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Writing Center


Editing Tips

Polishing a paper generally focuses on two areas of concern--content and mechanics. This page provides writers with some general suggestions for editing (content development, organization, and style issues) and proofreading (grammar and mechanics).

Editing Content

When moving from a first draft to a polished draft, you should focus first on content development and organization. One way to get some honest feedback in the area of content and organization is to send your essay to The Write Stuff. The staff will read your essay thoughtfully and give you some suggestions for development and organization. (To send your essay, click here.) The Write Stuff staff members have the experience to know what teachers like to see in essay development. Another alternative is to have an acquaintance read it out loud to you. If you see them look puzzled, if they ask you to clarify something, or if they stumble on your syntax, you'll know there's a problem you need to fix. The idea here is to add missing details where they are needed and to delete irrelevant information wherever it occurs. Your essay should keep on track from beginning to end.

You should also examine your overall organization for clarity of flow. One section (or paragraph) should logically lead into the next so that the reader transitions easily through the entire piece. If your essay jumps from section to section, paragraph to paragraph without logical connections or progression, you should consider re-ordering your paragraphs.

After making the changes in development and organization, you should examine the style (expression) of your essay. Look at each sentence for clarity. If you had your friend read your essay to you, you should have heard the problems in word order when your friend stumbled or "misread" what you wrote. Fix those sentences first. Ask yourself, "what am I really trying to say?" and then look at the sentence to see if it says that message as clearly as possible. Change what is not clear. Then look at those sentences a second time asking yourself, "Can I make this sentence stronger?" Make sure that each sentence flows into the next; there should be a logical connection between each sentence. Use the most precise words possible, focusing primarily on your subjects and your verbs.

Proofreading

One reason you start the polishing process with content, organization, and style, is that by the time you've made those changes, you have also solved a lot of the mechanical problems in your essay. In fact, I recommend that you make all the necessary changes mentioned above and print out a clean copy of your document before beginning to proofread.

The following information concerns the major mechanical problems most often seen in student essays. For specific questions about grammar and mechanics, consult your grammar handbook or send your question to the Grammar Hotline. To jump to the error that most concerns you, click on the link below.

Spelling

Every word-processing software has a spell-check utility. Run it. It is amazing how many people have the capability to run this grade-saving feature and fail to use it! But, remember that the computer will not be able to find spelling errors that are the result of sound-alike words (there, their, they're, for instance). You will still need to check for these types of spelling errors. One of the best ways to do this is by reading the paper backwards, sentence-by-sentence. Start with the last sentence in the essay, and then move toward the beginning, one sentence at a time. This technique forces you to read each sentence out of context, thus enabling you to see each word as a word.

Sentence Fragments

Sentence fragments occur when a writer punctuates a group of words (like a phrase, for example) as if it were a sentence. Sometimes fragments are created simply because an important word (a subject or a verb) has been left out or because they are an "after thought" which hasn't been correctly attached to the previous sentence. For information about what a sentence fragment is consult your handbook or the Grammar section of this site.

To correct the error, the writer must recognize what is causing the fragment. The writer can then add or delete the word(s) to make the group of words a complete sentence or to connect the fragment to the complete sentence of which it should be a part.

Here are some examples of sentence fragments and their corrections (fragments/corrections are in bold): Example 1 (fragment caused by a missing word): Michelle ate the many appetizers on the table. And then found that her appetite had gone.

Michelle ate the many appetizers on the table. And then she found that her appetite had gone.Example 2 (fragment caused by a subordinating word): Because the weather is bad.

The weather is bad. (Omitted subordinating word.)Example 3 (fragment caused by treating a phrase as a sentence): A sudden breeze shot through the windows. Driving the stuffiness out of the room.

A sudden breeze shot through the windows, driving the stuffiness out of the room.To check for sentence fragments in your paper, follow these steps:

  1. read the paper backwards, sentence by sentence.
  2. Ask yourself about each "sentence"--"Is this a complete idea--can it stand alone as a sentence?"
  3. If the answer is "no," you have a fragment. Fix it either by adding or deleting words or by connecting it correctly to the main sentence to which it is related.

Run-on Sentences (comma splices, fused sentences)

Comma splices and fused sentences are essentially one error--run-on sentences. They occur when two sentences (independent clauses) have been joined incorrectly by a just a comma (thus, the name comma splice) or by nothing at all (fused sentence).

To correct the error, the writer must choose between four options:

  1. When the ideas are not significantly related, separate them with a period (.)
  2. When the ideas are loosely related, join them with a comma (,) and a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, for, but, yet, so)
  3. When the ideas are closely connected and equally important, join them with a semicolon (;)
  4. When the second idea reveals more about the first idea, join them with a colon (:)

Here are some examples of run-ons and their corrections (corrections are in bold):

Example 1 (ideas that are not significantly related) I took a ship to Alaska this summer the ship stopped at several ports along the way.

I took a ship to Alaska this summer. The ship stopped at several ports along the way.Example 2 (ideas are loosely related) I went to the store I forgot to get eggs.

I went to the store, but I forgot to get eggs.Example 3 (ideas are closely connected and equally important) The telephone was ringing someone was at the front door as well.

The telephone was ringing; someone was at the front door as well.Example 4 (second idea reveals more about the first idea) On Saturday I made a decision that would change my life forever I joined the Peace Corps.

