Editing at the Sentence Level Help (page 4)
Introduction to Editing Your Essay
To edit your essay effectively, you'll need to read each paragraph a number of times, paying careful attention to your sentences and the words that comprise them. While some students edit well on the computer, many others work better on a hard copy. Unlike revising, which entails the possible reworking of large parts of your essay, editing is a word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence task. Taking pen to paper may help you focus more closely on the pieces that make up your essay, rather than the work as a whole.
As you read the hard copy of your essay, pen in hand, ask yourself the following questions. Circle any problems as you encounter them. You might also want to make a quick note in the margin with an idea or two about how to improve the problem(s).
- Are unnecessary words and phrases cluttering up your sentences?
- Do you repeat yourself? Rework your point so that you say it well the first time, and remove any repetitious words and phrases.
- Are there any clichés, pretentious language, or confusing jargon?
- Do you use the active voice whenever possible?
- Do you avoid using ambiguous words and phrases?
- Are verb tenses consistent?
- Is the antecedent for every pronoun clear?
- Do you use precise adjectives and adverbs?
- Is your sentence structure varied? Sentences should not be the same length, nor should they be repetitive in any other way, such as all beginning with a noun, followed by a verb, followed by an object.
After you've read your essay a few times and highlighted any areas that need improving, focus on one problem at a time.
Why use ten words to get across a meaning that could be better said in five? Those ten words will definitely waste your reader's time and probably confuse the point you're trying to make. Many of the words and phrases that follow are both well known and, unfortunately, well used. They don't convey meaning, and are therefore unnecessary. The following are three of the worst offenders, with usage examples.
- Because of the fact that. In most cases, just because will do.
- Because of the fact that he was late, he missed his flight.
- Because he was late, he missed his flight.
- That andwhich phrases. Eliminate them by turning the idea in the that or which phrase into an adjective.
- These were directions that were well written.
- These directions were well written.
- That by itself is a word that often clutters sentences unnecessarily, as in the following example:
- The newscaster said that there was a good chance that election turnout would be low and that it could result in a defeat for our candidate.
- The newscaster said there was a good chance election turnout would be low and could result in a defeat for our candidate.
Wordy and Concise Sentences
Avoid Unnecessary Repetition
Unnecessary repetition is a sign of sloppy writing. It's easy to repeat the same thing, varying it slightly each time. It's harder to say something well once, and then write about your next idea or example. Repetition also wastes valuable time and space. If you are writing while the clock is ticking, or are limited to a number of words or pages, say it right the first time and move on.
Repetition can be found even in short phrases. The list that follows contains dozens of such phrases that can clutter your essay. Most of them contain a specific word and its more general category. Why state both? The word memoriescan only refer to the past, so you don't need to say past memories. We know that blue is a color, so describing something as blue in color is repetitive and therefore unnecessary. In most cases, you can correct the redundant phrase by dropping the category and retaining the specific word.
Some of the phrases use a modifier that is unneeded, because the specific is implied in the general. For instance, the word consensus means general agreement. Therefore, modifying it with the word general is repetitive. Similarly, mathematics is a field of study, so it does not need to be modified with the word field. You can tighten up your writing, saying it well one time, by eliminating wordiness.
Avoid Overly Informal and Overused Language
Words and phrases that are too formal, too obscure, or overused don't belong in your essay.
- They sound pretentious (you're supposed to sound like you, not a politician or chairman of the board).
- They can sound ridiculous (by using words that are not in your normal vocabulary, you run the risk of using them incorrectly).
- They may appear as a "tactic" (your reader might think you are trying to add weight with words because you are worried your essay isn't well written or that your ideas aren't worth reading).
The last thing you want to do is turn off or offend your reader. Since it's difficult to know what kinds of language your audience may find offensive or in poor taste, err on the side of caution by not including any language considered even mildly obscene, gross, or otherwise offensive. This includes scatological and sexual terms, and words such as butt (as in "I worked my butt off "), hell (as in "hotter than hell"), God (as in "oh, God!"), and damn.
