Editing your work

What do you think of when you hear the word “editing”? After you’ve written something, do you check it over? That’s editing. Many people think of editing as just checking spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but it encompasses more than that.

Think of editing as peeling back layers. If you start with the outer layer—the overall view—and ask hard questions like the ones below, you will do a better job of editing than if you start with the finer details such as punctuation and spelling.

Here are some questions you can ask to improve your work before you let other people read it.

The first layer is the overall view:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the goal of this writing?
  • Does it make sense? Is it clear and logical?
  • Does the vocabulary match the audience?
  • Does it have the right tone (feel and approach)?

The second layer is the skeleton:

  • Does it start and finish well?
  • Is it structured well, so that the reader is compelled to keep reading?
  • Does it explain the topic and tell the reader why it matters?

The third layer is small (but important) stuff:

  • Are the facts correct?
  • Do any sentences lack necessary parts (i.e. are there any fragments)?
  • Are there vague pronoun references? (e.g. “When Brenda and Sarah went shopping, she asked her if she’d like an ice-cream.”)
  • Is the verb tense consistent? (e.g. past and present tenses are not mixed)
  • Is there undue repetition of words or sentence structures?
  • Have you used the correct words? (e.g. words like “effect” and “affect” are easy to mix up)

And finally, the fourth layer:

  • Are the spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation correct?

As an editor, every time I receive a new submission, I struggle not to start at the bottom of this list. As a writer, it’s a great temptation too. No one writes great work the first time. Take the time to ask hard questions.

Note: A more detailed checklist for third- and fourth-layer editing is given here: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/grammar-girls-editing-checklist

Wendy Marshall is the managing editor of Japan Harvest. She’s learnt most of what she knows about writing from her international critique group, Truth Talk. She’s Australian and works with OMF International.

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