Editing is most effective when it is approached systematically, going from the big picture down to the details. Good editing starts with examining argument, structure, paragraphing and evidence, and then drilling down to the details of expression and proofreading. By examining each level in turn, you can focus on making sure you're conveying your ideas as clearly and persuasively as possible.
Level 1: Argument
Goal: Determine if your argument is clear, upfront, well-supported, considered, convincing and logically developed.
Argument (or your key message) is the most important part of your writing. As such, the first thing you should assess when editing is whether or not you are conveying your argument effectively. To edit for argument, look for the following in your writing.
- Does your introduction clearly establish your research question/s?
- Does your introduction explain why you are asking your research question/s?
- Does your introduction outline your answers to your research questions? In other words, does it have a clear and succinct thesis statement?
- Do your chapter introductions indicate how they contribute to the whole thesis?
- Do your main sections develop logically and contribute to your overall position?
- Does your conclusion restate your argument and suggest what it means in the broader context of your discipline?
A common problem that arises with early drafts is that the argument doesn't appear until end. This problem arises because writing is a process of thinking, which means that it's likely that you won't know exactly what your position is until you've worked through your key points. A good technique when editing is therefore to look at how you've expressed your argument in the conclusion. These sentences can often be moved to the introduction and made into a strong thesis statement.
Level 2: Structure
Goal: Ensure the structure is logical, flowing, signposted and develops the argument.
Having an argument is crucial. However, for your argument to be effective, it needs to be sustained throughout the body of your writing. When editing a large piece of work for its structure, first of all look at your thesis outline and check whether the broad structure is logical using the strategies on the Thesis structures page. Generally, ask yourself the following questions.
- Does each chapter help to develop the overall argument?
- Do the chapters follow a logical sequence?
- Are any of the chapters too long, short, repetitive, or descriptive? If so, can you cull or expand the writing to make the argument concise but clear? Consider what is necessary to make your central argument clear.
Once you have considered the broad structure, then look at the structure of individual chapters. Look at each of your sections, and think about what they are contributing to the whole. Are they in the most logical order? Do they simply repeat the same idea with different examples? Would they be clearer if you moved them around a bit? Then ask yourself the same questions about the sequence of paragraphs within sections.
Think also about the major divisions or transitions in your paper. How many key points do you make? Are they obvious to the reader? Sometimes when re-reading your work you might find that transitions between ideas happen in the middle of paragraphs. This isn't necessarily the best place for them - the reader can easily miss your most original reasoning if you bury it in the middle of a long paragraph. Ask yourself, would it be better if the transitions took place at the beginning of a section? Making these types of changes can make your ideas easier to follow.
Finally, look again at the introduction and chapter introductions. Do the procedural statements match the actual development of ideas in the work? If not, you may need to rethink either the structure or the procedural statement - they should match one another. Remember, you don't want your reader to be confused about what you're discussing and why.
Level 3: Paragraphing
Goals: Use topic sentences and paragraphing techniques to communicate a logical and persuasive argument.
Once you've read your work for structure, it's time to focus on individual paragraphs. Remember that a paragraph is supposed to represent one key idea. Does each paragraph correspond to one major idea? Often when editing you'll find that what seemed like one point would actually make more sense as two. Alternatively, you can combine paragraphs if they are saying the same thing. Cutting superfluous examples can effectively save words.
Take particular care with your topic sentences. Topic sentences are where the main idea for each paragraph should be expressed. They also do valuable work in signalling transitions, linking the paragraph back to the main argument, as well as highlighting what point will be discussed in that particular paragraph. Does every paragraph have a topic sentence? If you find that your paragraphs start with a quotation or a summary of other scholars' ideas, you might want to revise them - you want to start a paragraph with your own idea, not someone else's. One strategy to check your topic sentences is to copy and paste the topic sentences into a separate document and read through them. Are they conveying the argument effectively? Are the connections between ideas clear? This can also be a good strategy for evaluating the structure.
