You may think there is an excessive amount of red ink splashed over the typewriting, but we tried to cross out four main things. Firstly, any parts which were misleading or didn’t fit into the story. Secondly, any unnecessary and driveling descriptions. It’s funny how when writing you feel you have to make points clear and then, on reading it over, you find it is all repetition. Thirdly, we got rid of all useless words like rather, quite, very definitely, etc.; and any words which we disliked, such as children, graceful, poised, etc. Lastly we knocked out all the passages we loathed but which somehow managed to squirm their way in.
— Katherine Hall and Pamela Whitlock to Arthur Ransome (author of Swallows and Amazons), explaining the state of the manuscripts for their Oxus books, written when they were fourteen years old and published under Ransome’s sponsorship. Quoted in How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books, Joan Bodger, p. 65.
While you may be under the impression that good writers can simply sit down and effortlessly pour good prose onto the page, the truth is that most writers struggle with the best way to present their ideas. Good writing is the result of hard work, and some of that work is simply paying attention to certain details like spelling and proper grammar. There is no way to short circuit this process, but the end result is worth the effort.
main points for this unit
The advent of computers has made certain editing operations much easier. Most word processors have spelling checkers that will find common spelling problems and typographical errors. Use these — judiciously — to find those places where you have typed "teh" instead of "the", or "bothe" instead of "both" (to name only a handful of common typographical errors). It doesn’t take long to run these programs, so be sure that you do so on all work submitted to your teachers or for any kind of publication.
You will still need to read through your work for some types of spelling errors. A spelling program will not mark "there" as inappropriate in the sentence "He went to there house." You must recognize the difference between “their”, “there”, and “they’re”. Some computer grammar checking utilities claim to know the difference, but their failure rate is fairly high.
After you have checked for spelling problems, check punctuation. If your word processor has a grammar check program, use it. When rewriting sections of an essay to make it clearer, you may easily restructure or reorder sentences and leave a capitalized word that originally started a sentence still capitalized in what is now the middle of a phrase. These are often hard to see when you have written and rewritten a section several times, so go slowly through your work. Be sure that all sentences start with capitals, that proper nouns are capitalized, and that you use periods to end the sentences (these are sometimes hard to see on the computer screen, so check carefully!) Review the rules for commas, and set off lists and clauses properly.
One of the things that tends to separate good writers from poor ones or mediocre ones is word usage. This is a large and foggy area: it’s difficult chiefly because it submits to almost no generalizations. Ultimately the only solution here is to read widely and to develop a critical ear for the language and its nuances. Study of other languages such as Latin and Greek can pay off abundant dividends here by giving you a clue about where the words came from.
Still, as in many other disciplines, a large percentage of the problems tend to come from a small percentage of the potential issues. Probably less than one percent of your vocabulary is likely to trip you up — but one percent is still large enough that it will manifest itself, on the odds, with every page you write. (No, it won’t be once every hundred words, for reasons having to do with how we count words — but it might be close to one for every hundred different words you use.) For these intractable words, I recommend the frontal assault: there are problem words that tend to be confused more frequently, and one can make reasonably good headway against them by mastering a few lists. Most full-sized dictionaries offer usage notes with individual entries, and The American Heritage Dictionary has collected some of the more egregious problem words in a useful little volume entitled 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses. Every word listed in this book is an accident you can avoid if you’ willing to take the time and effort.
Once you have finished with the spelling and grammar checks that your word processor can help you with, print off your essay and get out a red or blue pen (something that will show against the ink in your printer). Go someplace quiet and get ready to do the kind of proofreading and editing that your teacher will perform.
In general, I don’t recommend grammar-checking programs at all. They tend to be inaccurate, and so need to be checked in turn by someone with a strong grasp of the underlying concepts. In short, you probably aren’t a good enough grammarian to make good use of a grammar checker until you’re also good enough that you don’t need one. It’s a kind of Catch-22. Grammar checking software is a great solution out there looking for a problem it can solve. So far it hasn’t found one.
You should, however, be learning about the kind of grammatical difficulties that plague your own writing. If you consistently have problems with using apostrophes properly, for example, read through your draft just to check every apostrophe use and every possessive it contains. If you have problems with pronoun agreement or reference, circle each pronoun and draw a line back to its antecedent, then check to be sure that the pronoun agrees with the antecedent in number and in gender, and that there aren’t any intervening words that could just as easily claim the pronoun. If you have problems with subject and verb number agreement, circle each verb and draw a line back to its subject or subjects to check number. Be sure that each sentence is a whole sentence, not a run-on sentence or a fragment. There must be at least one finite independent clause; if there are more, they must be joined with a semicolon or a coordinating conjunction (“but”, “and”). Fix all the problems you find, rewriting sentences if you need to.
Yes, all this seems picky, and it can be disheartening to have all your creative effort ground down to such a granularity. If you find lots of mistakes, that may be discouraging in the short run, but in the long run it means that you are learning to recognize them. Over time, as you learn to recognize errors during the editing phase, you will learn to "hear" and anticipate them during the writing phase, and will gradually make fewer errors in your first draft.
Now go back to the computer and make the changes you need to fix these grammatical errors. Mark each one on the page as you fix it, so that you don’t miss any. For this exercise, you will want to compare the first draft and your final version, so save the corrected essay to a different file.
Print your grammatically correct essay out again. If you have a day or two to let it sit, all the better: distance can be very helpful at this point. Read it through, and this time pay attention to organization of the content. Is the idea in your thesis statement clearly presented in the introductory paragraph? Does each supporting paragraph develop an idea that is important for the main point of the essay? Do the ideas follow in a logical order? Does your conclusion summarize the essay as a whole, and do more than merely repeat the introduction? Do you use the same word or phrase over and over? Are there weak or repetitious adjectives that could be eliminated for clarity? Are there general terms that should be more specific? Are there weak verbs (verb forms of to be or to have) that could be replaced by stronger, more specific action words?
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