The Five Steps to Editing and Revising that Every Writer Needs
By Liza Long
Photography by RaseLittlefield
As long as writing has existed, there have been writing critics. In 1871, Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University, decried the appalling lack of writing skills among the famous college’s students: “Bad spelling, incorrectness, as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation … are far from rare among young men otherwise well prepared for college studies.”
As an assistant professor of English at the College of Western Idaho and the owner of My Book Author, LLC, a freelance writing and editing company, I know firsthand how important it is to get some types of writing exactly right. If you’re creating a resume and cover letter, for example, you need perfection. Or if you’re writing something for a business, your written work reflects your professionalism, inspiring confidence and helping you to establish trust with potential clients. If you’re writing a personal narrative or creative work, you want your writing connects with readers and inspire them.
How can you improve your writing and communicate more effectively?
First, remember that writing is a process. There’s no one right way to write. Discovering your individual process will free you to take risks and explore ideas.
All writing starts with generating ideas. What’s your go-to brainstorming strategy? Do you free-write? Cluster map? List? Generate questions? Outline? I personally use freewriting to create sand in my sandbox. Drafting involves shaping that sand into clearly articulated and well-organized prose.
Once I am ready to draft, I consider the two most important factors for any written work: audience and purpose. Who am I writing this for? And why am I writing it? The answers to these questions will shape every aspect of my work.
While there is no right way to write, there is a right way to edit and revise. Once you have the first draft, use this five-step checklist to make sure your writing meets your audience’s needs:
- Revise for unity. Do this at both the paragraph and full content level. At the paragraph level, look for clear topic sentences that tell the reader what the paragraph is about and support the overall main idea of your piece. Then make sure your supporting sentences are all related to the topic sentence in some way. Ifaparagraph about apples contains a sentence about oranges, you may need to revise it for unity.
- Revise for adequate support. This can look different depending on the rhetorical context. If you’re writing a white paper, for example, or a blog for your business website, you’ll want to incorporate several high-quality sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles and data from government websites. Having a blog page with this type of writing can boost your business profile in Google searches. On the other hand, if you’re writing a personal narrative, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of specific, concrete examples. I tell my students to write scenes with dialogue first, then build the narrative around those scenes.
- Revise for coherence. This is where you’ll check the “flow” of your piece to make sure that it’s logical and makes sense to the reader.I recommend that you find at least one external reader to help you with this step because an outside reader will be able to catch places where you may have skipped over important information. I like to print my draft and use scissors or a paper cutter to separate the paragraphs. Then I physically move them around, trying out different combinations to see which one flows best. I also read aloud for this stage of the process. Reading aloud(or using a text reader on your computer) will help you to catch yourself when there’s a logical gap in your ideas.
- Revise for style. My favorite tool for this stage of the process is E.B. White’s classic, The Elements of Style. Style depends on the aforementioned audience and purpose. A personal narrative might be chatty and informal; a white paper should always be formal and academic intone. Most business writing should be jargon-free, written in clear, simple prose supported by specific, concrete examples. It’s important that your style is appropriate for your audience and remains consistent throughout your work.
- Edit for grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc. The final stage of any writing project is copyediting—and you should never ever skip this step. Again, an outside reader can be valuable here.I also recommend using Word’s grammar checkers or the free version of www.grammarly.com.
With these five revising and editing guidelines, you’re ready to take your writing to the next level. Remember that the goal of writing is to communicate—to share your amazing ideas, insights, and experiences with someone else, and to create a record of those ideas.
For more information, about the writing process and tips to make your writing as good as possible, check out this open education free textbook: Write What Matters, by Liza Long, Amy Minervini, and JoelGladd, https://idaho.pressbooks.pub/write/
“Remember that writing is a process.”
—Liza Long, Assistant Professor of English, College ofWestern Idaho