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Grammar Granny        < Previous        Next >


The Art of Editing


The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser -- in case you thought optimism was dead. -- Robert Brault, software developer, writer (1972- )


When people say they've never liked writing, they probably mean they've never liked editing - the correction process. You can almost always improve a piece of writing by erasing part of it, and rewriting. It may be hard to view editing as an enjoyable, creative part of writing, but it is. It's the frosting on the cake. And what's cake without frosting?


Here are some basic techniques of editing that parents and teachers can employ in helping pupils write and rewrite with ease and style:


n       Shorter sentences are safer and better. Average sentence length of about 11 words is ideal. Longer than that, and you tend to veer off on some tangents and make some mistakes.


n       Keep punctuation simple. Give pupils a word picture: "Imagine you have a great, big barrel of periods, and only a tiny thimble full of all the other punctuation marks, including commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, parentheses and so forth. Use periods freely, but use other forms of punctuation sparingly."


n       Write tight. Delete what's not essential. Explain things, but get to the point. The more focused a piece of writing is, the clearer the meaning. Another word picture for kids: if you're real wordy when you write, and go on and on and on, it's like looking at the world through glasses that are 'way too thick for your eyesight, or not thick enough. It's just hard to "see" what you are writing about.


n       Correct spelling is important. Write with a dictionary at your side. Learn how to use a dictionary quickly. Never hesitate to check the spelling of a word. Spelling first and last names of people is important.


n       Don't use "weasel" words such as "very" and "really." They just take up space.


n       If you've just written a sentence and know it's unclear and too long, stare off into space, imagine the face of a friend or relative that you really like, and imagine that you are going to tell that person the same thing that you just wrote. Now write it the way you just told it to your friend. The sentence is likely to be 100% more clear.


n       Don't bury your best point. Sometimes it's best to plan a surprise ending. But most of the time, it's best to come right out and make your best point high in your piece of writing. The idea is not to make the reader work all that hard to grasp what you are trying to communicate. So put your key nugget of information up front.


n       The telltale sign of a hastily-written piece of work is if there are run-on sentences. When phrases are strung together with commas between them, most of the time, they should be separated by a period. Well-written sentences should tell a single idea for clarity and impact. Often, run-on sentences show a lack of organization up front. If a pupil struggles with this, suggest he or she start by making a brief outline of the piece of writing to give his or her ideas structure. Then the pupil won't feel as stressed about including everything in the writing; stress and insecurity are the key reasons writers erroneously string sentence parts together.


n       On the other hand, pupils who never vary their sentence length or complexity turn out choppy copy that is monotonous and dull. It's good to have a lot of one-clause sentences, but remember: variety is the spice of life.


n       Watch tenses; it's easy to slip into past tense in a piece of writing that's mostly about the present.


n       Subject-verb agreement is probably the most common grammatical error. Teach pupils to think hard about whether the noun is singular or plural, so that the verb can match.


By Susan Darst Williams Grammar Granny 033 2006


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