Editing for Clarity & Flow

By Arianne Ferreira 4th Year, Global Development Studies & World Languages

meme with a man opening his mouth and the text: "I don't know what I'm writing about"

So your paper, or at least your draft, is all done. As much as you might want to pack up, hand it in and just be done with it already, if you want a good grade, this next step in your writing process – editing – is crucial and you should probably hold on to your paper a little while longer. The good news is that you should take a break at this point! You’ve worked hard; now is a great time to take a step back and recuperate a bit after writing. If you try to edit your paper right away you will not be able to see it with fresh eyes and could very easily miss mistakes you made by reading it the way you think you’ve written it, instead of how it actually is. The best thing you can do right now is get up, walk around, switch tasks, maybe even take the rest of the night off and come back to this assignment in a couple of hours or the next day.

Editing is one of the most important stages of any kind of writing process. Sure, you need to have the content all there, but what good is it if it does not read clearly and leaves your reader confused? Editing is your way of making sure that you translated the ideas in your head clearly onto paper in properly structured sentences and paragraphs. Reading over your work allows you to see if your argument makes sense, your thesis is supported throughout, your conclusion is clear, and that overall, your paper reads smoothly. This is why it is so important to edit with a fresh set of eyes. Coming back from a break will allow you to see mistakes you might have otherwise missed. Another helpful strategy to avoid that problem is to have a friend or peer read over your work. Having someone else take a look at your paper surely reduces the bias that could hinder good editing. You could also try reading your paper out loud to yourself, as weird as you might think that is. For one, reading out loud makes your brain slow down, and also, hearing your words helps you to catch oddly worded phrases or simple grammar mistakes that you could easily brush by when skimming it over in your head.

One of my favourite tools for editing is called the reverse outline. To do a reverse outline, you will need a reasonably complete draft. Read it through and, while doing so, identify each paragraph’s main idea (pro tip: if you have trouble identifying a paragraph’s main idea, perhaps you’ve crammed too many ideas into the paragraph. Check out the Writing Centre online handouts on paragraphing!). Jot down the main idea in 1-3 words in the margin next to the paragraph. Once every paragraph is labelled in this way, make a list of all the paragraphs’ labels in a separate document, in the order that they appear on your paper. When you read through that list, the topic progression and idea building should make sense and be clear to follow. If you find that the structure of the paper does not make sense, you can easily move paragraphs around to improve the flow of your ideas. Likewise, if you find that there is more than one paragraph about the same topic, you may need to be more concise in your writing and consider combining those paragraphs. For more information on doing a reverse outline, see http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/12/Visual-Maps-and-the-Reverse-Outline-Making-Sense-of-Information.pdf and the Writing Centre website for more handouts. Happy editing!



Photo courtesy of Amy Mathews under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.