So, you’re done with the draft of your assignment, and we talked about revising last time as the first step on your way to producing a really good essay. Revising refers to the big picture fixes to make sure your writing meets the assignment requirements. You'll look at the controlling idea, fix the thesis statement, identify where more information is needed, etc. It might involve changing the focus of your writing, removing unnecessary information, or even moving paragraphs around.
Now that you're happy with the content and structure of your paper, we can move on to the editing process. Editing focuses on the smaller details at the sentence level. You may want to examine word choices, sentence structures, and sentence varieties.
Tips for Editing Word Choices
Here are some common issues with word choices: Are you using the same words repeatedly? Are there any superfluous words in the sentence? Is there a stronger verb or a noun to express what you want to say?
How can you tell when you’re looking at your own writing?
One way you can find out is by reading your work out loud! When we read silently, our eyes tend to gloss over some of the words because we assume we already know what’s been written. Reading out loud forces us to engage with every word on the page. If there are repeated words, you’ll hear them. If there are missing words, you’ll find them. If there are typos, you’ll know about them. If you find yourself stumbling over a sentence, maybe something’s not quite right and you can think of a way to rephrase it.
What about choosing a stronger word for its precise meaning? You may have heard the advice not to use an adverb in your sentence. Aside from helping you hit the word count when you’re a few words short, you don't always need adverbs if you have a strong enough verb. For example, you could write “She held her teddy bear tightly in her arms” and it’s a fine sentence on its own. But you could create a much stronger impact when you replace the verb and lose the adverb. “She crushed her teddy bear in her arms” tells you exactly what manner she is doing this and offers a glimpse into her emotional state. It’s the same thing for academic writing--even though often less emotion is involved (and fewer crushed teddy bears), you can heighten the impact of your sentences with the right word.
Sentence Structure, Length, and Variety
As readers, if the essay we’re supposed to read is made up of long compound sentences with no variety, our attention may start to drift. Similarly, if the entire piece is a collection of short, staccato sentences, we may not enjoy the reading either. By varying the sentence length and the rhythm in our own writing, we have a much better chance at holding our readers’ attention! Use longer sentences to explain more complex concepts, and use shorter sentences to emphasize a point. Readers also tend to skim over a sentence but slow down over the last part. If you want to make a strong, impactful argument, pay attention to how you end your sentences!
A mix of different grammar structures would breathe life into your writing. Instead of starting every sentence with “The research shows that” or “It is said that”, you could try to spice it up by starting some sentences with a dependent clause. Or a well-chosen transition word like “thus”, “in addition,” or “on the contrary”. Experiment with different ways of expressing the same idea and find the one that best fits the purpose of your writing.
Reading your essay out loud, again, is a good way of listening to the natural rhythms and pauses in your writing. If you find that you’re struggling to catch your breath while trying to get through a sentence, that sentence may be too long! And if you’re beginning every sentence with a dangling modifier, it’s time to change it up with different flavours!
Support from the Student Learning Commons (SLC)
Sometimes, working on your assignments can get pretty lonely, and reading out loud to the void in your room is no fun. If you need a listening ear and a helping hand, book an appointment with the Student Learning Commons. Our Writing & Learning Peers can give you tips for selecting better words and varying your sentences!
This blog post was originally published on the SFU Learning Commons blog on October 1, 2021.