Editing Strategies

Editing my own written work is a process that has, at times, seemed fruitless. Throughout my years of academic writing I have received many helpful insights on becoming a better writer, and even a better reader of other’s work, but I hadn’t found an effective process for editing and reading my own work until recently. For the most part, my editing was merely revising sentence structure and word choice – I never felt I had enough distance from my work to see the larger, general issues with the flow of the entire work or gaps in my argument. I have found two techniques for editing that aim to expose some of the key issues in a draft that may not be immediately obvious to the writer.

The first editing technique was introduced to me by Rebecca Hanrahan, a Whitman College Professor. This technique is easier with a computer, but can certainly be done on paper or out loud.

  • Underline the single most important sentence in each paragraph.
  • Copy and paste each sentence, in order, into a new document to make a single paragraph of these critical sentences. This will serve as a “reverse outline” for the work you have currently.
  • Read the paragraph and see if the thesis is clear, if a coherent argument comes through, and if there are any large gaps in reasoning between each sentence.

This editing strategy has been very helpful in my own writing because it allows me to take a general look at a piece of writing that is not available when reading through the whole piece. Often times I find 2-3 important sentences in one paragraph, and realize I can spend more time developing each one into a more substantial concept or even a new paragraph. This technique has helped me to get a broader view of the direction and flow of my writing in a specific piece.

The second editing technique has been loosely adapted from advice from my advisor, Tom Davis. This technique is great for reassessing what still needs expansion in a paper, as well as clarifying intentions to oneself and the reader.

  • For each paragraph, including the introduction and conclusion, make a list of questions that you hope to answer (include both questions you have left unanswered and ones you have addressed). The questions can be universal (eg. “Why should the reader care about this paper?”) or very specific (eg. “What is Arendt’s conception of action? How does this differ from traditional theories in Philosophy?”).
  • When rewriting or writing anew for a second draft, use these questions to drive your writing – look back to these questions to see if you clearly express the questions you wish to answer and use the new, unanswered questions to move forward with new concepts.

Although I find this strategy most helpful in the editing stage of writing, it could certainly be used as a brainstorming technique after developing a subject or topic for a paper. This exercise has been very helpful for moving forward into new ideas in a second draft, in addition to clarifying the work I have already done in my first draft. My writing is often fueled by questions, or even framing certain arguments as answers to a question, so I recognize that this editing technique really caters to my own writing style. I also note that this second technique has been particularly helpful when applied to long seminar papers with several sections or sub-thesis statements, which can easily become abstract or unclear. In a long piece of writing, it can be incredibly helpful to address the questions your writing hopes to answer and to plainly state those questions for the reader.

Editing can be much more than merely putting on the finishing touches – it can be a critical turning point for rewriting and developing what lies dormant in a current piece of work. I have found these techniques inspiring when moving forward into a second draft or even finishing a first draft when I feel stuck. I hope they are as successful for others as they have been for me!

Choice Linguistics: Why and How I Choose this Choice Made by Me

I struggle with “trying to sound academic,” or “trying to sound smart” before I knew what the difference between “academic” and “smart” writing implied. Anyone can write smart. To me, smart writing is a process of finding patterns in my composition and in my speech, and then editing what I express to others. I use these patterns to try to understand why and how I create my argument, and how my argument functions in my writing piece. To me, this argument-question, this attempt to understand why and how I argument-think, helps me both to write and to say something about my writing experience.

In my writing experience, I find myself trying to find “a perfect first sentence.” I become so obsessed, perplexed, and entranced about what words I use to phrase my thoughts, and not about why and how I intend to provide my reader an opportunity to change the way they understand a concept. I call this intention-changing, opportunity-providing, way-of-concept-breaking process teaching. The difference between teaching and tutoring is the instructor’s intention in sharing a thought. I call my Whitman professors “professor,” not “teacher.” My professors could not teach me, they could only provide an opportunity to teach myself. I perform this same function for a student, but the people I tutor are often my fellow schoolmates, humans of my same age. I find that my life and academic age-proximity to the people I tutor helps this student “to feel heard,” to feel validated for their attempt to express a thought, and to still have an opportunity to improve. I remember a sentence my ninth grade English teacher told me, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I could bring a horse to water, and I could make it drink, but neither the horse nor I will enjoy this process. I enjoy watching a student tear open their own mind as they realize why and how they taught themselves, and then what they have learned.

