Ask the Editor™
Volume 11, Issue 1

In this issue:

The Art of Revision

Writing is similar to sculpting with clay. There’s less finality than if you were sculpting in granite. Your words can be molded and reshaped until you are perfectly satisfied. Nothing, as they say, is written in stone. It’s more like painting with oils instead of watercolors.

Rewriting is probably the most crucial stage of the writing process. Good writers actually spend more time rewriting than they do drafting. Yet for most people, rewriting is still a chore.

Revising is adding, deleting, substituting, or rearranging material. It is making judgments about whether what we’ve written represents what we are actually trying to say. When we revise, we are reshaping our writing to the reader’s expectations.

Revising is different than composing. When composing, you want to focus on getting your ideas down on paper and think primarily about your audience and what to say.

Revising is also different than editing, which takes place later; we are still primarily shaping meaning. We are not concerned yet with grammar, punctuation, or mechanics. That’s the final stage. When revising, you do not want to block yourself by addressing things better addressed at a later, cognitively distinct stage.

Remember, though, as I’ve mentioned many time in previous issues: the composing process is not completely linear. Rather, it is a series of stages—prewriting, writing, and rewriting—that often happen concurrently.

In fact, many composition researchers actually think of rewriting not as a stage at the end of the writing process, but something that happens throughout the process. Experienced writers often find themselves continuously going back and revising what they’ve just written.

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“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Ernest Hemingway

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Tips on Revision

Rewriting requires several readings of a draft, each with a different focus:

- Assess your purpose and the relationship with your reader. What are you trying to say? Who are you writing for? What will they already know about the subject? What would they like to know? Will they find this worth reading?

- Look at your overall organization. What specific points do you want to make? Do you overlap or repeat points? Did you leave out anything relevant? Why did you talk about them in this order? Can the order be changed? How do you get from one point to the next? What transitions do you use?

- Examine each paragraph. What is this paragraph supposed to do? How does it relate to the paragraph before and after it? Is the topic easily recognizable? Does it contain only one main idea? Is it logically ordered? How did you develop the paragraph? Are there better examples or details you can use? How well does the paragraph hold together? Does it flow smoothly? Do you need transitions? Should you vary sentence length?

- Take a look at your sentences. Which ones do you like the most? Which ones do you like least? Are any sentences too short? Can they be combined? Are any too long and can be divided? Are the words specific and concrete? Or are any sentences stilted or convoluted? Are any sentences passive? Would they sound better if they were active?

- Assess tone. Is it appropriate? Is it conversational and friendly? Are you writing in the plain style? Is there anything that might offend your reader?

- Look at your writing overall. What did you like about it? What can you do better? How does it end? Did you fulfill the promises you’ve made to the reader at the beginning?

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“Read over your compositions and whenever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out .” Samuel Johnson

Whittling Away Deadwood

A literary critic once praised Hemingway for his "lean, athletic" prose. Hemingway is renowned for his ability to trim the fat from his writing and not clutter it up with unnecessary deadwood.

Writing clear, concise sentences is key to good writing. Yet many of us are still prone to rambling on, leaving more excess baggage in our sentences than the royal family brings on an extended vacation. (I think this is a leftover "skill" we’ve all retained from padding our writing to meet the minimum word requirements for high school compositions.)

Here’s a proven sentence editing strategy you can apply to your writing, starting today:

- Find the prepositions

- Find the "is" verbs

- Identify the action

- Rewrite the sentence using an action verb

- Cut to the chase and trim the fat

Let’s apply this to an example sentence: "The fact of the matter is that until this point in time, the trend in the direction of high turnover of employees in Marketing is the result of restructuring." (29 words)

Find the prepositions and the "is" verbs (marked here with an asterisk): "The fact *of the matter *is that until this point *in time, the trend *in the direction *of high turnover *of employees *in Marketing *is the result *of restructuring." Strings of prepositional phrases become monotonous and boring. Also, you should try to use a stronger verb than "is," when possible. We’ll rewrite the sentence with this in mind.

Identify the action, in other words, "Who’s doing what to whom?" Good writing should be active, not passive. For example, "Hank Aaron hit the home run." is more engaging than, "The home run was hit by Hank Aaron." In our sentence, restructuring is doing the acting, so let’s make it our subject and rewrite the sentence using an action verb.

Finally, cut to the chase and trim the fat. Look at the beginning of our sentence: "The fact of the matter is that until this point in time…" This type of writing will put you to sleep faster than watching CSPAN after a warm glass of milk! And it doesn’t say a darn thing. The key phrase is "is that." It’s a dead give away that anything that comes before it is meaningless. Anytime you see "is that," lop it off along with anything that appears before it.

So let’s rewrite our sentence: "Until now, restructuring has created a trend toward high turnover in Marketing." (12 words.)

Are we done? "Until now" is really implied and "a trend toward" is a bit wordy. So how about, "Restructuring has created high turnover in Marketing." Only seven words. Now, compare it to the original sentence. Have we changed the meaning? No. And our reader is still awake.

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“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary. It's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.” Somerset Maugham

Ask the Editor™ Question

What is this the correct punctuation on these sentences?

"In 2011 our total assets grew another $110 million, ending the year at $757 million."

"In 2012, So-and-so will again be the title sponsor of the Celebrity Golf Classic, which raises vital financial support for leukemia research."

The rub is in the comma after our "In 2011" and "In 2012,"


Greg Erickson

Follow AP's rule (and I think the Chicago Manual of Style says the same thing), which is this: The comma may be omitted after short introductory phrases if no ambiguity would result. In other words, go with your first sentence.

"The Editor"

Another comma question... (have I mentioned that I hate commas?)

For our business banking customers, our products and services run the gamut, from cash management services and standby lines of credit to SBA loans through our SBA Department, employee benefit planning through Anchor Trust, and our new Business Instant Cash & Check card.


For our business banking customers our products and services run the gamut, from cash management services and standby lines of credit to SBA loans through our SBA Department, employee benefit planning through Anchor Trust, and our new Business Instant Cash & Check card.

Greg Erickson

In this case, I'd use a comma. If it were a really short introductory phrase--e.g., "For customers"--you could omit it, but I'd use one here.

"The Editor"

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