The Center for Writing Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Five Editing Principles

  1. Replace "to be" verbs (is, was, were, etc.) with strong active verbs. Often this entails making your statement in active rather than passive voice.

    • Original sentence in passive voice: The ball was kicked by Bill.
    • Revised sentence in active voice: Bill kicked the ball.

    This example is easy because the stronger verb is fairly obvious. In other situations, words ending with -tion are often verbs waiting to happen. For example, we can transform "frustration" into "frustrates," and "allocation" into "allocates."

    Also, collapsing compound verbs into a single verb ("are able to" into "can") rids your sentences of both dull verbs and a lot of clutter. For example, we can rewrite "I am hopeful that he will recover" as "I hope he recovers."

  2. Eliminate strings of prepositions (often a symptom of passive voice).
    • Original sentence:
      Shakespeare's Hamlet is dominated by a sense of the main character's brooding over the nature of man in society.

      Notice all the prepositional phrases: by a sense, of the main, over the nature, of man, in society. We may not be able to eliminate them all, but we can tackle a few.

    • Revised sentence:
      In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the main character constantly broods over man's place in society.

  3. Be concise.

    Eliminate clutter, which often appears in the form of prepositional phrases, but also watch out for the senseless and the redundant moments. Notice how, in the example above, "by a sense" adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence.

    Beware of pairs of words which create a nice rhythm to your prose but say the same thing: "With careless nonchalance, she threw the bag over her shoulder." Clearly, either "carelessly" or "nonchalantly" will serve our purposes, but we don't need both.

    Also, expletives (there are, it is) often launch weak sentences: "There are many people who find success intimidating." We have a couple options with this sentence: "Success intimidates many people" or "Many people fear success."

  4. Vary the structure and length of your sentences.

    Your prose becomes choppy (and dull) when every sentence begins with the main subject followed by a verb, and when sentences are of uniform length:

    • Original sentence: "I stopped exercising. I gained 50 pounds."

    We could improve these sentences by combining them:

    • Revised sentence: "After I stopped exercising, I gained 50 pounds."
  5. Use transitional words and phrases to show relationships between sentences.

    Notice how, without any transitional words, we cannot be sure what the relationship is between "I stopped exercising" and "I gained 50 pounds." Did the speaker stop exercising because he had gained fifty pounds? Or did he gain fifty pounds because he stopped exercising? Did exercise or the lack thereof have anything to do with the speaker's weight gain? A revision should clarify this relationship.