One way I attempt to start this process is asking a student what they intend to say in their writing, and how they intend to say it. One student wanted to talk about Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She told me that she did not know how to start. “Start what?” “How to talk about it.” “About what?” “About Alienation in Frankenstein.” “What about Alienation in Frankenstein?” “About the relationship between the creature creator.” “What about the relationship between the creature in the creator?” “About how the creature does not have a father or a mentor, how Frankenstein is angry at the creature, and how he feels distant, separated from Frankenstein.” I did not do anything in this interaction. I asked questions, and she responded. I did not tell her what I thought. I asked her what she thinks, and how she intends to express her thoughts. Acting as a mirror in that way could help a student more, could provide a student a better opportunity to teach themselves, than that of information transfer, the process of force-feeding a student information, and waterboarding this information out of them.

Rather than force-feeding and waterboarding my students, I ask them why diction, passive voice, and stylistic choice affect how they make an argument, how they present a concept. To show them one example of why diction, passive voice, and stylistic choice affect how they make an argument, how they present a concept, I show my students a line from Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis. The final line of Chapter 1 of this translation of Genesis reads “And God saw all that He had done, and, look, it was very good. And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” [1] Prior to studying academic religion, I thought this line read “And seventh day, God rested.” In this these sentences, I see similar concepts, similar processes. The ending of an event. God. A release, maybe from tension, maybe from work. The order that these sentences present these concepts, these processes, differs. In this difference, the concept, the process these sentences present changes by means of the language and of the order of the images in my mind. If I say the sentence “I went to the park,” versus “the park was went to by me,” then I necessarily change the concept I share with my reader. I still see the image of me, of going in the past, and of the park, but the order I present these images in changes the concept I provide my reader an opportunity to choose to try to understand. Both the active voice, “I went to the park,” and the passive voice, “the park was went to by me,” are “correct” and “incorrect” depending upon the context. If I need to use passive voice to convey a concept in an ethical means, a clear and accurate means, then I will use passive voice, or passive voice will be used by me.

Finding my writing authority by figuring out my question’s answers helps me not only to shatter the writer’s block, but also to try to understand why and how my expression-intention affects why and how my reader experiences my words, and thus expand my conception of the universe and of the human mind there in, or vice versa, depending upon how I choose to express this thought.

1. Genesis, trans. Robert Alter (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 6.

Starting with Nothing – Annabella

One of the biggest challenges in working as a tutor is when a student comes into the tutoring session with absolutely nothing – no ideas, outlines, or writing of any sort. In this blogpost, I will share some helpful strategies in getting the brainstorming process started, and in doing so identifying a topic that could be of interest to a student. Of course, this can also be applied to your own writing and writing processes, and doesn’t necessarily have to happen in a tutoring session.

Oftentimes in a situation where the student does not know where to being their writing process, a freewriting session can be the most lucrative. During this time, it is important that the student knows this phase of the writing process is very low stakes – this will help them from stressing out even more over the anxiety they may be facing about starting their paper.

The following strategies come from Lakeside High School in Seattle, WA, and were given to me as a freewrite exercise for help with college application essays:

Strategy #1: This strategy is most helpful in coming up with a paper topic or idea.

1) Pick a passage, page, paragraph, quote, or question that stood out to you, that you found interesting or compelling. Then write on this for 20 minutes.

2) Now pick something that you said in this freewrite that was the best (what’s the most insightful thing I came up with?), and write for another 20 minutes on this new topic, turning it into a topic or assertion.

3) Once the main topic has been identified, the student can now return to the text and find other passages that support or further this central claim. If the student has trouble with this, it could be helpful to repeat steps 1 and 2 with the new passage.

Strategy #2: This strategy can be used once a specific topic has been chosen and the student is now working on their body paragraphs. However, if all else fails the student could start with this and see if s/he could extract any meaningful ideas or concepts from the specific passage in question (similar to the first strategy).

1) Write down 10 observations about a passage (bullet points or otherwise) and then form an insight with these observations. This could be useful as a topic sentence, but probably not as a thesis.

*While these two strategies are obviously aimed at helping a tutee who is writing an Encounters paper or other text-based paper, they can be adapted to just about any sort of paper by replacing the text with a specific topic. For example, if the essay is about Crime in Society, you could have the student think about a specific aspect of crime that they find most interesting and reflect on that, then go back and identify the most fruitful thing that they came up with during their freewrite. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most fruitful or insightful thing in the freewrite – an idea or concept they would like to explore further could work just as well.