Editing Essays Examples

Anyone who has gone through the ecstasies and agonies of writing an essay knows the satisfaction (and sometimes the sadness) of finishing. Once you've done all the work of figuring out what you want to say, arriving at an arguable and interesting thesis, analyzing your evidence, organizing your ideas, and contending with counter-arguments, you may feel that you've got nothing left to do but run spell-check, print it out and await your professor's response. But what spell- check can't discern is what real readers might think or feel when they read your essay: where they might become confused, or annoyed, or bored, or distracted. Anticipating those responses is the job of an editor—the job you take on as you edit your own work.

As you proceed, remember that sometimes what may seem like a small problem can mask (be a symptom of) a larger one. A poorly-worded phrase—one that seems, say, unclear or vague—may just need some tweaking to fix; but it may indicate that your thinking hasn't developed fully yet, that you're not quite sure what you want to say. Your language may be vague or confusing because the idea itself is. So learning, as Yeats says, to "cast a cold eye" on your prose isn't just a matter of arranging the finishing touches on your essay. It's about making your essay better from the inside (clarifying and deepening your ideas and insights) and from the outside (expressing those ideas in powerful, lucid, graceful prose). These five guidelines can help.

1. Read your essay aloud. When we labor over sentences, we can sometimes lose sight of the larger picture, of how all the sentences sound when they're read quickly one after the other, as your readers will read them. When you read aloud, your ear will pick up some of the problems your eye might miss.

As you read your essay, remember the "The Princess and the Pea," the story of a princess so sensitive she was bothered by a single pea buried beneath the pile of mattresses she lay upon. As an editor, you want to be like the princess—highly alert to anything that seems slightly odd or "off" in your prose. So if something strikes you as problematic, don't gloss over it. Investigate to uncover the nature of the problem. Chances are, if something bothers you a little, it will bother your readers a lot.

2. Make sure all of your words are doing important work in making your argument. Are all of your words and phrases necessary? Or are they just taking up space? Are your sentences tight and sharp, or are they loose and dull? Don't say in three sentences what you can say in one, and don't use 14 words where five will do. You want every word in your sentence to add as much meaning and inflection as possible. When you see phrases like "My own personal opinion," ask yourself what "own personal" adds. Isn't that what "my" means?

Even small, apparently unimportant words like "says" are worth your attention. Instead of "says," could you use a word like argues, acknowledges, contends, believes, reveals, suggests, or claims? Words like these not only make your sentences more lively and interesting, they provide useful information: if you tell your readers that someone "acknowledges" something, that deepens their understanding of how or why he or she said that thing; "said" merely reports.

3. Keep in mind the concept of le mot juste. Always try to find the perfect words, the most precise and specific language, to say what you mean. Without using concrete, clear language, you can't convey to your readers exactly what you think about a subject; you can only speak in generalities, and everyone has already heard those: "The evils of society are a drain on our resources." Sentences like this could mean so many things that they end up meaning nothing at all to your readers—or meaning something very different from what you intended. Be specific: What evils? Which societies? What resources? Your readers are reading your words to see what you think, what you have to say.

If you're having trouble putting your finger on just the right word, consult a thesaurus, but only to remind yourself of your options. Never choose words whose connotations or usual contexts you don't really understand. Using language you're unfamiliar with can lead to more imprecision—and that can lead your reader to question your authority.

4. Beware of inappropriately elevated language—words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or jargony.Sometimes, in an effort to sound more reliable or authoritative, or more sophisticated, we puff up our prose with this sort of language. Usually we only end up sounding like we're trying to sound smart—which is a sure sign to our readers that we're not. If you find yourself inserting words or phrases because you think they'll sound impressive, reconsider. If your ideas are good, you don't need to strain for impressive language; if they're not, that language won't help anyway.

Inappropriately elevated language can result from nouns being used as verbs. Most parts of speech function better—more elegantly—when they play the roles they were meant to play; nouns work well as nouns and verbs as verbs. Read the following sentences aloud, and listen to how pompous they sound.

