7 Tips for Editing to Improve Usage

By Mark Nichol

How do you make sure you’re writing right? Crafting prose is mostly a matter of using the right words for the job. Here are some steps to help you achieve that goal.

1. Look up the definition of an unfamiliar word and be sure you understand the meaning before you use it.
It’s easy to deploy a word you’ve just read or heard, mistakenly believing you understand its definition or its connotation, only to confuse or accidentally mislead your readers. Always double-check a term you’ve never used before. (Consider doing the same with words you’ve used before and think you know.)

2. Search a thesaurus or a synonym finder for the precise meaning, taking care to notice the different connotations of similar words.
Flag stock words and phrases, and thumb or click through a print or online resource to select a more exact or accurate synonym. But be alert to seemingly similar words with distinct senses.

3. Keep your writing clear and coherent, and avoid pretentious or overly formal language.
Write to communicate, not to impress. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t dumb down, but don’t let your writing get in the way of your message. There’s a fine line between elegance and pomposity.

4. Select the strongest nouns and verbs before you select adjectives and adverbs.
Words that modify nouns and verbs can enhance clarity of thought and vividness of imagery, but if they upstage the words they’re supposed to support, strengthen the actor and action words. When you do so, an adjective or adverb may no longer be necessary.

5. Seek opportunities to use repetition for rhetorical effect while, at the same time, you watch for careless redundancy.
Take care that you don’t repeat yourself unless you do so to emphasize your point.

6. Read your draft aloud to help you refine grammar and usage. If something doesn’t sound right to you, it probably doesn’t read right to your audience, either.
Recitation of your writing is time consuming, but that’s how you find the awkward wording or phrasing you didn’t stumble over in your silent review.

7. Ask someone else to read your writing and critique it.
People you draft to read your draft need not offer solutions to problems of grammar, usage, organization, and logic; they can simply highlight problematic words, phrases, sentences, and passages, and offer more detail if necessary while leaving the problem solving to you.

This last step isn’t practical for every writing task or assignment, but if a piece of prose is important enough to you, and you have a reliable, word-savvy person on hand, ask to borrow their eyes and the brain attached to them. (You, of course, will reciprocate when called on.)

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9 Responses to “7 Tips for Editing to Improve Usage”

  • Matt Gaffney

    In example one, it should be “. . . unfamiliar word to be sure . . . ,” not “. . . unfamiliar word and be sure . . . .”

    In example three, it should be “Don’t dumb down and don’t let your writing . . . ,” not “Don’t dumb down, but don’t let your writing . . . .” Using “but” implies that dumbing down creates writing that always gets in the way of your message and, as the lyric goes, “that ain’t necessarily so.” Also, no comma is necessary before “and.”

    The other examples have merit, but there are still two problems with the posting, one chronic and one specific.

    The specific problem is that the writer doesn’t recommend the assertive, terse active voice over the weaselly passive voice. The active voice almost always provides a stronger background for better diction.

    The chronic problem is an excess of commas.

  • Sheldon

    Put it aside for a day or two. Trying to proof it while working on it is difficult, as it’s too easy to read what you want it to say, rather than what it says.

    “We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.” Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, c. 35-100

  • Katherine

    I try to always read anything aloud when I am writing. It is amazing what you will catch doing that.
    Great points!

  • Frank

    I use Rodale’s “Synonym Finder” to complement the “Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus.”

  • John White

    6.5. Print it out and proofread it (preferably the next day) before handing it off.

    Paper has the mysterious quality of bringing out defects that computer screens somehow miss.

  • thebluebird11

    @Matt:
    Your point regarding #1 is subject to interpretation, and I personally see nothing wrong with how it was originally phrased.
    In your point regarding #3, I think you missed Mark’s point. He was contrasting dumbing down with unnecessary pomposity, not saying that dumbing down got in the way of communication. He was aiming for achieving a balance of phrasing that got a point across in an intelligent, elegant way without being high-falutin’ (i.e. only someone with a master’s degree would understand).

  • Mike Carss

    I can’t stress #6 enough. Using text-to-speech software is a great way to proofread as well.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, yes!
    “Look up the definition of an unfamiliar word and be sure you understand the meaning before you use it.”

    I agree with this so much, enthusiastically. Furthermore, this one goes double for people whose mother tongue is not English and who are not fluent and widely read in English. For these people, I have repeatedly told them: “Look those up in a good dictionary because they are not words in English. If there is ever the slightest question, look it up.”

    The above is especially pertinent concerning compound words. I remind them over and over that English is not a language like German, Finnish, or Turkish in which compound words are created “ad litem”.

    For example, there is a big diffence between “color television set” in English and “Farbfernsehgeraet” in German, even though they mean the same thing. We never write thngs like “colortelevisionset”, and you will never find that in any dictionary.

    We can make very long words in English by using a lot of prefixes and suffixes, such as “semihemidemiquaver” and “antidisestablishmentarism”, but we do not go for ultrahighfrequency, electromagneticwavetheory, Wahrsheinlichkeitstheorie (a German word).

    D.A.W.

  • Alyce Wilson

    I agree with you about the need to reduce the use of modifier. Too many amateurs overburden their writing with adjectives and adverbs.

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