When I teach creative academic writing, students sometimes ask: ‘How should I edit my writing?’ It’s a good question. There are lots of books and courses to teach you how to write; far fewer to teach you how to edit, which is a key part of the writing process.
Editing is really quite straightforward. The first step is to make a list of the editing tasks that need to be done. This list will be different every time, and for different writers, and for different pieces of work. It will also be different if you are editing your own first draft into a second draft, or if you are editing in response to reviewers’ comments.
In producing different drafts, it may help to consider that in the first draft you are telling the story for yourself, to figure it out and get it clear in your own mind. Then in the second draft you are re-telling it for other people, to help them understand the story you have to tell. When you have a complete first draft (and have celebrated your achievement and taken a break from your writing), you can read it through and make your list of editing tasks based on what you find that needs attention. My list for a journal article might look something like this:
- Pull out sub-headings to check that structure is OK – revise if necessary
- Make sure tenses are used consistently
- Find over-long sentences and split them up into shorter ones
- Check that conclusion is effective
- Make sure all literature cited is in reference list
- Make sure everything in reference list is cited
Your list might need to include different tasks. Mine doesn’t say anything about spelling because the Spelling Gods blessed me with champion spelling abilities. But it does mention consistent use of tenses and over-long sentences, because I know that in first drafts I don’t always use tenses consistently and sometimes I forget to use punctuation where I should. As an experienced writer, I can often write my editing to-do list without re-reading my work (or maybe just re-reading a bit of it), because I know my failings and what I need to do at the second draft stage.
You may also notice that the list above doesn’t include polishing tasks such as reading carefully line by line to check for errors. This is because those are end-stage tasks, for the third draft, but editing is a middle-stage task, for the second draft. The distinctions are not hard-and-fast – some people would leave tasks 5 and 6 above for the third draft, and that would be fine – but the general point is sound.
If you are working with reviewers’ feedback on a journal article, your list may include things like:
- Revise abstract for clarity
- Include work of X in literature review
- Expand methodology section
- Delete all references to Y as it is beyond the scope of the article
- Take a more critical analytic approach to findings – don’t just describe
- Ensure article is as culturally sensitive as possible
When you have your list, the second step is to do each task in turn. Don’t try to do them all at once as you work through your draft because you will inevitably miss things. It can become tedious to keep on going through the draft again and again, so take plenty of breaks, or aim for a certain amount each day. This is particularly important if you are working on a long piece of writing such as a dissertation, thesis or book.
As you work on your text, you may notice another task that is needed, in which case go right ahead and add it to your list.
And that’s it! Simple, yes?
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