By Ashley Burchett
Imaginative writing has its source in dream, risk, mystery, and play. But if you are to be a good—and perhaps a professional writer, you will need discipline, care, and ultimately even an obsessive perfectionism. As poet Paul Engle famously said, “Writing is rewriting what you have written.
—Janet Burroway, Imaginative Writing
This quotation from the seventh chapter of Janet Burroway’s book Imaginative Writing is one of my favorite insights Burroway offers. If, as poet Engle notes, “writing is rewriting what you have rewritten,” then editing exists as a vital stage in the writing process, a stage to be revisited again and again and again. The following editing checklist includes the steps I take to edit style and mechanics in my academic and creative writing:
1. Reading aloud
Reading aloud helps me catch my mistakes, especially spelling errors, missing or extra words/phrases, and punctuation mishaps. I’m far quicker to catch my mistakes if I hear them. I try to avoid reading my paper, poem, or story aloud right after I have finished writing. If I do, I will often miss mistakes because the work is still fresh on my mind and I remain too close to the work. Rather, I step away from the work and come back to it, reading and listening to it while maintaining a sense of distance from it.
2. Verb tense
When appropriate, I strive to maintain the active voice in my writing. Thus, I look for any verbs or verb phrases that have passive construction and revise to the active voice. Sentences written in the active voice require the subject of the sentence to perform the action: “The dog bit the vet.” Whereas the subject receives the action of the verb in the passive voice: “The vet was bitten by the dog.” I try to choose a subject that names who performs the action.
3. Colorful, Deliberate verbs
I try to never use verbs like “says” or “states” because verbs like these tend to be overused and bore the reader. In academic writing, I try to think about what the authors of my quotations do in my paragraph. Does the author I cite “ask,” “explain,” or “argue”? Moreover, once I pick a verb that correctly describes what the author does (like, “ask”), I utilize the thesaurus in my Word document and look for a more colorful use of “ask” (such as, “interrogate” or “query”). In creative writing, this step applies to the characters’ quotations. Does a character merely state, “I can’t believe you lied to me.” Or does he or she “exclaim,” “whimper,” or “fume”?
4. Pronoun-antecedent agreement
I usually discover mistakes concerning number in my pronoun-antecedent agreement. For instance, I have made a mistake if I write: “When someone contracts the flu, they need to visit their doctor.” My antecedent someone is singular, while my pronouns they and their areplural. I could either correct the sentence to read: “When someone contracts the flu, he or sheneeds to visit his or her doctor” (both antecedent and pronoun are singular) or “When peoplecontract the flu, they need to visit their doctor” (both antecedent and pronoun are plural).
5. Varying the style, structure, and length of sentences
Adding sentence variety to either academic or creative writing helps enliven the text and engage the reader. I strive to vary the style or purpose (declarative, interrogative, etc.) structure (intro or concluding phrases/clauses, transition words, etc.), and length of my sentences.
6. Concision by eliminating wordiness
I strive to apply concision to my writing by eliminating wordiness. The italics in the following sentence illustrate a wordy version of my previous sentence: “I work really hard to make my writing more concise by cutting down wordy language.”
7. Vague pronouns/pronoun phrases (like this, it, there are/is)
These pronouns and pronoun phrases encourage vague writing and obscure the main subject and action of a sentence. For example: “It is inevitable that oil prices will rise.” Instead, we can edit the sentence to eliminate the vague pronoun “it” and clearly express the main subject and verb: “Oil prices will inevitably rise.”
8. Eliciting someone else’s reading/editing critique
Having someone else read and provide editing critique of your writing can NOT replace your own reading and critique. We must all actively seek to self-edit. However, whether making an appointment with a consultant at the Writing Center or talking with a family member or friend, I find it a helpful supplement to my own editing to have another set of eyes on my writing. For, writing is collaborative both on the idea level and on the sentence level.
Ultimately, I do hope you consider the vital importance of editing your writing. When you engage this process faithfully and effectively, you give yourself the opportunity to produce clear, concise writing of excellence. Happy editing!
Ashley is a graduate of The College at Southeastern with a Bachelors in English and in Christian Studies and a minor in Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication. She hopes to pursue a Masters in composition and rhetoric in order to teach English/composition in the future. Ashley enjoys helping others grow in their ability to communicate through writing and believes that the written and spoken word are tools from God that are used to effectively communicate the Gospel and to create beautiful art. She desires that the words of both her mouth and pen invite others to behold the beauty of Christ.