Editing is a complex process, which requires analytical rigour and solutions specific to the text in need of editing. At the same time, there are some fundamental rules of editing that can be applied without much trouble for immediate improvement.
(This sourdough crab wants to help you be a better writer!)
These are simple prescriptions. They are one-size-fits-all. With complex texts, especially unconventional pieces of writing, they will fail you. However, most students or beginners should simply apply these rules without questioning them. They will move your work forward by leaps and bounds, and move you closer to the moment when you will require more complex solutions, and have developed the skill to dispense with prescriptions like these.
1. Be Specific
I learned two things in my Christian grade school. I learned that if you hit a student’s fingers with a ruler when they make typing mistakes, they will learn to type slowly but accurately. I also learned the most important thing I ever learned about writing.
My teacher used to hand back my papers with the letters “B.S.” scrawled on them. I assumed this meant my writing was bullshit. He was a tough, gruff teacher. At the same time, I couldn’t believe my Christian school teacher was actually writing “bullshit” on my papers. Finally, I summoned the nerve to ask him what “B.S.” meant.
“It means Be Specific,” he said. I sighed, relieved. “Why, what did you think it meant?”
Well, he asked. “I thought it meant my writing was bullshit.”
“Sure,” he agreed. “If you aren’t being specific, you’re just writing bullshit.”
What does this mean in practice? First off, it means to avoid words with unclear referents. In other words, take words like he, she, it, they, this, and so on, and replace them with specific words.
If I was writing about Romeo and Juliet, I might end up with a sentence like this:
In the play, the author shows how their sacrifice is misguided.
A revision would be more specific:
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare shows how Romeo and Juliet’s sacrifices are misguided.
My next revision would isolate words and phrases that are not specific enough. In this case, the first question is What sacrifices?
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare shows how when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves by committing suicide, they are misguided.
Here is when I finally get to the problem with the sentence. It was hidden earlier, because my language was too vague. This is the problem with not being specific. Not only does the writing lack clarity, it hides its problems. The real issue here is this: How are the sacrifices misguided?
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare shows how when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves by committing suicide, this youthful rashness is meant to bring them together (in death) but actually prevents them from being together (since Juliet would have awoken and been reunited with Romeo if he hadn’t killed himself).
My revisions should get more and more specific in each draft. Not only will my drafts become more clear, and my arguments more complex, but the additional detail will lengthen the paper.
When students run out of things to write, and start panicking and repeating themselves and rambling to fill up space, their efforts are misguided — just like Romeo's! They are committing academic suicide.
They should just revise each sentence to include more detail. That way, they will fill up the space by developing their arguments, and clarify them while adding complexity, rather than just vomiting onto the page.
2. Eliminate the Passive Voice
Passive voice constructions use some form of the verb “to be” in order to construct a sentence where the subject of the sentence is acted upon by some agent, rather than being the actor itself. Here are two examples of a sentence written in the passive voice:
The road was crossed.
The road was crossed by the chicken.
Active voice constructions turn the subject of the sentence into the actor. Here is an active voice revision of the above sentences:
The chicken crossed the road.
The problem? The chicken is what this sentence is about. The chicken is the one that did something. So the sentence should be about the chicken. Not the road.
On a structural level, the issue is that the actual thing the sentence is supposed to be about (the chicken) is put at the end of the sentence in the passive voice example.
Or — and this is worse — you write the sentence without ever mentioning the chicken.
When a sentence gets really long, this kind of passive voice sentence gets unreadable:
The road was crossed on Thursday at five o’clock when the sun was just starting to set in the wintertime and shadows were lengthening across the road sign that was yellow and fading and could barely be read anymore.
I don’t know what the hell is going on here. Certainly, I don’t know that the point is that a chicken is what crossed the road.
When you do a revision, first go through your paper and circle every occurrence of a “to be” verb — every “is” or “was.” Often, these will be close to another verb, like “crossed.” Rewrite the sentence to eliminate the “to be” verb and just use the verb close by, which is the verb you want to use in the first place.
There will be a few instances where you may retain the verb “to be.” Basically, you want to only keep “to be” if you cannot rewrite the sentence and have the same point. In other words, if the point of the sentence is that something exists, you keep “to be.” If the point is anything else then you need to rewrite the sentence to put it in the active voice.
Figure out the subject of the sentence. Put that thing first (“The chicken”). Then find the right verb. Put it next (“The chicken crossed”). Then conclude the sentence.
3. Eliminate Adverbs and Replace Verbs
Adverbs are words that modify verbs. Often, they end in “ly” and are near a verb:
I ran quickly down the street to get some exercise.
I walked quickly down the street to get some exercise.
The presence of adverbs indicates one of two problems: (1) redundancy or (2) imprecision.
In the first example, I could eliminate the word quickly. Why? Because running is quick. The adverb does not help clarify my meaning.
The second problem is the real problem. I wrote “walked quickly” when I meant something else. I could have written “ran” or “speedwalked” or “jogged” or some other thing that I meant.
What adverbs often indicate is a writing error. I meant ran but I wrote walked. So I had to add the word quickly to cover up my mistake. I need you, the reader, to understand that I am not talking about walking. I’m talking about running or speedwalking or jogging — something quick.
The biggest problem related to this issue is when people write dialogue in fiction, then add an adjective to the attribution tag:
“Whatever!” she screamed furiously.
The problem here is that I wrote some lousy dialogue. “Whatever” does not convey the emotion of fury. It is not something people scream. So I tried to cover up my bad dialogue by telling you how to read it.
If I just wrote some better dialogue, I wouldn’t even need to have a dialogue attribution tag at all:
“I will murder you and your children and your children's children and then your dog.”
I don’t even need the exclamation mark now.
The solution here is simple: go through your draft and circle every word that ends in “ly” Then ask yourself: Can I just delete the word? If so, delete it. If you can’t, then ask yourself the second question: What mistake did I make, that I am trying to cover up? Fix that mistake.
When can you use adverbs? What are they for? Adverbs work when they modify a verb in an unusual manner, to suggest an action that a single verb cannot convey. Here is the classic example from the King James Bible:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Darkly modifies see — see suggests clarity, but there is no clarity in life. Only in the afterlife, when we see things as they are, will true seeing be possible. Therefore, when we speak of seeing in this mortal coil, we mean a sort of dark-seeing, like squinting through a dirty piece of glass, one that distorts things so that they are almost unrecognizable.
Instead of writing all that, I can use the poetic image of “see through a glass, darkly” — this is when adverbs are your friends. Otherwise, they are not your friends. They are enemies and you should murder them, and their children, and their children’s children, and their dog.
4. Eliminate Adjectives and Replace Nouns
You might have noticed that tips #2 and #3 were just variations of #1. You are killing non-specific verbs and replacing them with more specific verbs, and killing off some adverbs as you go.
The same is true with nouns. Why write dog when you mean terrier? Why write small dog when you mean teacup poodle? Whether you are writing an essay or writing a poem, teacup poodle clarifies and communicates your meaning more than small dog ever could.
Adjectives — words that modify nouns — will often tip you off (like adverbs do) to when you have used an imprecise noun. Again, go through your draft and circle every adjective — all the words that tell you how to read other words. Can you say something more specific, instead of whatever you just said in that sentence?
The simplest way to improve your writing is to look for the words that indicate weaknesses in your draft. Circle them. Revise the draft to get rid of them. Then go through your draft again. Circle the same kinds of words. Keep going. Keep going until you run out of time, patience, or talent.
Be specific, or you will just write bullshit. If you learn only this lesson, you will be a better writer than most people.