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Editing Sentences

Editing Sentences

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson shows how to edit sentences in an essay.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about editing sentences for completeness, for variation, and for syntax.

As we'll remember, editing is the step of the writing process that involves improving the sentences, word choices, and overall style of an essay or other piece of writing. Making sure that each individual sentence is at its best is a critical component of the style and clarity of an essay. To that end, some of the strategies for editing are reading the sentences out loud, either to yourself or someone else, having someone else read the sentences themself looking for issues, and reading the essay backwards, which adds distance and allows the writer to focus on the prose, not the ideas being developed.

One of the most critical things a writer should do when editing is go through his or her essay and make sure there aren't any incomplete sentences or run-on sentences. In a way, this category with tend to stray into proofreading for grammar and mechanics, but it's also important for editing. Remember, the proofreading is focused on typos and mistakes while editing is looking more to improve the clarity and style. That's essentially the difference here, even though we're still changing things like word usage and punctuation.

To get an idea of what I'm talking about, consider this passage taken from a completely made up student's completely made up essay. "I didn't like Beloved much. I didn't get what was going with the girl Beloved. She was a ghost, but Sethe didn't know that, it seems. Odd to think about. Still, I thought the book would have been better if Toni Morrison kept it more realistic."

Now, here's the same passage, but with a couple of its sentences edited to improve clarity, style, and mechanics. "I didn't like Beloved much, because I didn't get what was going on with the girl Beloved. She was a ghost, but Sethe didn't know that, it seems. This is odd to think about, but still, I thought the book would have been better if Toni Morrison had kept it more realistic."

As you can see, I've only made a couple changes, but as you could hopefully hear, the entire passage flowed better. And since a reader, encountering only the later version, wouldn't have to work to translate either the run-on sentence in the beginning or the sentence fragment towards the end of the first version, the overall effect of the argument would be improved, even without changing it in any substantive way.

One of the bigger problems intermediate writers have, at least from my experience, is writing repetitive sentences. Varying the sentence structures within paragraphs and essays by mixing up long and short, simple and complex sentences and changing the beginnings of sentences can make a huge difference for maintaining a reader's interest. Sentence variation, as we call this, also allows writers to express their ideas in various dynamic ways. After all, if the sentences are the same, how can the ideas they carry be very different?

When editing, look through your sentences with an eye for variation and change or move any sentences that seem repetitively structured or placed. For an example, take a look at this paragraph taken from a fake research report on a fake investigation into the opinions of women who live where a new fake power plant is being built.

"The first thing we did was gather data from women in our class. The second thing we did was gather data from women walking around campus. The third thing we did was expand to the neighborhoods nearby. We did this by putting flyers in the doors of each house, with the questions from our survey and the email to send responses to. We did this because we wanted to get some information from women beyond the school. We didn't want to just have data from college students, but every woman who has to live within the range of the proposed power plant."

As you can both see and hear, the structure of these sentences makes for troubling reading. Many are exactly the same length and complexity, and most of them even start in the same way. So let's change it up a little. See if this version doesn't look and sound better.

"We gathered information from three groups: first, the women in our class, followed by a sampling of women surveyed on campus, and finally, women living in the surrounding neighborhood. In order to reach the surrounding areas, we put flyers in the doors along with an invitation to complete the survey online. We did this because we didn't want to only get data from college students, but from all the women who have to live within range of the proposed power plant."

As you can see, I did away with the first, second, third structure but making it all one longer and more complex sentence, but one that, in my opinion at least, more effectively and smoothly relays the same information. I also changed the beginning of a couple sentences so it would be too repetitive to start the last sentence with "we." And I cut out one sentence completely, because as I found, with a little more information in the last sentence, I didn't need to use it all.

The last point we need to make while talking about editing sentences is about syntax. Syntax is "the formation and ordering of words into sentences as well as the study of how words are formed into sentences." Syntax is a core concept for understanding the relationship between structure and style. In the editing process, writers should evaluate their syntax, the way their words are ordered, for how it affects the style, tone, and voice of the essay.

And the thing is, we've already been looking at editing for syntax since it's impossible to change the structure of a sentence, either to make it more complete, or to vary it in relation to other sentences without changing and thinking about the word order. Editing for syntax also entails taking a broad look at how a particular sentence's syntax is contributing to the style of the essay as a whole. Pay attention to whether any sentences are out of place within the rest of your essay's style or the goals, tone, or voice. And if you notice any problems, well, you know what to do. Edit.

What did we learn today? We learned about editing sentences for completeness, variety, and syntax. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

The formation and ordering of words into sentences as well as the study of how words are formed into sentences.