Some Editing Advice

Editing is a final stage of writing and my belief is that we should edit only when we feel our work has become fully manifest; tightening and word choice make a very big difference in the readers’ experience. Good editing in the final stage of writing ensures the reader will stay involved with our words and not get lost or slowed down. Here are some tips that help, but again, don’t use them until you are finished with your piece! We often write as we speak. That helps us put our words out there. Then when we have them on the page, we can tighten them up since readers are different than listeners.

Look at this list of words that are perfect for shortening phrases:

To (rather than in order to)

Many (rather than a lot)

Seven people completed the whole run (rather than “The run was completed by seven people.”).

My uncle gave me a job (rather than “I was given a job by my uncle.”).

We decided to leave the fundraising up to the adults (rather than “We decided that a good choice would be to leave the fundraising up to the adults.”).

I decided (rather than “I made the decision to.”).

I concluded (rather than “I came to the conclusion that.”).

When I viewed the movie (rather than “When I was able to view the movie”).

Arnie, an accomplished baseball player with lots of experience coaching, helped me prepare for the try-outs. (Instead of “Arnie is an accomplished baseball player and has lots of experience coaching. He helped me prepare for the try-outs.”)

My experience as a citizen reporter for an online news site will help me learn from conflict situations at college. (Rather than “My very unique experience as a citizen reporter for an online news site will help me learn from conflict situations at college.”) Delete the word very since if something is unique it is already one-of-a-kind. How much more one-of-a-kind can it be?  I don’t believe the word unique is needed either–details show rather than tell.)

We came out of the ocean shivering with 30-degree water dripping off our skin. (Rather than, “We came out of the ocean shivering with 30-degree water dripping off our skin. We were very cold.”  It’s already obvious, you were cold from the details.)

Using his small motor dexterity, my dentist father made model planes with me. (Rather than, “My father became a dentist, and he used his small motor dexterity to make model planes with me.”)

When Kelly and I came around the corner, our mouths opened in surprise. (Rather than “When Kelly and I came around the corner, our mouths opened. We were so surprised!  We could hardly talk or even laugh. It was awesome.”)

Obviously, not fatiguing the reader and meeting word length limits are connected–you want to use the “real estate” apportioned to you for your personal essay to keep the reader awake and touring the property. You want to make sure you’ve put the most important information in the space available so the visit is noteworthy.  You don’t want to have to leave something out because unimportant phrases, no matter how much they sound like you when you are talking, have cluttered up the lot.

Combining sentences and making some into phrases inside other sentences is a good idea. However, journalist Gregg McLachlan has pointed out the wordiness of using phrases to “back into” sentences. He uses this example, “A student who first discovered woodworking when he lived in Johnsonville, Ted Smith hopes to attend university next fall.” Ted hopes to attend university in the fall, McLachlin says, is the point and that is clouded by the information on woodworking and where he used to live. If this were my sentence and the location Johnsonville was important for some reason, I’d try reordering:  “Ted Smith, who discovered woodworking while living in Johnsonville, hopes to attend university there next fall.”

McLachlan warns writers to count sentence word lengths because when sentences consistently reach 20 words, 48 words, and 57 words, the lack of some shorter, 10 word sentences tires the reader out. Readers need a break. Periods provide that. They solidify the unit of meaning and from there the reader goes on to the next unit of meaning without straining.

Long sentences not only wear out the reader, they frequently allow the writer to get away with imprecision. “Want to discover when you’ve rambled or become too wordy?” McLachlan asks, “Read your copy out loud. When you’re grasping for air, or tripping over words, that’s a good indication that your sentences need reworking.”  “Frequently, the word ‘and’ can be replaced with a period.”

Finally, you’ll see that some of the words you’ve used thinking you had to connect things aren’t necessary because the reader is already connecting things: “I went into the kitchen and when I heard a loud noise in the living room, I quickly walked toward the kitchen door and into the hallway that leads to the living room.” This can be shortened: “When I heard a loud noise coming from the living room, I ran to see what had happened.”

4 responses to “Some Editing Advice

  1. Thanks for the editing tips, Sheila. Particularly (for me) the bit about sentence length. Another writing “tic” to watch for is sentences that are too similar in length. I noticed in one of my pieces that my sentences were all 13-15 words long. The result—though not badly written in terms of the diction, grammar, and so on—felt choppy and stilted. When I altered the sentence lengths to include a variety, some longer and some very short sentences, the prose was more lyrical and pleasing.

  2. Sheila Bender

    Hi Amber, I am glad to hear this story and your way of counting the words to be sure that there is variety. I like the term “writing tic.” It does describe habits we get into.

  3. Teaching editing skills is not easily done, but you’ve outlined some excellent basics. Thank you for that. Good writing seems effortless but it takes effort to make it that way! Regarding sentence length, I’ve never counted my words sentence by sentence. I rely on the sound and feel of it as I read something back to myself. It’s a poetic rhythm there or missing. I’d say, whatever works! Most important is to be aware of rhythm and its importance in how the reader receives what’s written.

  4. Sheila Bender

    Yes, the ear is our best assistant!

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