A Checklist for Editing

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    A Checklist for Editing

    N. Sivinrev. 2004.12.14

    This checklist is a guide not only for revising drafts, but also for teaching yourself or reviewingthe most basic elements that you need to think critically about your own writing. This is oftennecessary, since most schools no longer teach grammar. That may be unavoidable because of inadequate budgets, but it drastically shortchanges their students. [Go directly to the Checklist ]

    If you do not fully understand the concepts and general idea of any item below, click on the link at the end of it (underlined and in color) and you will be taken to a detailed explanation.Examples accompany each explanation. Many of the bad examples come from scholarlypublications, since academic writing can be as prolix and sloppy as any other kind of writing.When you are ready to return to the original item, click on the return link. If any explanation isnot clear, or if further detail is needed, see me or use the link at the end of this page to send me amessage about the problem.

    It may be that you need or want more help than this concentrated guide provides. Of themany detailed manuals and reference guides I have examined, A Writers Reference , by DianaHacker (4th ed., Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999), is the best. It is available fromPennsylvania Book Center on 34th Street.

    Good prose aims to be clear and concise, because its purpose is communication, to persuadeother people to agree with something you think or believe. Great prose may take more windingpaths to communication, but if you haven't learned to write well you will not learn to writesuperbly.

    Keep in mind that most education takes place outside of schools, and that a good deal of it tendsto make writing not clearer and more concise, but vaguer and wordier. Most of what you readand watch on the tube exists for one of two purposes. Adspeak aims to convince you thatsomething just like its competitors is unique, so you will buy it. Bureaucratese aims to drownyou in verbiage so that the functionary who writes it will not be held responsible when thedocument turns out to be wrong or misleading. You will find some remarks on the specialcharacteristics of bureaucratese below.

    1. Title and Lead Sentence: Titles are not generally required for course papers, but they are agood idea, since they let the reader know at the outset what you mean to say. A good leadsentence whets the reader's appetite with a taste of how you mean to say it. Comment_1

    2. Concision: Unless you are able to write baroque prose with true art, ask of every word andevery sentence whether it is essential. If it isn't, get rid of it. Comment 2

    3. Clear Structure: As you go over each sentence, strip it down to its basic structure usuallysubject-verb-object and see whether problems emerge. **For instance, if you aren't sure what'swrong with "A broader spectrum of opinion should be given consideration," when you strip it

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    down to "spectrum should be given consideration," its lack of impact, and the sidelining of thekey word "broader," become obvious. This vague example may mean "[Who?] should ask more[of whose?] opinions." Comment 3

    4. Noun Used as Adjective: Bureaucrats string nouns together to hide the relation that a

    preposition would clarify. If your aim is not to confuse, make sure that the relation will beunambiguous to someone who knows nothing about the subject matter. If it isn't, connect thenouns with a preposition, the normal connecting link. The bureaucratese "improving patientcare" may refer to being more patient when caring, to patients caring more, or to taking care of patients. Comment 4

    5. Action in Verb: What word in the sentence describes the main action? If not the verb, rewrite.The bureaucratese "perform customer servicing" combines a flabby verb with misuse of a wordthat means to maintain inanimate objects such as automobiles; the corresponding English phraseis "serve customers." Keep in mind too that whoever carries out the main action shouldordinarily be the subject of the sentence. Comment 5

    6. Apostrophe: Essential-- never optional --to signal the possessive: "women's income," "themembers' table." There is one important exception. "It's" means not "belonging to it" but "it is"(and, in speech, "it has"). "Its" is the possessive ("in its place"). Comment 6

    7. Quotation Marks: Are they employed for a direct quotation, a technical term about to bedefined, or for a word knowingly misused? If none of these for instance, if you are writing an"ordinary" colloquial phrase don't use them. They signal to readers that you don't mean whatyou say but aren't willing to reveal what you mean (what did I mean in the last sentence?).Comment 7

    8. Punctuation. There are three common problems to keep in mind:(a) Review, if necessary, when clauses need to be set off by commas and when they don't. Asimple test: Are you sure of the difference of meaning between "This beetle has spread throughthe Eastern states where the climate suits it" and "This beetle has spread through the Easternstates, where the climate suits it"? Keep in mind too that unless a clause begins or ends asentence one comma is not enough to set it off. Comment 8a

    (b) If you aren't sure about the colon and semicolon, learn them or else dont use them. A simpletest: which one can you use to join closely related sentences? If you are tempted to run sentencestogether with "and," make sure they are intimately related. You can't use a comma to run two

    sentences together, no matter how closely related they may be. Avoid using the clumsy"however" to make run-on sentences. Comment 8b

