Editing and rewriting

May 20, 2011

A week or so ago, Carol Anne asked me to document my process for editing and rewriting a particular paragraph. I had forgotten what I did, but recently I had another easy one to do and this time I tried to be conscious of my thought processes and the decisions that I made when deconstructing and reconstructing a paragraph.

Here’s the original (62 words; 356 characters including punctuation and spaces):

This Foundation Knowledge pack must be completed by the Technician for each of the units within this particular area. The Competency Assurance Specialist is to validate each of the written responses and tick either the Yes or No in the appropriate column. This pack is to be used as the basis of forming a portfolio of evidence of competency for this area.

And here’s my reworked version (48 words; 297 characters):

Technicians must complete this Foundation Knowledge pack for each unit within this area; this pack will be the basis of an evidence portfolio of competency in this area. The Competency Assurance Specialist will validate each of the written responses by ticking Yes or No in the appropriate column.

This only took a couple of minutes for me to do, but I agree with whoever it was that said that writing shorter is much harder to do than writing longer. I think this is the quote:

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. — Henry David Thoreau

So, what I did I think and what was I looking for when I was editing this paragraph? Here is some of my thought processes for rewriting this paragraph, in no particular order:

  • Readability and suitability for audience. The audience for this piece of writing is technicians on an industrial site. I can’t assume that they will all have English as their first language, nor can I make any assumptions about their level of education. Therefore, I need to keep the language as plain and simple as possible, without ‘talking down’ to the audience or patronizing them. Clear, simple, unambiguous language is good for everyone.
  • Match tenses. This paragraph mixes up past and future tenses (‘be completed’, ‘to validate’, ‘be used’). My aim was to make all the tenses the same, whether that was past, present or future. I chose future, in keeping with the organization’s other documentation.
  • Parallel structure. It’s not as apparent as in a bulleted list, but the structure of the original paragraph is not parallel. In the first original sentence, we have an object (Knowledge Pack) that’s to have something done to it (completed) by a subject (technician), whereas in the second sentence we have a subject (Competency Assurance Specialist) who is to do something (validate) to an object (the written responses). In the final sentence, we have an object that’s sort of hanging as there’s only an implied subject (the technician) and an implied action (be used). It’s confusing, but by making sure that subjects take actions on objects, it should become clearer.
  • Sense. Critical to the sense of a sentence or paragraph is the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and/or how’. Not every sentence or paragraph will have all these, but all sentences will have some of them. In the example above, I needed to ask myself ‘who is doing what’ (and perhaps ‘to whom’), and ‘why are they doing it’. Further questions for the second idea in the paragraph related to ‘how it was to be done’. Getting all that straight in my head makes the rewrite so much easier.
  • Passive/active voice. Similar to the examples listed under ‘parallel structure’ above, there’s a real mix of active and passive voice — objects are being acted upon by subjects, instead of subjects acting on objects.
  • Remove redundancies. There are several words in this paragraph that can be removed without altering meaning. For example, ‘for each of the units within this particular are’ can be shortened to ‘for each unit within this area’ or ‘for each unit in this area’, or perhaps ‘for this area’s units’. Another: ‘as the basis of forming a portfolio of evidence of competency for this area’ can be shortened to ‘the basis of an evidence portfolio of competency in this area’, or ‘the basis of a competency evidence portfolio’, though that may be getting away from the meaning a little and I’d have to check it with the writer.
  • Put like things together. There are three elements to this paragraph, two of which are closely related (the pack), yet they are separated by the third (validation). By putting both ‘pack’ pieces together and separating them with a semicolon, the who (technicians), the what (the pack), and the why (build a portfolio) are now in the same sentence.

I did all that thinking and analyzing as well as two rewrites before I arrived at my version. And all within a couple of minutes. Given unlimited time, no doubt I could hone it further, but at some point you have to say it’s good enough.

I typically just do this sort of copyediting without thinking too much about the process. Doing this little exercise on just one paragraph has opened up my eyes to how much goes on in my brain before the edited version hits the page (or screen, in this case). The brain is an amazing thing!

Oh, and don’t pick on me if I haven’t used all the correct terms for what I do — much of it I was never formally taught, and just learned by reading a lot, and by living and working for a few decades!

[Links last checked May 2011]


  1. Thanks for this one Rhonda. Perfect timing too – I was on a plane last night trying to articulate some of my editing ideas and this has really helped. Have just bought you a coffee!

  2. In an email to me, Jun said:

    “I love this!! What you’ve done is give me ideas about breaking down my own work process into dot points. I guess it may seem rather trivial to you but I think every specialist does complicated things in their heads that makes sense to them, but they don’t necessarily sit down and break them down into logical packages. We marvel at people when they can do complicated things, but when you can summarise them into separate actions, it almost seems understandable!

    When writing software programs that replicate human actions, you need to break them down into logical packages, and this is exactly what you did. It is actually quite exciting to me (in a geeky way, mind you, so it wouldn’t excite my wife one bit!) because building [software product] took many months of doing just this.

    It is a piece of brilliant blog entry and I loved reading it.”

  3. Thanks for this, I donated to your website because I was able to use this for some contract training I’m delivering on statement of work writing.

  4. Hi Ed

    I’m glad I could help! And thanks for the coffee!


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