Monthly Archives: November 2017

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter”: Revising and editing with intention

By Madeline Walker and Nancy Ami

The quotation in our title from popular writer James Michener stresses the importance of revising and editing your own writing. Indeed, knowing how to revise and edit is just as important as being able to generate a first draft.  Here we describe two ways you can revise and edit your work with intention.

Using readability statistics to plan revisions, by Madeline

A simple, free tool can help you analyze your own writing with an eye to revision.  Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software available, yet few people know about the Readability Statistics feature. This feature analyzes your writing and provides counts, averages, the percentage of sentences in passive voice, and two readability measures. You can use this information to plan improvements to your writing. For example, the average academic sentence contains 23 words (in Business it’s 15-20), but what if you see from the statistics that your average sentence is 35 words?  Now is the time to read Nancy’s contribution below and edit for concision. What if you see that 50% of your sentences are in the passive voice, but your discipline prefers active voice? You can revise accordingly. The two readability measures show the grade level of writing (Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test) and the level of difficulty (Flesch Reading Ease Test) with 100% the easiest to read and 0-29 confusing prose.  You can use this measure to revise with an eye to clarity and accessibility.

  • To get started right away in Word for PC, go to file/ options/ proofing. Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” select the “Check grammar with spelling check box” and select “Show readability statistics.”  After writing your document, go to review/ spelling and grammar, and when the check is complete, a text box will appear on your screen on top of your document.
  • In Word for Mac, go to Word/ preferences/ spelling and grammar and check “Show readability statistics.”  After finishing your document, go to review/ spelling and grammar, and when the check is complete, a text box will appear on your screen on top of your document.

Just for fun, here are the statistics for part one of this blog post. Click here to learn more about Readability Statistics and how to interpret them. Then you can revise and edit with intention.

Concision, by Nancy

After noting my essays overflowed with phrases like “future plans for one’s life ahead” and “the discussion of the characters in the novel that was assigned,” my undergraduate communication professor suggested I read The Elements of Style.  I bought it and read it. I understood why my course instructor made notes like “awk” and “redundant” and “?” in my essay margins. I learned how I could write differently. Concisely.

Over the years, since putting aside The Elements of Style, I’ve noticed that my writing has returned to its former state. Puffy.  Expansive. Obscure. What happened to concision?

Desperate to review tips I learned more than thirty years ago, I thumbed through my yellow-paged $2.95-ticketed third edition and found scribbled asterisks next to principles like 14: “Put statements in positive form” and 17: “Omit needless words”. Would the advice I followed in my undergraduate degree help me thin my padded writing now?

I applied Strunk and White’s principles to my sentence scrawls:

  • Avoid “not”

In spite of the fact that writing is difficult for some, it is not difficult for others.

In spite of the fact that While writing is difficult for some, it is not difficult easy for others.

I replaced “not difficult” with “easy” and saved a word!

  • Trim the fat

Perfectionists are people who struggle with writing.

Perfectionists are people who struggle with writing.

I eliminated “are people who” and saved three words!

My colleague writes in an effective manner.

My colleague writes in an effective manner effectively.

I used an adverb to replace a phrase and saved four words!

Writing is an activity that is difficult for some.

Writing is an activity that is difficult for some.

I excised “an activity that is” and saved four words!

I need to call your attention to the fact that writing is difficult.

I need to call your attention to the fact that Writing is difficult!

I replaced the idea of “need” with a “!” and saved 10 words!

  • Replace clauses with phrases and phrases with words

Writing that is done by scholars can be complex and incomprehensible.

Writing that is done by scholars can be complex and incomprehensible.

Scholarly writing that is done by scholars can be complex and incomprehensible.

Complex scholarly writing  that is done by scholars can be complex and in comprehensible.

I reduced a negative eleven-word sentence to a positive simple statement of six words!

Comprehensible writing results from applying only two of the simplest of Strunk and White’s twenty writing principles. True in 1985. True today. Check it out!

In addition to employing these techniques, remember that you are always welcome to work with a tutor at the Centre for Academic Communication to improve your revision and editing skills.

Nancy Ami (R) is the Manager and Madeline Walker (L) is the Coordinator of the Centre for Academic Communication. That’s Nancy’s dog-eared copy of The Elements of Style, 3rd edition. The fourth edition is available in the Reference section of our library: PE1408 S772 2000


3300 Miles, Two Toddlers, and a Dissertation

By Tanya Manning-Lewis

Tanya Manning-Lewis

Writing is a journey. It is an emotional, physical, and psychological journey graduate students have to be willing to take to get to that state of academic fulfillment. For many of us, it is one of the most difficult journeys to take, and we rarely experience true contentment with the final product, but still we press on. My life, like writing, is a journey, and a constant reference point of why I should write. After travelling thousands of miles with two toddlers to do my PhD, it is a journey I am now fully committed to whether I am ready or not! Writing my dissertation in a timely manner is the journey I must take that justifies uprooting my family to pursue a degree. I am among the myriad students who experience this crippling fear of giving up everything to move to another province or country to pursue higher education. But this blog post does not dwell on the challenges, rather on how to overcome these and move beyond the typical excuses of “why I can’t write” to actually writing. It looks at how we can carve out spaces in our very busy lives to meet the demands of writing as a graduate student and ultimately accomplish our goals.