He exited the room. It is important that proponents and opponents of this bill dialogue about its contents before voting on it.

Exits and dialogues work better as nouns and there are plenty of ways of expressing those ideas without turning nouns into verbs.

He left the room. People should debate the pros and cons of this bill before voting.

Every now and then, though, this is a rule worth breaking, as in "He muscled his way to the front of the line." "Muscled" gives us a lot of information that might otherwise take several words or even sentences to express. And because it's not awkward to read, but lively and descriptive, readers won't mind the temporary shift in roles as "muscle" becomes a verb.

5. Be tough on your most dazzling sentences. As you revise, you may find that sentences you needed in earlier drafts no longer belong—and these may be the sentences you're most fond of. We're all guilty of trying to sneak in our favorite sentences where they don't belong, because we can't bear to cut them. But great writers are ruthless and will throw out brilliant lines if they're no longer relevant or necessary. They know that readers will be less struck by the brilliance than by the inappropriateness of those sentences and they let them go.

Copyright 1999, Kim Cooper, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

While revision occurs throughout the writing process and involves such tasks as rethinking, overall structure, focus, thesis and support, editing and proofreading assume that the writer is working on the final draft and is in the process of making the paper “correct.“Correct” punctuation, grammar, spelling, sentence structure, style, and word choice are important to the reader because they drastically affect perceptions of the writer’s authority and credibility.

In general, effective editing and proofreading require that you reread your writing carefully, that you play the role of reader rather than writer, and that you use strategies to help you slow down and examine your writing.This handout presents strategies for both editing and proofreading.

Editing

Editing is the process writers use to catch errors typical to their own writing.Because editing focuses on problems that are particular to an individual writer – and that occur again and again – effective editing requires that you know the types of errors you typically make and that you have specific strategies for finding those errors.

  1. Read the paper aloud as if you are reading a story.Listen for errors.If you listen carefully, you will be able to correct any errors that you hear.Listen for incomplete phrases, sentences and ideas, as well as things that “sound funny.”
    • Stop and change anything you wish as soon as you see it – punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure.Move through the paper at a reasonable rate.
    • Read the entire paper.Listen for spots that aren’t readable, that feel or sound awkward, or that don’t seem clear.Mark these spots.Then, when you’re done reading the whole paper, go back to fix them.
    • Allow yourself some time between writing your paper and editing.Ideally, wait a day; this allows the writing to “get cold,” giving you an opportunity to "see" the errors.If you can’t wait a day, go away and do something else for a while – work for another class, cleaning, eating – so that you can return to your work with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  1. Read one sentence at a time.
    • Using a sheet of clean paper, cover all the text except the first sentence.Read this sentence carefully.Does it sound and look correct?Does it say what you want it to say?Continue down the page in the same way.
  1. Look for patterns of error.
    • Personal patterns:All writers make mistakes that are typical of their writing.If you always forget commas, check for commas.If you always have trouble with transitions, look for transitions.If you work on wordiness, look for this.Bring your essays to the writing center!A tutor can help you to locate the patterns of error.
    • List:Keep a list of your “trouble spots.”Use this as a checklist and refer to it as you edit.

4.Know your grammar and punctuation rules – or know where to look them up.

·        Study the rules of grammar and punctuation.Review the ones you don’t know.If you have a writing handbook or handouts, keep them out when you write.Refer to them when you have questions as you write and edit.

Proofreading

Proofreading, the final stage, focuses on “random goofs.”The final draft has been corrected, but sometimes, because of computer error, fatigue, carelessness, or oversight, mistakes are still present.It is important to go through the paper one last time to catch these random goofs.

  1. Read the paper as a reader.
    • Read and enjoy your work.Sit back, and read the paper as if you were the teacher.What do you notice?
  1. Read one sentence/paragraph at a time.

·        Take a clean sheet of paper, and place it under the first sentence of your paper.Read this sentence carefully.Do you see any mistakes, typos, or careless omissions?

  1. Read backwards.

·        Start at the bottom of the page on the right side.Look at the words from right to left, check for spelling/typographical errors.



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