Clichés should be avoided not only because they are too informal, but also because they are overused. Your writing must be in your own voice, without relying on stale phrases such as one step at a time; no news is good news; have a nice day; when life gives you lemons, make lemonade; and no guts, no glory.
Slang is nonstandard English. Its significance is typically far removed from either a word's denotative or connotative meaning, and is particular to certain groups (therefore, it excludes some readers who won't understand it). Examples include blow off, canned, no sweat, and thumbs down (or up). It is also inappropriate and offensive to use slang terms for racial or religious groups.
Buzzwords are a type of slang. They're words (real or made up) that take the place of simpler, more direct words. They are, at best, pompous, and at worst, confusing. And, like other forms of slang, buzzwords don't belong in your essays. Examples include resultful (gets results), suboptimal (not the best), guesstimate (estimate), requisite (necessary), potentiality (potential), and facilitate (help).
Think Twice before Opening Your Thesaurus
Big words won't win points with your readers. Aim to sound like yourself, not to impress with your knowledge of ten-letter words. Here are three reasons to stop looking for and using so-called big words.
To the point:I decided to keep it simple by packing only those things that I could carry in one suitcase.
Thesaurized: I determined to eschew obfuscation by packing only those things that I could transport in one valise.
To the point:At my summer job, I had the chance to learn about Information Technology as it relates to engineering.
Thesaurized: At my summer employment, I had the fortuity to obtain IT-related information as it pertains to the engineering field.
Don't assume your audience shares your interests or familiarity with technology; write instead for a reader who has a broad knowledge base that is not expert in any subject. That means explaining anything your reader might not be familiar with, without talking down. Examples include ISP (Internet Service Provider), screenagers (teens who are online), mouse potato (technology's answer to the couch potato), and I-way (information superhighway).
Use the Active Voice
Verbs have two voices. In the active voice, the subject is the source of, or cause of, the action. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. In a personal essay, you are usually the subject. That means the active voice is much more effective in conveying your personality through your essay—you're the "actor," not the "acted upon." The active voice is also clearer and more direct. In the following examples, note the simplicity and directness of the first sentence in each pair. The second sentences, written in the passive voice, are clunky and noticeably longer.
- My friend asked for another helping.
- Another helping was asked for by my friend.
- I misplaced my wallet.
- My wallet was misplaced by me.
- The administration has selected three finalists for the open position.
- Three finalists for the open position have been selected by the administration.
Ambiguous means having two or more possible meanings. Ambiguous language can either be words and phrases that have more than one meaning, or word order that conveys a meaning different from the one intended by the writer:
The quarterback liked to tackle his problems.
This sentence can be read two ways: The quarterback likes to deal with his problems, or his problems are his opponents on the field whom he grabs and knocks down. This kind of confusion can happen whenever a word has more than one possible meaning. The quarterback liked to address his problems is a better sentence, and is unlikely to be misunderstood.
My advisor proofread my essay with the red sports car.
Here, the word order of the sentence, not an individual word, causes the confusion. Did the advisor proofread the essay with his car? Because the phrase with the red sports car is in the wrong place, the meaning of the sentence is unclear. Try instead: My advisor with the red sports car proofread my essay.
Clear Up Confusing Pronoun References
Pronouns (words such as I, we, them, and her) take the place of nouns. They should only be used when the noun to which they refer (known as the antecedent) is obvious and meaningful. Check the pronouns in your writing to be certain they are not one of the following:
- too far from the antecedent
Correcting Ambiguous Language
Ambiguous: When doing the laundry, the phone rang.
Clear: The phone rang when I was doing the laundry.
Ambiguous: She almost waited an hour for her friend.
Clear: She waited almost an hour for her friend.
Ambiguous: I told her I'd give her a ring tomorrow.
Clear: I told her I'd call her tomorrow.
Ambiguous: A speeding motorist hit a student who was jogging through the park in her blue sedan.
Clear: A speeding motorist in a blue sedan hit a student who was jogging through the park.
