Self-editing clarifies meanings and increases readability

Self-editing is demontrated with a passage called Edit ruthlessly[1]

Make what you say as good as what you mean to say. To anyone sufficiently motivated to polish a final draft, this book offers ways and means.

Self-editing for conciseness

Routine Condensing

There are at least two larger opportunities [that exist] in this area.
(Or: At least two larger opportunities exist in this area.)

He believes that [in order] to study efficiently you need…

[In the case of] Layton Brothers[, the company] didn’t adjust quickly enough to the changing market.

Choosing Bargain Words

[He walked wearily and laboriously] He trudged…

Leaving Unsaid

[In this paper I will discuss] three aspects of contemporary life that…

Self-editing word order

…if you don’t put your sentence components where they belong, you risk confusing your readers or getting laughs you didn’t want. Take this sentence, for example:

Queen Elizabeth read the speech, which was handed to her by the 71-year-old Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor, with the aid of half-moon glasses.

Imaginative readers might picture the lord chancellor handing the queen a furled parchment balanced on a pair of spectacles. The writer should have brought the queen and her glasses together:

With the aid of half-moon glasses, Queen Elizabeth read the speech handed to her by…

Self-editing for series balance

Deprived of their parallel structure, some famous quotations lose their punch:

Many are called, but God doesn’t choose more than a few.

…that all men…. have certain unalienable rights: to life, liberty, and to pursue happiness.

…brought forth on this continent a new nation that had its conception in liberty and was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Self-editing for word-group agreement

Subject-Verb Disagreement

Enclosed is [are] my application and a check for the fee.

My chief concern in opposing tuition tax credits are [is] the metropolitan public schools.

Pronoun-Antecedent Disagreement

If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, you have to know the rules of the game. (Change to A person who wants to succeed in corporate life has to know . . . , or change a person wants to you want, or begin the sentence with To succeed.)

Other Disagreement Problems

Lawyers are told that if they do not become a partner [become partners] by age forty they never will.

Faulty References

The School Board is expected to decide at its next meeting whether to have elementary pupils attend schools 40 minutes less every day. This [ruling] would leave the children with the state minimum of five hours of daily instruction.

Self-editing punctuation

Helpful Commas

In the forties girls studied home nursing, and boys took shop. (The comma prevents boys from looking like the second object of the girls’ study.)

On the New York Stock Exchange yesterday the industrials were up 9.5, the transports were down 4.35, and the utilities were unchanged.

The chipmunk, or ground squirrel, hibernates in winter.

Their performance was hilarious, however serious its intent.

She was interested in, but also apprehensive about, the new project.

Running toward us, the man was shouting something and waving a newspaper.

If he enjoys driving, a car would make an ideal graduation gift.

Discretionary Commas

By 1952(,) he was ready to forsake the literary life for a steady job.

The sun is up(,) and the birds are singing.

If you’re invited to the dean’s reception, wear a simple black dress, or whatever you have that’s dark and decorous.

The senator agreed to support the project, but if he had known that most of his constituents were opposed, he might have decided otherwise.

The drive toward a lean punctuation is such that even if we still wrote the complex, periodic sentences of Johnson or of Macaulay, we should punctuate them much less heavily.


Since she had two college degrees, good skills, and excellent references, she fully expected to find a job easily, despite the high rate of unemployment; but what she did not expect, until she started looking, was the stiff competition for the positions available.

The consultants attributed the failure to increased costs, especially for fuel; the hostility of environmentalists, local residents, and the unions; abyssmal public relations, due in part to company policies; and shortsighted managerial decisions.


The diet was spartan: steamed fish, raw or steamed vegetables without butter or dressing, half a grapefruit, four ounces of skimmed milk, and unsweetened tea or coffee.

Dashes and Parentheses

My old dog—the whole neighborhood remembers him—always whined outside a closed door.

For lunch try a fruit salad—say, cottage cheese, grapes, bananas, orange sections, and strawberries (you can substitute melon balls if you’re prone to hives)—and see how satisfying it can be.

Skill, courage, stamina, and heart—all these qualities are essential if the team is going to finish on top.

Self-editing layer by layer, and eventually self-editing automatically

Sometimes you have to remove one layer of errors before others become visible, and new mistakes may slip in as you eliminate the original ones.

In editing my own writing, I cover a freshly typed page with scribbled corrections, retype to see what I’ve wrought, then sharpen my pencil and attack again. The vicious circle stops only when I find myself restoring the earlier version of a sentence I “improved” last time around. I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

With practice, you’ll develop a conditioned response to these faults and learn to edit them out as soon as you spot them—and, eventually, even before you put them down.[2]

  1. Forbes, Malcolm. How To Write a Business Letter. ERIC Clearinghouse, 1981.
  2. Cook, Claire Kehrwald. The MLA’s line by line. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

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