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Finding your faults

James McConnachie

James McConnachie
Image credit: Julia Conway

As an academic writer you are, in many ways, your own boss. You are certainly your own editor. It is easy to be the hardest and least forgiving of bosses, and the most critical and dispiriting of editors. So when I say that this article is about ‘finding your faults’, I need to be careful.

I am not talking about ‘finding fault’ — the negative reflex that makes you instinctively zero in on what is wrong with your work. No, I am referring to the practice of getting to know your poor writing habits. These don’t matter while you are composing your draft, but should always be addressed further down the line.

Read for style

We all have our writing faults. Many are common, while others will be relatively peculiar to you. The trick is to become aware of your faults so that you can spot and fix them. One way of becoming more aware is to read not for content but for style. By this, I mean seeking to learn from how another author writes, rather than concentrating only on what he or she says.

Choose a piece of writing that impressed you. Spend an hour with it, identifying any sentences that seem particularly well expressed. Now analyse the author’s technique. How do they begin a sentence? Where is the main verb and what is it? How long or short is the sentence, and how is it punctuated?

Conscious editing

The best way to sharpen your awareness, though, is to practise ‘conscious editing’. When you revise your work, try to observe what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Alternatively, go back over one of your edits and try to work out why the changes were improvements. You could use Track Changes to compare your first and second drafts.

List your faults

Keep a note of any edits or revisions that seem particularly successful to you. Over time, you will see patterns emerge — the same corrections being made time and again. Now create a list of your faults. The start of mine – which is a long list – looks like this:

  1. Lazy reporting verbs

    I’m always using words such as ‘writes’, ‘highlights’ and ‘argues’. I need to think more carefully about what the author is actually doing and use the right verb. Often, I require a more specific verb: perhaps ‘insists’, ‘observes’ or ‘suggests’.

  2. Inaccurate adjectives

    I regularly reach for the same fallback adjectives: ‘clever’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘rich’. These are fine as placeholders while I’m drafting, but I have to improve them when I edit. By ‘improve’, I mean ‘find adjectives that communicate what I think about whatever I’m describing, rather than just vaguely signalling approval’.

    Vague adjectives can frequently be deleted. Some, however, hide a whole new thought, and could usefully grow into a new sentence or passage. Don’t say that something is ‘interesting’ — explain why it’s interesting.

  3. Sentences that start the wrong way round

    Sometimes, when I begin to write, I start in the wrong place, and it is only as I get into the sentence that I discover the main point, which comes too late in the sentence, resulting in unnecessary repetition and confusion.Sorry, let me rephrase that:
    Sentences that don’t get to the point are often repetitious and confusing.

  4. Sentences that start ‘This is’ or ‘There are’

    There is a problem with the kind of sentence structure that starts with ‘this is’ or ‘there is’; it is a common cause of wasted words.I’ll try again:
    Sentences that start with ‘this is’ or ‘there is’ commonly waste words.

    Opening a sentence with ‘this is’ and ‘there are’ can be like you clearing your throat. Sentences are frequently crisper and clearer without them.

Try to construct a list to capture your main bad habits. Then you can use it to structure your editing into discrete, focussed steps.

Editing steps

When we edit, most of us simply read the text, line by line, correcting as we go. But most human beings find it impossible to keep everything in mind: sentence structure, word choice, punctuation etc. Once you’ve found and fixed one kind of error, you’ll often start looking only for that kind of mistake in the next passage you read.

It can be more effective to read relatively quickly while looking for one specific kind of fault, then go back to the start and read over again, looking for the next problem. Clearly, you don’t want to read your writing innumerable times, so group the faults into editing steps. You could do one edit for sentence structure, another for punctuation problems, and so on.

Another step is reducing repetition. Here, you can put the search/replace tool to work. If you overuse one verb, search for it, and choose alternatives. If you misuse or overuse one kind of punctuation, such as the semicolon, search and selectively replace it.

Effective editing

These techniques will help you edit more effectively. They will also help you become more aware of how you write — and you might find that your bad habits gradually drop away, even while you’re writing first drafts. Don’t let that editorial awareness get in the way of composition though. It is often useful to write rapidly, without concern for style, to get your thoughts down and create a workable first draft. Good editing habits should not constrain you, but help to improve your writing process.

7 January 2021

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