Systematic Editing

Editing is part of writing. Without a systematic strategy, many writers over edit; they work too hard for limited results. Develop a strategy that works for you. Editing is a sequential process-a series of steps.

Steps in the process

  1. Organization
  2. Content
  3. Required elements
  4. Sentence structures-language use
  5. Grammar and mechanics

Process and things to look for in each step

Organization: Is the title clear? Does it give a brief description of the text that follows?

Scan the subheadings. Are they clear? Do they describe the contents of each section? Are they in parallel form? Are they connected to the text with no accidental page breaks separating them from the sections they head? And do they show the logical development of the paper?

Content: Is all the relevant information you want to give your reader present. Is irrelevant information clouding your message? Is content of each section consistent with its heading? Is important information supported by appropriate outside sources and cited in proper format?

Required Elements: Have you included every required element in the paper? If a cover letter is required, have you followed the required format? Is it dated? Do you have a checklist of required items to insure that all are included?

If graphics (graphs, charts, tables, pictures, etc) are used, are they properly credited? Do they clarify your meaning?

Sentence Structure-language use: Is every sentence clear on first reading? Are there ambiguous pronoun placements, single/plural shifts, clichés, figures of speech or overused favorite words? Have you checked for pet phrases and habits which pad the paper or reduce clarity? Are sentence lengths varied to add interest? Is complex information presented clearly and logically? Is information presented using the least number of words possible?

Grammar and Mechanics: Have you run spellchecker and grammar checker? Have you double checked them? Do not let your spellchecker think for you. Electronic editors are not precise.


English is flexible. Rules change. Professors and journal editors have great leeway in defining what is and is not acceptable in submissions. These suggestions can be useful in polishing your academic and professional communication; however, if you have doubt about a suggested practice or policy, clarify with your professor or consult your style manual. They are your most precise and up-to-date sources.

Read it aloud: Reading aloud forces you to slow down and read it as it is written. You will hear it and say it as well as seeing it. If you become tongue tied or hesitate on any sentence, flag it and come back to it. If you see a mechanical error, fix it or flag it and come back to it.

Have someone read it aloud to you: Your reader will see it for the first time much as the intended recipient of the paper will experience it. As your reader reads, flag hesitations, redundancies, illogical connections, awkward sentences, and errors you notice. Repair these.

Write in the plural: Writing “students” is less wordy and less stiff than using “the student.” When you write in the plural, you avoid single-plural shifts (the student/they) and you avoid most gender biased language. Students are always they, rather than he or she. Unless your subject is clearly singular, prefer the plural.

Do not contract: Consider eliminating contractions. Although some professors and disciplines permit them, some (APA for example) do not. Eliminating them in business and personal writing will make your writing more clear. If you never contract, you will never have doubt about its and it’s. If you use “it is”, and never “it’s,” you do not have to remember the elusive grammar rule.

Eliminate vague terms: Words like many, various, and several, pad your paper and reduce its precision. The most frequent offender is “a lot of.” Even big, strong, and priceless, add nothing of value and reduce clarity.

Consider leaving out any word that ends in ly: If you are writing in the present tense, it adds nothing to include "currently." It does not add information to say “he stumbled awkwardly.” No one ever stumbled in any manner other than awkwardly. Words ending in ly rarely (one of those ly words) add useful information, and many words ending in y are superfluous, too.

Keep paragraphs short: Short paragraphs (5-7 lines) are reader friendly. Readers group information in long paragraphs in order clarify meaning. Group thoughts for them. There are exceptions to this in research writing in some disciplines. Check your style manual if you are unsure.

Keep sentences short: Although you should vary your sentence length, readable sentences should average about 20 words. Long, convoluted sentences are hard to punctuate and may confuse your readers.

Prefer the active voice: Although there are specific uses for the passive voice, the active voice is less wordy and more clear. The statement, “Sales reports will be turned in to the sales manager each Friday” does not define who will do it. There are examples of active and passive voice in every writing manual. Consult the manual and use passive voice only when it is called for.

A few observations:

People are who, not that.

Parking lots do not need to be paved. Bills do not need to be paid. Murderers do not need to be executed, and cereal does not need to be eaten.

“He is not only enthusiastic, but also energetic” takes more words to write than “He is energetic and enthusiastic.”

“Use not only (an ly word) but also” sparingly (an ly word), if ever. Notice that energetic and enthusiasm are almost synonyms. Frequently (an ly word) students pair synonyms in this form, and pairing detracts.

Building a building will not create needed classroom space. The building will provide space. The process of building it may reduce parking space and will not add classrooms.

It is sufficient to say “May” rather than “the month of May.” Texas does not need “the State of” to clarify it.

Most (more than 50% ?) of us use words we do not need when we write. Eliminating all superfluous words is not possible or even desirable, but wordiness bogs readers down and makes communication difficult.

Every word you put on paper is a choice you make; choose carefully!