On Saturday I made a decision that would change my life forever: I joined the Peace Corps.To check for run-ons in your paper, you must first find all the "independent clauses" in your paper. Follow these first steps to discover those clauses:

  1. Use a highlighter and mark every working verb in the essay. Pay no attention to how many verbs you find in a "sentence." For instance the sentence Fred remembered to get the hamburger he forgot to buy the hamburger rolls has four verbs but only two that are related to a subject (remembered and forgot).
  2. Draw arrows from the verbs to their subjects. If a verb appears to have no subject, ignore it.
  3. Look at each group of words that contains a subject/verb pairing. Ask yourself, "Can this group of words stand alone as a sentence?"
  4. If the answer is "yes" underline the group as an independent clause. If not, go on to the next group.

Once you have found all the independent clauses in the essay, then use the following steps to check for run-ons.

  1. For each of the underlined groups of words (independent clauses), ask yourself, "Is this independent clause punctuated as a sentence by itself (no other ICs are in the sentence)?"
  2. If the answer is "yes," change nothing; go on to the next IC. If the answer is "no," check to see if you have joined them correctly with one of the methods detailed above. Fix any problems.

Subject/Verb Agreement

Subject/verb agreement errors occur when a writer does not use the correct verb form for the subject. To correct the error, the writer must first determine whether the subject of the sentence is singular or plural. Then the writer can check the correctness of the verb's form.

Here are some examples of subject/verb agreement errors and their corrections (corrections are in bold): Example 1 (singular subject). The participation of the boys were essential to the success of the experiment.

The participation of the boys was essential to the success of the experiment.Notice that this error occurs because the writer has confused the word boys (the object of a preposition) for the real subject, participation. The separation of the subject from its verb is a main cause of this type of error. Example 2 (plural subject) The pants was in the laundry room for a week before getting washed.

The pants were in the laundry room for a week before getting washed.Notice that this error occurs because pants is treated as singular when it is considered plural in our language.

To check for subject verb agreement errors in your paper, follow these steps:

  1. Use a highlighter and mark every working verb in the essay. Pay no attention to how many verbs you find in a "sentence." For instance the sentence Fred remembered to get the hamburger he forgot to buy the hamburger rolls has four verbs but only two that are related to a subject (remembered and forgot).
  2. Draw arrows from the verbs to their subjects.
  3. Check each subject; mark it as plural or singular (look it up, if you are unsure).
  4. Working with each subject/verb pairing, test the verb form for correctness: substitute "it," "he," or "she" for any singular subjects and then say the verb; substitute "they" for any plural subjects and then say the verb. In the sentence Manic/Depression, as it is discussed in psychology texts, manifest most frequently with wide mood swings, if you substituted "it" for "Manic/Depression" and then said the verb manifest, you would "hear" the error and change the verb to manifests.
  5. Make any necessary corrections.

Verb Tense Problems

Trouble with verbs sometimes occurs (1) when the writer loses track of the time value he/she is using, (2) when the writer does not know the correct verb forms for an irregular verb, or (3) when the writer forgets to use the "ed" ending on regular verbs.

To correct this type of error, the writer must check for correct tense and correct form for each verb (a handbook will often have a list of irregular verbs that are often difficult).

Here are some examples of verb tense errors and their corrections (corrections are in bold): Example 1 (tense order problem): Although my little girls knew they shouldn't tease the cat, they often dress up the animal in doll clothes.

Although my little girls knew they shouldn't tease the cat, they often dressed up the animal in doll clothes.Example 2 (irregular verb): The tomatoes were growed in organically fertilized soil.

The tomatoes were grown in organically fertilized soil.Example 3 (regular verb): Mr. Hightower use to be my favorite teacher until I took a class from Professor Green.

Mr. Hightower used to be my favorite teacher until I took a class from Professor Green.To check for verb tense errors in your paper, follow these steps:

  1. Use a highlighter to mark every working verb in the essay.
  2. Check the tense of the verb. Make sure that the form of the verb correctly suggests the appropriate time values.
  3. If the verb is irregular, check the handbook to see what the correct forms for the three main tenses are. If you have a questions about tense or form of an verb that is not listed in the handbook, look it up in a college dictionary. Most standard dictionaries will list whether the verb is regular or irregular; if irregular, it will list the principal parts for tense production.
  4. If the verb is regular, make sure if the time value is the past, that you have used the "ed" at the end of that verb.

Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

Errors in pronoun/antecedent agreement occur when a writer uses the wrong pronoun to substitute for the antecedent (a previously used noun or other pronoun). To correct this error, the writer must determine whether the antecedent is plural or singular. Then the writer can "match" the antecedent by using the appropriate pronoun.

Here are some examples of pronoun/antecedent errors and their corrections (corrections are in bold): Example 1 (plural pronoun substituting for a singular antecedent): Everyone was putting on their coats when it started to hail outside.

Everyone was putting on his/her coats when it started to hail outside.Example 2 (singular pronoun substituting for a plural antecedent): All of the dogs had its name tags on.

All of the dogs had their name tags on.Example 3 (a gender-specific pronoun substituting for a indefinite antecedent): Each of the applicants had good experience listed on his resume for the new manager position.

Each of the applicants had good experience listed on his/her resume for the new manager position.To check for pronoun/antecedent errors in your paper, follow these steps:

  1. Starting at the end of the paper, circle each pronoun in the paper.
  2. Pronoun-by-pronoun, find the "antecedent" (the word the pronoun is replacing) for each pronoun.
  3. Determine whether the antecedent is plural or singular.
  4. Make changes either to the antecedent or to the pronoun if the two do not match in number or gender.

If you have other questions on mechanics, check the Grammar section of this site.