Editing sentences!

When people ask me to “edit” a piece of writing, they mean sentence editing and proofreading to polish their writing and trim flabby academic prose.

I was excited to complete this week’s tasks of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks because I got to start polishing my own writing.

I’ve been revising the big stuff in my article-in-progress for weeks: moving, cutting, rewriting. I am still revising a lengthy section of my article, but wanted to begin editing my writing and reviewing sentence structure.

Now that I give writing advice for a living, I’m more conscious of my own bad habits as a writer. Nevertheless, self-editing is harder than editing other people’s writing. I’ve read many books to learn to write better and thought a lot about my writing style. Unfortunately, I’m still prone to committing exactly the same mistakes I counsel my clients to avoid

Wendy Belcher offers a useful way to diagnose writing problems using the power of Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace command. I use LibreOffice on Linux, which lags behind Word in features, but I recreated her method more or less. Using Find and Replace, I color coded different groups of words in the text. Prepositional phrases became purple. Adverbs became brown. Pronouns became blue. And so forth.

Once I had color coded the text, I started analyzing the different groups of colors and words to revise my writing.

Running Wendy Belcher’s diagnostic on my article-in-progress showed me several interesting things.

Some parts of my article contained strong writing. I like writing short sentences. I don’t tend to drone. I use short words rather than long ones. I omit needless words. With few exceptions, I’ve trained myself to write in active voice. I write with active verbs and concrete nouns. I avoid vague pronouns and banish nominalizations where possible.

On the other hand, I saw where my writing could improve. My sentences contain too many unnecessary prepositional phrases. For example, searching the text (approximately 7,100 words) for the word “of” revealed that it appeared over 300 times in my text. The preposition “in” appeared 110 times and “as” appeared ninety-five times. I began figuring out how to either change the prepositions into verbs or modifiers or remove them.

Here’s an example sentence from my article: [problem areas in brackets]

Recent scholarship [has] focused on [the ways that] world’s fairs [produced and reproduced] racial hierarchies, [which in turn], justified imperial projects abroad and eugenic policies at home.

This is far from the worst sentence I’ve ever written, but nor is it the best. Here are its problems:

  • Too many unnecessary prepositions and words (on, that, which, in, at).
  • Repetition [do I really need to say “produced and reproduced”?]
  • “The ways that…” Wordy. This should just be how.
  • Parallelism: “imperial projects abroad” and “eugenic policies at home” are parallel enough, but could be better as “foreign imperial projects and domestic eugenic policies.”

The solution for this is to turn the nouns into adjectives and the nouns into verbs where possible. Revising this sentence gives:

Recent scholarship shows how fairs reproduced the racial hierarchies that justified foreign imperial projects and domestic eugenic policies.

The revision isn’t dramatic, but it’s a tighter and better sentence. I kept the “and” between the foreign imperial projects and domestic eugenic policies because they’re different concepts. However, I eliminated the “produced and” because produce and reproducing repeat the same idea. I removed most of the unnecessary prepositional phrases. I omitted more needless words.

Belcher recommends that we search out boring, overused verbs, including to be, to have, to make, to do, to provide, and to seem. I know my own writing quirks quite well. I love sentences with verb constructions like this: “….sought to show the world that…” I added my own favorite empty verbs to the search and find list. I found many instances of “aimed to” and “sought to.” I deleted all instances of them.

I saw where I hid ideas underneath wishy-washy language using “not only…” to soften up an idea rather than writing it in clear, positive language. Here’s an example:

Industrial progress depended not only on improving the nation's infrastructure, but also on improving the nation’s racial stock.

It’s a weak sentence because I’m hiding the real idea behind the “not only…but also structure.” Revised:

Economic progress depended on whitening the nation’s native peoples.

Shorter, clearer, and less repetitive.  The ugliness of this idea is now on full display.

Editing my own writing like this is tedious, but necessary. I like to think that I craft brilliant sentences on the first try, but the fourth or fifth try would be more accurate.

I’m closing in on finishing my article in the next few weeks. Exciting!









Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.