Writing which is well edited presents an author’s thoughts clearly. There are no distracting errors in language, fact, or logic. Writing and editing go hand-in-hand, though teaching children to edit can be a challenge. Several factors might be at the root of the challenge — a reluctance to correct the work of others, the boredom of looking at the “same old thing”, or the attention to detail which is required. Nevertheless, editing is a skill which can and should be mastered. The following ideas will help.
Define a simple process. Familiarize your students with the following editing process so they know exactly what to do. This basic approach can be used by students at various learning levels. Change the scope of step “b” as appropriate. For example, a second grader should be working on spelling, punctuation, and capitalization while a twelfth grader should show competence in all eight areas.
a. Read the piece to be edited.
b. Read through it a second time and carefully mark possible errors. Check the following:
5. Repetitious word use
6. Accuracy of statements of fact
7. Flow and consistency of the piece
c. Research the possible errors.
d. Mark the confirmed errors with suggested changes.
e. In cases where the correction needs proof, include a reference.
Reference material. Have the following references on hand for consultation by the students as they research the possible errors: an unabridged dictionary, a style manual, a synonym finder dictionary, and an atlas. There are a number of style manuals available and because their guidance differs, specify which manual to use.
English is a complicated language and there are situations where more than one approach is acceptable. One that comes immediately to mind is use of the comma in a list and whether or not to put one prior to the final “and”. Some style manuals recommend a comma at this point to indicate that the last two items are separate items; others do not, believing it to be unnecessary. Consistency throughout a particular piece is important.
Book authors typically use “The Chicago Manual of Style”. Journalists use the “Associated Press Stylebook”. Students usually use Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”. There are a number of other manuals available. It is worth mentioning to your students that different style manuals are used by the various communities of writers in case some choose to become authors.
Access to the Internet is helpful. If available, be sure to point out how to use spell check and grammar check functions. While not perfect, these functions can help a student spot an error and offer some possible fixes. Urge caution, though, in their use. These programs do not identify all errors (like when a valid word is used but it is not the correct word for the sentence) and in some cases, they may identify items as errors when, in fact, they are not.
Choosing the material for editing practice. Finding material of interest to your students for their review will make editing practice more fun. Search the Internet on the terms “editing worksheet” for printable worksheets. Review blogs of celebrities, or sports heroes, or animal fans. Newspaper articles often offer good material for review (probably not because they want to provide material in need of editing, but because their staff is small and they cannot edit everything submitted). A common practice in many classrooms is to have students exchange work and correct it. Students may feel uncomfortable pointing out the errors of their peers and as a result not offer their best effort. Choosing material written by authors who are not personal acquaintances provides a less emotionally charged experience.
Techniques for teachers. Here are several different approaches to teaching editing which have worked for other teachers. Try out one or several.
a. Write down an error-ridden sentence or paragraph on your overhead, chalkboard, or butcher block paper. Tell the students how many errors there are. Give them until the end of the day or the beginning of the next day to find them.
b. When correcting student papers, put an arrow or dot off to the left-hand side of the sentence containing the error. Let the student figure out what the error was and how to correct it. Have the student submit the paper a second time for review.
c. Write sentences or paragraphs from the work of previous students on overheads. Work through the corrections as a class.
d. Post a chart of proofreading symbols in your classroom for easy reference by your students.
e. Post a checklist of items for students to check. Alternatively, have them fill out a sheet with their name, the title of the exercise material, and check the boxes as they complete their review of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and so on.
f. Have students read the material out loud slowly to check for doubled words, incorrect words, and misused words.
g. Have students check their own work a day after they originally wrote it. Have them highlight each mistake with a blue highlighter. When you do the final grading, use a different color highlighter to show any mistakes they missed.
h. Pair students to form collaborative writing teams. Have them do any of the previously listed exercises as a team.
Checking flow and logic. Two concepts students often grapple with are flow and logic. Give a list of questions to your students to help them analyze what they are reading. These questions will help them identify problem areas when reviewing a text. The list might include:
Was a complete thought contained in the paragraph?
Did the ordering of thought or word choice cause awkward transitions from one paragraph or sentence to another?
If the piece is in basic chronological order, do you notice any disruptions?
Did the author build from statements of fact and from simple ideas to more complex ideas?
Did the author clearly explain why?
If you do not understand something in the text, why is that? Where did you start to lose the thread of the author’s argument?
Does the author follow the logical argument approach of, “if this, then that”? If so, does the conclusion necessarily follow or are there alternative explanations or causes?
More Information for Students. Many students want to move quickly through the material, scanning rather than examining. Spotting errors require great attention to detail. Students will find a number of tips and techniques for editing in my article “Editing Your Writing”.
Fact checking is a specific subset of skills within editing. For more details on how to do this well, students can read “How to Fact Check”.
Like all skills, editing must be practiced. Providing your students with many opportunities to edit will improve their critical thinking skills as well as their writing.