More Examples of Pronoun Usage
Incorrect: Both Fellini and Bergman edited his movie.
Correct: Both Fellini and Bergman edited Bergman's movie.
Incorrect: Leave all ingredients out of the recipes that do not belong in a healthy diet.
Correct: Leave all ingredients that do not belong in a healthy diet out of the recipes.
Incorrect: They banned parking in their lot so the snowplows could do their job.
Correct: The owners of the parking lot banned parking in their lot so the snowplows could do their job.
Incorrect: The Civil War and the Spanish-American War took place in the nineteenth century. It was a turning point for the country.
Correct: The Civil War and the Spanish-American War took place in the nineteenth century. The Civil War was a turning point for the country.
Example: Trini is interested in teaching and farming, which is her career choice.
What is her career choice? Which could mean either teaching or farming, making it unclear. The writer needs to restate the career instead of using a pronoun in order to eliminate the possibility the reader will not understand the sentence. Corrected: Trini is interested in teaching and farming, but farming is her career choice.
Example: They always talk about the dangers of global warming.
This common pronoun error is known as an expletive: They is useless, because it appears to refer to no one. If the writer has that information, he or she can revise the sentence to be more precise: The newspaper frequently has articles about the dangers of global warming. If there is truly no they, the sentence should be revised by eliminating it: There is much talk about the dangers of global warming.
Use Modifiers to Add Precision
Modifiers make your point clear while adding meaning and originality to your writing. Consider how powerful, specific adjectives and adverbs work in these sentences:
- Sentence A: My grandmother put on her sweater.
- Sentence B: My grandmother put on her cashmere sweater.
- Sentence A: The football team practiced in the rain.
- Sentence B: The football team practiced in the torrential downpour.
In both cases, sentence B allows you to hear the voice and impressions of the writer, giving a more accurate and interesting picture of the action.
The right modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) can also get your message across in fewer words. This is critical in an essay with a specified length. You don't want to sacrifice unique details, but sometimes, one word will do the job better than a few. For example, Chihuahua can take the place of little dog; exhausted can take the place of really tired; and late can take the place of somewhat behind schedule.
Vary Your Sentence Structure
The repetition of sentence patterns is not only boring, but in some cases, it can reduce your grade. The SAT essay, for example, is scored by readers trained to look for, and reward, variety in sentence structure. They can deduct a point or two for an essay filled with sentences that follow the same pattern. When you're editing your essay, check for monotonous sentence structure. Here's an example:
The plasma membrane is the outermost part of the cell. It isolates the cytoplasm. It regulates what comes in and out of the cytoplasm. It also allows interaction with other cells. The cytoplasm is the second layer of the cell. It contains water, salt, enzymes, and proteins. It also contains organelles like mitochondria.
Notice how each sentence begins with a noun or pronoun, followed by a verb. The rhythm created by this repetition is boring. A successful edit should vary the sentences:
The plasma membrane, the outermost part of the cell, isolates the cytoplasm. It regulates what comes in and out of the cell and allows interaction with other cells. The second layer, the cytoplasm, contains water, salt, enzymes, and proteins, as well as organelles like mitochondria.
The edited version combines sentences and uses introductory phrases and appositives (descriptive words and phrases set off by commas) to vary sentence structure. The result is a much more engaging paragraph.
Wordiness and ambiguity often prevent ideas from coming across clearly. Edit your sentences to eliminate clutter and unnecessary repetition. Revise sentences that use overly informal or overused words, and exchange the passive voice for the active. Clarify ambiguous words and unclear pronoun references. Finally, improve your writing by using precise modifiers and adding variety to your sentence structure.
Skill Building until Next Time
Try writing some bad sentences. Use unnecessary words and repetition, jargon, pretentious words, unclear pronoun references, and ambiguous words. Avoid exact words and phrases, and repeat the same sentence structure. By trying to write poorly, you'll get a better sense of what to avoid in your writing.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Editing at the Sentence Level Practice