    (c) Hyphenate compound adjectives. "He is not an active duty officer" may mean he is lazywhen on duty; "active-duty officer" is not ambiguous. Comment 8c

    9. Passive: Is it essential? If not, make it active. Bureaucrats love passive constructions, becauseby concealing the actor they hide responsibility. The functionary's "it was asserted that all

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    information exchanged within the organization should be via paper documents" (verb "be")might become in plain English "[someone] proposed that we exchange all information on paper"(verb "exchange). Comment 9

    10. Consistency in Lists: If you list a series of items, are they consistent in number and form?

    There is no mystery about how to repair "the main causes of death are viruses, tuberculosisbacillus, and to eat too much." If you don't know whether "bacillus" is singular or plural, look itup. Comment 10

    11. Number of Noun and Verb or Pronoun: Is a singular noun followed by a plural verb, orthe other way around? When you strip down "the creative ideas that originate in this office is notalways fruitful" to "ideas is fruitful" the error becomes obvious. Comment 11

    12. Spelling: Spelling is not an adult problem. Cure it by getting and using a good dictionary--and by proofreading. Comment 12

    13. Proofreading: An essential step in writing is to read your final copy carefully and make last-minute corrections in black ink. Even if your paper is beautifully written and printed, if it hasmany typos, readers will doubt that you cared enough to give it your best try. Comment 13

    14. Printing: Make sure everything is double-spaced, including footnotes. Put a running headeror footer with at least the page number on every page after the first. Comment 14

    Return to the top of the Checklist

    Commentaries

    1. Title and Lead Sentence

    One of the best ways to make writing dull is to assume that the reader doesn't mind being bored.In the so-called real world outside the university, readers pick up something, look at it, decidewhether it looks interesting or useful, and put it down unless something about it has convincedthem that it is worth the trouble. If you don't make your argument accessible and attractive, even those forced to read it will give it a minimum of attention and thought, and forget it rightaway. In other words, attention can never be taken for granted; it has to be earned.

    Readers want to know what a piece of non-fiction writing is about. They normally give theauthor the benefit of the doubt, assuming that she has something she wants to communicate and

    to persuade them to think about. In return, they expect that she will tell them what that topic is.

    The first step in satisfying this expectation is the title . A title states the subject clearly andconcisely enough so that the reader begins with a general idea. Coy or mysterious wording willfascinate a few readers and drive away the rest. On the other hand, finding a funny or witty wayto encapsulate the topic is likely to be attractive.

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    The second step is the lead sentence. It may reveal the basic elements of the paper what it willargue, in what way, using what evidence or it may say something fascinating. If it offersnothing that will make an undecided person read on, you will lose your readers. Even if it sayssomething worth while, if it says it in a convoluted way, or meanders, or relies on academicwindiness to sound authoritative, it will turn readers off. Deal boldly with a blah lead sentence.

    Throw it out, ask yourself what would tempt your roommate into reading on, and write thatinstead.

    The actual beginning of an important article entitled "Learning Mathematical Sciences during theEarly and Mid-Ch'ing": "The study of the role of scientific knowledge in learning and educationin Ch'ing China can be linked to the concerns of comparative history." Academics write quite alot about the role of this and that in something else, so this sentence prepares the reader for lotsof clichs. Why are both "learning" and "education" necessary? The author gives no clue. "Canbe linked" is what critics of writing call a "meta-statement." Meta-statements are not about thetopic, but about talking about the topic. In academese, as a way of evading clear statement, theycan become very elaborate, for instance "it can be said without undue fear of contradiction

    that " Such ruminations suggest that the author is more interested in writing aboutpotentialities than in stating a concrete proposition with which some people will agree but others,inevitably, disagree. What action is going on in this all-too-stately sentence? Who can say? Themain verb (item 5 ) is "link," but linking to concerns is hardly likely to be a major theme of thepaper. "Can be linked" is also passive (item 9 ), so that it manages to hide who can potentially dothis mysterious linking. Finally, the author assumes that the reader knows what Ch'ing China is,or doesn't care if she doesn't one more turnoff. Ho hum!

    Turning the main point of this sentence into an uncomplicated and interesting statement is noteasy, since the author did not provide enough clear and concrete information. Since you can'tforce it out of the author, you can only guess. My guess (after reading the essay) is that it means

    something like "From 1700 on, science was at least as important in Chinese education as it wasanywhere else in the world." This is a bold claim the poin...

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