Even the best writer makes mistakes when rushing out a document. We are experts at pointing out the mistakes of others but must take note to edit our own writing.
Often, we can be critical of other people’s writing yet our own writing may not be word perfect. We have to look carefully at what we have written as if we are looking at the image of ourselves in a mirror—pimples, freckles, and all. Most of the time, we don’t have the luxury of having another person edit our drafts—the document could be confidential, personal, or there is a shortage of time.
It is ideal if you can request a third party to check your document. A fresh pair of eyes can spot errors that the writer has missed as he/she is too familiar with the document. A hastily composed report will leave a bad impression of the author in the minds of readers. The advice is to give yourself plenty of time to do research and write at least five or six drafts before the final report.
You are into your second draft after working on the document for over two weeks. Frankly, you are tired of reading the document on your screen. Take a break, go for a stroll, or have a snack then go back to the screen to look at your document again.
It’s like a painter stepping back to admire his work. When he is too close to the canvas he cannot see his poor strokes and colour combinations. Looking at your draft with a fresh mind allows you to see if what you have written is objective. That objectivity will allow you to see the document as the reader will see it. Objectivity will help us overcome our egos. Many writers tend to believe that they are the expert on the subject. They forget to acknowledge sources. They forget to mention that some ideas are from the team. Objectivity also means giving the two sides of the coin some space in the document. Readers will be thankful if they are told the pros and cons of the decision-making.
It is necessary to check the spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary of your sentences. You are at liberty to use either British or American spelling as long as you are consistent and not use both in the same document. In the Microsoft Word I use, there is an option for English (Singapore) and they don’t mean Singlish. To us in the Republic, there is no such version of the English language and spelling. The spell check will help you to keep your spelling consistent if you stick to one version of the English language.
Check the punctuation of your sentences. Ensure that you have ended your sentences properly. Did you use a full stop, exclamation mark, or question mark? Avoid overusing exclamation marks. They should be reserved for special emphasis as in: “Driving a vehicle with bald tyres can lead to skidding!” It is unnecessary to use exclamation marks for words or phrases such as “Thank you” or “Goodbye”. “Thank you!” appears to be insincere. “Goodbye!” looks like you are going to the next world.
Check your commas. The comma is used to clarify text by separating groups of words or phrases. Often, reading a sentence aloud is helpful in deciding where a comma is needed to indicate a pause for better comprehension. Invest in a good grammar book. It will show you the instances when a comma is necessary.
For quoted text, inverted commas should be used. These open and close inverted commas tell the reader that they are the actual words used in the original. You can choose to use single inverted commas or double inverted commas, but be consistent.
Pay attention to the proper nouns that should be capitalised. Most writers prefer to capitalise only the initial letter in acronyms that can be pronounced as in “Unesco”. “UNESCO” would make the word jump out of the page. However, if the acronym cannot be pronounced, it is all capped as in “NTUC”.
Use of Articles
I have observed that many Asian writers tend to leave out the articles “a”, “an”, and “the” in sentences. They tend to translate from their mother tongue and most Asian languages often do not have articles before the nouns. The English language pays much attention to having definite or indefinite articles before nouns otherwise the sentence sounds incomplete.
However, there are exceptions to the rules about article usage. We say: “I intend to climb Mount Everest one day”. Mount Everest has no article as it is so prominent. Sometimes articles are used to make the phrase sound better as in “an earring fit for the princess”. “A earring fit for the princess” is also commonly used but the former follows good usage as in “an ear of corn”. We use “a university” not “an university”. So, the use of articles can be confusing if one does not read widely.
When checking your document, ask yourself if you have chosen the right word, Often, we use a word that is too strong to describe an emotion as in “She was elated when she received a doll as a birthday present”. Webster’s defines “elated” as: to fill with joy, cause to be jubilant. So “elated” may be too strong a word for receiving the doll unless the doll can also cook and do the laundry as well.
If you are someone who likes to impress the reader with the use of difficult words, take the trouble to check a good dictionary to ensure that you have used the word appropriately. Academic writers usually prefer to use difficult words to impress the readers.
In all kinds of writing, the writer must know the audience and their expectations. If the bulk of the readers are general and not specialists, there is a need to explain technical phrases and ideas in the document. How well do you know the reader? From this, you can set the tone of voice of your document. The vocabulary and writing style will change depending on whether you are directing your document at top management or at workers on the shop floor.
Imprecise language, such as abstractions, euphemisms, and generalities can mislead readers. For example, in the case of imprecise language, a fast food restaurant offers free toys to buyers of their food, they encourage children to collect the entire set but some toys are only produced in limited numbers on purpose.
When you are writing a speech, it is necessary to read it aloud to hear if the sentences used flow easily from the lips. The vocabulary should allow the audience to see the intended imagery. Listening to a speech is like listening to the radio—it is one way communication. You have only one chance to convince the audience to come over to your side of the argument.
When editing your draft speech, include more transitional words and phrases in the sentences. They will assist the audience in relating various sentences and ideas in the speech. These are some transitional words and phrases you can amass and use: therefore, however, alternatively, on the other hand, in the first instance, secondly, finally.
Revise your Tone if Necessary
Tone is your attitude toward your subject and your audience. Your writing may have a clear purpose, be well organised, be free from errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling but unless you convey a suitable tone, your document may fail to communicate the message to your intended audience.
Tone is a matter of distance or formality—the distance you want to establish between yourself, your subject, and your audience. Ask yourself if you want to be informal or formal with your audience.
Good writers follow a systematic checking scheme for their drafts. It could be in this order:
First draft: Check for accuracy and completeness of facts and statistics.
Second draft: Check for writing style. Pitch it to the audience.
Third draft: Check for consistency, spelling, and grammar.
Fourth draft: Check for layout and formatting.
Fifth draft: Final checking.
You may prefer to use the following checklist to edit your document.
□ Check for unity and coherence: If a paragraph has unity, all of the sentences in it will contribute to the development of that paragraph’s central idea, and all the paragraphs will contribute to the development of the main topic. Coherence means that the sentences and paragraphs will flow smoothly from one to the next, and each sentence is related to the one before it.
□ Check for conciseness: Get rid of unnecessary words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs. It takes the reader less time to plough through your report.
□ Check for smooth transitions: There should be some linking of ideas from one paragraph to another.
□ Check if subjects and verbs agree.
□ Check for logic: Sometimes writers get carried away by illogical arguments.
Good writing does not come by chance. It is developed over many years through learning how award-winning writers put words together. When you come across a well-written article, pause to read the sentences one by one and admire the style of the writer.
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