Next, look at the middle parts of the paragraphs. The middle of each paragraph is the best place to put quotes, examples, evidence, counter-examples and analysis. If quoting from a source, make sure it actually supports the point you want to make. Is your quotation accurate? Is it a reputable scholarly source? Are there other examples you could use that would be stronger or more effective?
Another thing to check is that your paragraphs are not too long or short. A good rule of thumb is to aim for each paragraph to fall somewhere between 100 and 200 words. Excessively long paragraphs (taking up a whole page for example) may indicate that you are trying to fit more than one idea in the paragraph. It may also indicate that you have too much evidence/data. Can you reduce or consolidate the examples you use? Can you break the paragraph up into more manageable chunks? Long paragraphs are liable to slow down the reading and confuse the reader. On the other hand, very short paragraphs (one or two sentences) usually provide insufficient evidence and produce a fragmented, choppy text. It may indicate to your reader that you haven't fully elaborated your ideas. Ask yourself whether that idea belongs to another paragraph, or whether you need to use evidence to develop that paragraph's idea.
Finally, check your linking sentences. Are they conveying the development of your ideas? Can you make transitions punchier? Will your reader be able to see how your material corresponds to your argument, and how it relates back to the question?
Level 4: Expression
Goals: Use clear, concise, grammatically correct prose. Vary your sentence openings and structures.
Now that you've done the broader structural editing, it is time to work on the smaller details. Firstly, check your sentences for flow. Does one sentence lead naturally to another? Sentences may need to be both forward and backward looking: summarising what has been said previously, as well as introducing new material that will be elaborated in the following sentences.
Just like paragraphs, sentences should be the right length: not too long, and not too short. It is very common for first drafts to be excessively wordy. Often you can eliminate 10-20% of a draft simply by cutting extraneous phrases and eliminating synonyms. Doing so will not only give you more freedom to develop your ideas, it will also make your language stronger and easier to read. Of course, there are advantages to using the occasional long sentence, and a well-placed short sentence can add a sense of vibrancy and dynamism to your writing. However, these work best when used in balance with other medium-length sentences.
When editing your sentences, pay particular attention to the amount of clauses. These are often indicated by punctuation (a comma, for example) or a conjunction ('because,' 'therefore'). If your sentence has too many clauses (one to three is generally enough), this may indicate the sentence is getting too long, and that it needs to be broken down. Also, if you can, try to put your most important point at the beginning of the sentence, rather than at the end.
Having read your paper for argument and structure, you are now ready to proofread. Unlike editing, which involves reflecting on how ideas are expressed and arranged, proofreading is a mechanical task. When proofreading, you are looking for spelling mistakes, typos, missing and repeated words. Use punctuation and capitalisation consistently, and check over your references. Having a friend read your work can help with proofreading, as can reading it out loud or printing in a different font or colour - this de-familiarises the text, helping you to read it with fresh eyes. Below are some checklists of things to remember when proofreading.
Techniques and strategies
- Read aloud
- Read from end of text to start
- Read for one thing at a time
- Use the 'find' and 'replace' functions in Word
- Do small chunks with frequent breaks
- Allow time between drafting and proofreading where possible
- It takes a lot of editing and proofreading to produce good work. Don't be afraid to rearrange your ideas and adjust your argument. As long as you've left yourself enough time to do it well, you'll produce a better writing at the end of it. And the more you edit, the better your writing will become.
Academic writing style tips
- Vary the language you use. Do not, for example, start every sentence with the same construction.
- If you are presenting a list (First, . . . Second, . . . Finally, . . .) make sure you have told the reader what it is you are listing.
- Use gender-neutral language. For example, use "human" or "humankind" rather than "man" and "mankind."
- If you use acronyms, give in full first, acronym in brackets after, and use the acronym thereafter, e.g. United Kingdom (UK).
- When referring to a decade, do not use an apostrophe, e.g. write 1980s, not 1980's.
- Within paragraphs, numbers one to ten should be written as words. After that, numbers 11 onwards should be numerals. If you begin a sentence with a number, write the number rather than use a numeral.
- Avoid stating absolutes, e.g. a perfect example, a total failure, everybody believes. Be careful also with generalisations like always, never, only.