On my journey as a writer, PhD candidate, tutor, and instructor, I have learned a few lessons, albeit not necessarily from academic scholars, that have supported my writing.

The first lesson I have learned is that we all need a supportive community of writers. We need colleagues who are experiencing similar challenges and successes to support us. I have two supportive communities for my writing. First, I meet monthly with a group of international students to share our graduate experiences including writing. Many of us within the group struggle to balance family and writing demands for projects, conferences, and journals. In these sessions, we share tips, sources, and strategies that are useful in helping us to achieve our writing targets for the month. The Centre for Academic Communication (CAC) is one resource we continually refer to as a strong support for our writing. This group is most useful in encouraging me to stay on track and reminds me I am not alone–which is key to graduate work that can be so isolating.

Another supportive writing community is the “Shut up and Write” sessions co-created by Linda Edworthy and myself. This is a concept originating from the San Francisco Bay area in which graduate students are encouraged to meet for two hours each week to simply write. Five minutes are allotted after each 25-minute writing session to engage your fellow writers in discussion. These intense writing sessions have been incredibly useful in getting me to really zone in on my research topic, build on original ideas, and synthesize content.

The second lesson that I have learned is to be fearless with your writing. Take risks–it will strengthen you as a writer. Surprisingly this revelation came from my older son whom I watch adapt to a new way of life in a different country with such zest and openness. While he struggled a bit with contextual differences and communicating, it never stopped him. He wakes up each day just as enthusiastic as the day before to learn and try new things, and soon I see him blossom into this confident, sociable, and thriving student.  At this point, I think to myself, why not approach my writing with the same level of enthusiasm and fearlessness? So what if I fail at it sometimes? So what if I write an entire draft and someone says, “I don’t get it”? What does this mean for me? It means it is not a critique of me as a person, but my writing. It means I will have to be open to criticism and suggestions if I truly intend to grow as a writer. I will face rejection from journals and other institutions, but it is no excuse not to write. It is by writing that I will hone my skills. The moral of this, we should not burden ourselves with the thought of being perfect writers at all times. If you have a story or point of view to share, go ahead and share it. Your work is important, and your writing is your avenue to do that. Feeding into your fear will not only deprive you of the benefits of sharing your work, but your colleagues who would have profited from your insights. Many of my colleagues in my home country thought I was a bit crazy to move my family over 3000 miles to pursue a PhD. It may have been a crazy thought, but if there is one thing I have learned from this journey, it is you have to be willing to take risks. It was quite risky asking my husband to give up his flourishing career for five years to support my educational pursuits and most certainly risky moving with my two young sons not knowing how they will adjust to life in another country. But what is a journey without some risks? The same principle applies to writing; we have to take risks sometimes, put our writing out there for others to see what we are doing and not let our fears of the unknown cripple us. Often, we are so petrified at the thought of sharing our writing with others, we fail even to begin the process.

Writing this blog is certainly one way I am conquering my fear of sharing my writing. Here I am sharing my failures and triumphs with my own writing. I am hoping this will encourage you to break free from your own writing shackles.

Finally, I would say one of the most important lessons I have learned is to avoid the trap of complacency. While it has been difficult balancing family, school, and work, I have learned and am still learning that it is important to set aside time to write daily and commit to it. I have never missed one of the writing meetings with any of the groups. This commitment allows me to get some writing done, which is critical to my growth as a graduate student. I have also learned to be intentional about my writing and set goals so I am motivated to do so and not become complacent. I realize that the optimum time for me to write is at 10 pm when everyone is in bed. Hence, my goal each night is to commit at least 2 hours of writing to either my research or any publication I may be working on. Having these set targets force me to get the writing done, even when I would rather sleep. My constant reminder is that my journey is not mine alone, but that of my family as well.

Whatever your journey may be, you have to carve your own path to academic writing success. It does take work, but as is proven by many before us, it is achievable. While these are some of the strategies I use, there is a multiplicity of support systems for graduate students’ writing. It is important to find what works for you and commit yourself to doing it.

About Tanya

I am from the beautiful and welcoming island, Jamaica. I attained both my Bachelor in Education (Language & Literature) and Masters in Education (Language & Literacy) at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. I have been a teacher of English and Literature for 14 years and  Lecturer for over 6 years. I am currently a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction with special interests in language and literacy. My research focuses on four Jamaican adolescent boys’ (from low income families) almost exclusive use of Jamaican Creole (JC) and the impact on their academic success in a selected school in Jamaica, a country that only recognizes English as its official language in spite of the fact that 92% of the population experience great difficulty speaking it and the same percentage are fluent JC speakers.

Tanya tutors at the Centre for Academic Communication