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
- The "Second" Read is
- The "Third" Read is
for voice, language & conventions
- 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
- 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
READING FOR MEANING
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
- 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
- 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
READING FOR ORDER
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
- Does the draft "show" as well
- Is each section an answer to readers'
- 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
READING FOR VOICE, LANGUAGE, AND CONVENTIONS
It's time to get out your sharpest
pencil and be ruthless. It's generally useful
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
- 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
- Is each word the right word?
- Is each word the simplest word?
- Have you used strong verbs?
- Have unnecessary adverbs and adjectives
- Have you cut "to be" verbs wherever
- Have you eliminated "-ings" wherever
- 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
- 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
- Have you cut unnecessary introductory
and concluding paragraphs?
- Can you think of questions readers might
- 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