Dr. Judith M. Newman

Effective Editing

Writer as Reader

Developed from "Clarity"
by Don Murray in "Write To Learn"
1984, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 166-182

Effective Editing is usually the result of three separate and distinct readings, each with its own pace, strategies, and techniques:

  • The "First" Read is for meaning
  • The "Second" Read is for order
  • The "Third" Read is for voice, language & conventions

Editing Principles

  • Build on Strength—Identify what you think is working well and carry it through the rest of the text
  • Cut What Can Be Cut—Everything in the text must realte to the single dominant meaning of the text. If it doesn't, it should go!
  • Simplicity is Best—The writing should be as simple as possible; write so your readers understand what you want them to
  • Listen to the Writing—Your ear is a better editor than your eye. Read aloud. The piece will tell you when it needs a definition woven in, some additional clarification, more evidence, a change of pace

Checklist For A "First" Read


Read the text fast—find a comfortable chair, put your pencil down, read as if you are a naive reader; try not to get too close to the text; instead, aim for a sense of the overall meaning.

  • Can you write a short (a sentence or two) synopsis of what the piece is about?
  • Do readers need more information?
  • Is the piece too long? Is it too short?
  • Does it go off on tangents that can be cut?
  • Are there elements that should be cut, or developed more fully?
  • Are readers' key questions answered?
  • Does the piece deliver on the promise made in the title and lede?
  • Is there scaffolding that was useful in shaping the piece but can now be cut?

Now pick up a pencil and make marginal notes—think about your overall meaning.

Checklist For A "Second" Read


Continue reading at a good clip. Don't stop for language problems—that will come later. Now you're dealing with chunks to make sure each section is developed well and is in the right place.

  • Is the title on target?
  • Does the lede establish the voice for the piece?
  • Does the draft "show" as well as "tell"?
  • Is each section an answer to readers' questions?
  • Is each piece of documentation appropriate for the point being made?
  • Does the pace keep readers moving but allow time to absorb your argument?
  • Does the end echo the lede and give readers a sense of completion?
  • Does the argument follow logically?
  • Have you tried rearranging elements?

Checklist For A "Third" Read


It's time to get out your sharpest pencil and be ruthless. It's generally useful to do a "third" read with hard copy in front of you, where you can make actual marks on the paper. It's do-able on a screen but you're more likely to miss stuff you'd see if you were working on a printout.

  • Are inportant pieces of specific information at the ends and beginnings of key sentences, paragraphs, sections, and the entire piece itself?
  • Have you used "subject-verb-object" sentences?
  • Have you cut unnecessary clauses?
  • Are there sentences that announce what you're going to say, or sum up what you've already said—can you cut them?
  • Do readers leave each sentence with more information than when they began?
  • Is sentence length varied, with shorter sentences usually used for clarification or emphasis?
  • Is each word the right word?
  • Is each word the simplest word?
  • Have you used strong verbs?
  • Have unnecessary adverbs and adjectives been eliminated?
  • Have you cut "to be" verbs wherever possible?
  • Have you eliminated "-ings" wherever possible?
  • Have you used active voice?
  • Is the simplest tense used?
  • Are tenses consistent?
  • What about pronoun agreement?
  • Have you checked for parallel structure?
  • Have you checked for gender-biased or racist language?
  • Have you cut unnecessary words: that, would, quite, very...
  • Have sentence elements been reorderred so they read naturally and smoothly?
  • Have you used parallel structure in lists?
  • Does each paragraph make one point?
  • Have you developed that point fully?
  • Do paragraphs vary in length, with shorter paragraphs used for clarification and emphasis?
  • Are the paragraphs in order, do transitions make sense?
  • Have you cut unnecessary introductory and concluding paragraphs?
  • Can you think of questions readers might still ask?
  • Have you checked punctuation?
  • Have you checked spelling?
  • Are the numbers correct?

Tips for doing a "third" read

  • Read backwards. Begin at the end and work back through the text paragraph by paragraph or even line by line. This will force you to look at the surface elements rather than the meaning of the text
  • Place a ruler under each line as you read it. This will give your eyes a manageable amount of text to read
  • Know your own typical mistakes. Keep a running list of errors you typically make. Before you do a "third" read, look over your list
  • Read for one type of error at a time. If commas are your most frequent problem, go through the writing checking just that one problem. Then read again for the next most frequent problem
  • Read through your writing several times fast, once looking just at spelling, another time looking just at punctuation, and so on. This will help you focus so you'll do a better job