept you will become at finding the information you need.

3. Use the editing checklists at the end of this chapter.

The checklists cover writing issues ranging from organization to style and word choice, and can remind you of what to look for as you revise.

4. Double-space during the revision process.

In the earlier stages of revising, double-spacing your draft can make it easier to read and edit. Use a font that you find easy to read, even if the final font choice will be different. Some people like to increase the margins temporarily, too, as that makes the text appear less dense. Once you have the content in good shape, you can change the font and layout back to the preferred format.

5. Print your document.

It is often easier to find typographical errors and other writing problems on a printed page than on the computer screen. Although it can sometimes be more efficient to edit electronically, many writers benefit from a combination of electronic and hard-copy editing.

6. Outline what you have written.

Many people have been told to create outlines before they begin writing. Fewer people are familiar with outlining as an editing technique that can help them after they have finished a draft. In fact, though, outlining is a valuable tool to ensure that a writer is presenting his or her ideas in the best possible order. To create an informal post-draft outline, underline the thesis or main idea of your document. (If you can’t find a thesis, rewrite until you have one.) Then read through the entire document, jotting in the margin each new topic you come across. Once you have finished, analyze your thesis and margin notes to see whether you can find any structural failings.

7. Finish your first draft as far ahead of time as you can.

If you spread the revision process out over a longer period of time, you will have more opportunities to come to your document fresh and to edit with a clear head.

8. Remember: there is no such thing as too many drafts.

Professional writers often go through many, many drafts of a document before they feel satisfied with it. The goal is not to get a piece of writing perfect the first or second time (though if you can, you deserve congratulations!). Rather, the goal is to improve it through careful, thoughtful editing. Obviously you won’t have time to write multiple drafts of every e-mail, but the point is, you shouldn’t burden yourself with the goal of instant perfection.

9. Remember also: no pain, no gain.

Effective editing involves careful thought and hard work; it isn’t supposed to be easy. If you find you are suffering mightily through the revision process, keep in mind that people all over the world are experiencing similar or identical feelings this very minute. You are not alone!

10. Don’t try to fix everything at once.

Generally it is most efficient to edit first for organizational issues and then later for details such as sentence structure, word choice, and grammar. (Otherwise you may be fixing verb forms and comma placement in sentences that you will ultimately cut for structural reasons!) Be flexible, though. If you are perplexed about how to fix an organizational problem, for example, try spending a little time editing for something else: tone, wording, passive voice, and so on. Editing for other issues when you are stuck can be a helpful way to get to know your document better and understand its strengths and weaknesses more thoroughly. Sometimes that greater familiarity will lead to an organizational breakthrough.

11. Ask someone else to look at your document.

A fresh perspective can be extremely helpful. If you do a lot of editing, perhaps you and a colleague could even arrange to review each other’s documents on an ongoing basis.

12. Review your document word for word.

When editing for details such as grammar and word choice, read carefully. That means examining each word to make sure that it is correct and that it expresses accurately what you want to say. If you are editing on a printed page, use your pen or pencil to point at each word individually as you read; doing so can help ensure that you don’t skip anything. If you skim your document, it is practically guaranteed that you will miss problem areas.

13. Take advantage of technological tools.

The grammar- and spell-checking features of your word-processing software can help you find mistakes. Do not, however, automatically accept every recommendation the software makes. Sometimes it will suggest the wrong word for a given situation, or complain that there is a grammatical error when there is none. Knowledgeable grammarians frequently turn off the grammar-checker, as they are able to find grammatical problems themselves and prefer not to have to wade through all the false error alerts, but the spell-checker is a useful tool for just about everyone.

14. Pay particular attention to your own writing weaknesses.

If you know you have a persistent problem with introductions, spend extra time editing your openings. If you make frequent errors with, say, apostrophes, use the text search function in your software to locate any apostrophes quickly and make sure you have used them correctly.

15. Read your document aloud.

Reading aloud enables you to hear the rhythm of your writing and thus identify places where the prose is awkward or choppy. It also forces you to read more carefully, making you more likely to notice typographical errors or missing words.

16. Take a break.

If you are confronting a particularly tricky editing problem, leave the document alone for a while. Eat an apple (or a cheeseburger if you think that will be more helpful!), return some phone calls, go for a lunchtime jog. With a little distance between you and your editing problem, you will be more likely to find a solution once you return to your document.

Editing Checklists

The Introduction

  • Does your introduction contain a clear thesis (main idea)?
  • Does the introduction accurately indicate what will be covered in the following pages?
  • Is your introduction too broad?
  • Is your introduction too narrow or detailed?
  • Is your introduction an appropriate length?
  • Is your introduction likely to engage the reader?

Document Structure

  • Does every body paragraph help support the document’s thesis?
  • Are the ideas presented in the best possible order?
  • Are there any complex ideas that should be broken down further into their constituent points?
  • Is there unnecessary repetition of ideas?
  • Are there too many very long or very short paragraphs in a row?
  • Does the document have a conclusion that summarizes key points — without merely repeating the introduction?

Body Paragraphs

  • Can you determine the main idea of each body paragraph?
  • Does all of the content in a given body paragraph relate back to that paragraph’s main idea?
  • Do your body paragraphs include appropriate supporting details and examples?
  • Do any body paragraphs seem too long or too short?

Sentence Structure

  • Do you see any overly long, convoluted sentences that could be broken down into two or more shorter sentences?
  • Are there any places in the document where you see too many short, simple sentences in a row?
  • Do you overuse a particular sentence structure?
  • Are there any opportunities to replace passive voice with active voice?
  • Do you use too many consecutive prepositional phrases?

Word Choice

  • Is your language as precise and clear as it could be?
  • Do you see any examples of wordiness or unnecessarily ornate phrases that you could replace with more streamlined language?
  • Does your document contain any clichés or problematic jargon?
  • Are there any opportunities to replace linking verbs with action verbs?
  • Did you look up any words you are uncertain about to make sure you are using them correctly?