You don't have to get it right the first time! And remember, your ears are your best editor!

Don't be afraid or put off by editing. It's a great part of the process as – knowing you will edit your work later makes it easier for you to write. And a well edited piece is also easier for your reader to understand.

Slumbering canines and remote felines

Rewriting even just a single sentence can work wonders. If you don't believe it, have a look at the following sentences (from How to write and publish a scientific paper by Robert A. Day and Barbara Gastel, p201) and see if you recognise them...

  • As a case in point, other authorities have proposed that slumbering canines are best left in a recumbent position.
  • An incredibly insatiable desire to understand that which was going on led to the demise of this particular felis catus.
  • There is a large body of experimental evidence which clearly indicates that members of the genus mus tend to engage in recreational activity while the feline is remote from the locale.
  • From time immemorial, it has been known that the ingestion of an "apple" (i.e., the pome fruit of any tree of the genus maclus, said fruit being usually round in shape and red, yellow, or greenish in colour) on a diurnal basis will with absolute certainty keep a primary member of the health care establishment absent from one's local environment.
  • Even with the most sophisticated experimental protocol, it is exceedingly unlikely that the capacity to perform novel feats of legerdemain can be instilled in a superannuated canine.
  • A sedimentary conglomerate in motion down a declivity gains no addition of mossy material.
  • The resultant experimental data indicate that there is no utility in belabouring a deceased equine.

Why should you edit your own writing? When should you edit?

This is part of our practical writing guide - find out more here!

Editing and rewriting is an integral part of the writing process. There are very few occasions where the first draft cannot be improved (we certainly haven’t had this experience!). But this is a good thing: at first, you want to let the writing flow freely, not worrying about whether you are "doing it right". You want to let your brain speak uncensored. This is where creativity, passion and intelligence comes from.

Explicitly editing as you write can make it harder to write. For most people it is easier to alternate between writing freely, and then going back and editing and fine tuning. Writing is as much a craft as it is a creative pursuit.

There is nothing more frustrating than someone misunderstanding your work — unclear writing obscures what you are trying to say. Every time the flow of reading is stopped, because your meaning is unclear, or there is a spelling or grammatical mistake, the reader stops concentrating on what you are saying. Clear, direct, and correct writing is the best way to communicate with your reader. (It is also really frustrating and embarrassing to get feedback indicating spelling and minor grammatical mistakes.) Editing is a chance to polish your work, and also a chance to appreciate your own work.

How do you edit?

There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some general tips.

  • Read once through quickly, to sense if there is an overall message coming across.
  • Read half-speed, paragraph by paragraph, for structure. Think like a member of the audience you are trying to reach: Am I being led through the story, is there a sense of flow? Are my questions being answered?
  • Read slowly, line by line, to fine tune the style and language.
  • Read your work aloud – your ear is an excellent editor!
  • Finally double-check the accuracy of spelling, names, facts, figures, links and references.

Exercise: Write out a one sentence/one tweet version that summarises the piece. Is this message clear in the piece?

We now move on to some concrete suggestions for editing techniques, some of which echo some of our suggestions from the previous section on writing clearly. These apply to all your writing – papers, theses, emails, funding applications (one of the most important times to write clearly), popular articles for non-expert audiences – any piece of writing will benefit from these.

Think about your audience

While you are editing, picture your audience in your mind and imagine telling them your story.

  • Are you speaking their language? Think about the broadest audience your piece will reach, you don’t want to exclude anyone you could include with some simple changes.
  • Are you answering their questions?
  • Why should they care? WIIFT (What's In It For Them?)

The main thing in the redrafting and editing process is to always keep the audience in mind – show them courtesy and respect, remember you have to make them want to start, and finish reading your work, and you want them to understand and absorb what you are telling them. Get in their brain.

One fact per sentence, one idea per paragraph

Ask yourself if your sentences could be shorter. This doesn't mean that all your sentences have to be the same length. You can mix up short sentences with long ones, but experts say you should aim for 15 to 20 words a sentence, on average.

A good way to keep your sentences short is to follow the rule of one important fact per sentence, perhaps with an additional sub clause giving context. Something similar goes for paragraphs. When you start a new idea, start a new paragraph.

Exercise: Go through your draft and try to spot and then break up long sentences and paragraphs.

Put the important stuff at the beginning…. or the end

Start with something old, end with something new

You can apply these principles to the structure of a sentence, a paragraph, and even to the whole document. Thinking about the beginning and end of sentences and paragraphs improves the flow of reading. Remember that as the reader scans the page their eye is pulled to the beginning and end of paragraphs, particularly the opening sentence – use this to draw the reader in.

The important stuff might be something relevant – a fact or an idea the reader can relate to, something surprising, or the nuts and bolts of what you are explaining.

You might not examine every sentence in this way, but it is a good tool to have in your kit. You might want to at least read each paragraph with this in mind.

Exercise: Read the first sentence from each paragraph in sequence. It should still make sense, like a synopsis of your whole piece, and it should pull the reader along, hitting most of the important points. Imagine this was the only thing your reader saw, is there anything missing? Does each sentence indicate the idea developed in that paragraph?

This is a good tip to help you make sure your paragraphs are in a logical order, and that you have a paragraph for each main point. Obviously this experiment is more easily applied to shorter pieces, but the principle applies to any cohesive chunk for any piece of writing. You can apply it to a section, or a chapter of any longer piece of work.

Final checks

Back to the writing guide

This content was produced as part of our collaboration with the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences (INI) and the Newton Gateway to Mathematics. The INI is an international research centre in Cambridge which attracts leading mathematicians from all over the world. The Newton Gateway is the impact initiative of the INI, which engages with users of mathematics. You can find all the content from the collaboration here.

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