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7.3 Editing Tips

“Bad spellers of the world, untie!”


glasses on a keyboard

Figure 11: A pair of glasses sitting on a computer keyboard.

Editing is like going over your writing with a fine-toothed comb, scanning the surface and the depths for errors, misstatements, and a lack of clarity. First, keep resources close. Gather your writing handbook, dictionary, thesaurus, handouts, and any other editing resources and keep them close. This way, you will not be tempted to guess at the correct way to do something. Instead, use your resources when you need them. Spelling errors can be avoided if you have a dictionary nearby. Don’t rely on spell check. It will only correct the spelling, not the proper usage of a word. For example, the word their means someone’s possession of something. When used in a sentence, “We sat in their chairs.” On the other hand, there is used to express an area or place. When used in a sentence, “We sat over there.” Looking up these words in a dictionary will prevent unnecessary errors from occurring.

Secondly, know your errors. Keep a list of the errors you tend to make next to a corresponding list of corrections. No writer makes unique mistakes all the time; instead, our mistakes are habitual. Know what yours are by looking at your instructor’s comments on past papers or by working with a writing tutor. That way, you can enhance your editing strategies by watching specifically for these types of errors. If there are grammar rules you find yourself looking up more frequently than others, write them down for future reference. Thirdly, break it down. Edit one thing at a time. Instead of reading your paper through from start to finish once or twice and trying to catch everything, try searching for one thing at a time. For example, you might go through your paper once to tighten up wordiness. Then, read through a second time, while looking for one type of error which you frequently make, such as comma splices. Then, try reading a third time looking for words that may have been misspelled when you ran a spell check. Read a fourth time for another characteristic error, such as subject-verb agreement.

Next, reduce visual clutter. Use two pieces of blank paper to cover up everything but one sentence at a time. This forces you to pay closer attention to the words because they are the only thing you see. Normally, our eyes move all over a text as we are reading; this trick will prevent that tendency. Lastly, work backwards. Read from the end of your paper to the beginning, one sentence at a time. When we read in the conventional manner–top to bottom or left to right–we tend to read quickly and are constantly leaping ahead without really focusing on the words. We tend to see what isn’t there, because we know what it is supposed to say. Reading backwards forces us to slow down, thereby allowing us to catch more errors within individual sentences.

When reviewing your work, it is also important to ensure that the tense you choose remains consistent. Tense refers to the relation of details in the past, present, and future. For example, one writer may tell a story about going to the mall in the present tense by saying, “I am walking around the mall and I see my third grade teacher.” Another writer may choose to relate this story in the past tense by saying, “I was walking around the mall when I saw my third grade teacher.” Although it is important to select the tense that best suits the particular context a writer is using, it is equally important to remain consistent with whatever tense is chosen. Inconsistency within tense is extremely confusing for readers. It is important to review your use of tense to ensure that your language is clear. For example, if you were to say “I was walking around the mall and I see my third grade teacher” your audience would be very confused, wondering if you were seeing your teacher in the present or last week. By keeping your tense consistent your reader will always know when you experienced what you’re writing about.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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