Editing allows you to focus on making your sentences say exactly what you want them to say. Here, you’ll examine the structure of your sentences and the words you have chosen.

Editing vs. Proofreading

I’ve separated editing and proofreading because they require different work. Editing frequently involves rewriting sentences; proofreading is about finding small errors, like missing words or incorrect citations.

That said, proofreading techniques can help you find sentences that need editing, so they aren’t entirely separate. As I have said repeatedly throughout this text, find the strategies that work for you, and use them.

I’ve talked about a writing trajectory, and while “stages” like revision and drafting may occur throughout the process, editing is best left until late in the process. While you are still forming your ideas and getting those thoughts out in logical forms that a reader will understand, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time strengthening sentences. Imagine putting lots of effort into the sentences in a paragraph only to find out that the paragraph has to be rewritten substantially because there isn’t enough evidence or explanation in it.

Seeing Patterns

Editing requires careful attention to your sentences, but as you become more proficient at it, you will start to see patterns.

For example, I tend to write what most teachers would call “baggy sentences,” especially in my first drafts. When I am busy getting the ideas out, I don’t worry about weak verbs or too many prepositional phrases. As part of my editing process, though, I look for these weaknesses and work to fix them. On the other hand, I don’t usually have trouble with stylistic coherence, so I don’t spend much time on that.

With some practice, you’ll end up with your own list of areas to check.

The strategies in this section are based on my experiences with students. I am not trying to be comprehensive; instead, I’m focusing on the areas that, I believe, will help you make the most significant improvements. As with all of the strategies in this section, you need to identify which ones are useful for you.

Strengthening Sentences

Often, we write like we talk. However, speech is full of repetition, informal phrasing, and vague word choice that gets explained as we talk. In written text, those “features” become “bugs” that irritate readers because we can always reread if we need clarification.

The strategies here are designed to help you create stronger and clearer sentences.

Strengthening the Most Important Words

The single most important word in any given sentence is the verb. The verb holds the action in a sentence and lets the reader know how ideas work. Strengthening your verbs can make a world of difference in the clarity and sophistication of your prose.

There are two types of verbs: action and state of being.

Action – Usually Preferred State-of-Being – Sometimes Needed
Some kind of activity is taking place No activity is happening; a sort of verbal equals sign






  • She looks out of the window.
  • She looks to her friends for help.






  • She looks angry.
  • She looks tired.

Notice that you cannot always tell whether a word is an action verb just by looking at it. In the examples, the verb “look” can be an action verb when it indicates the action of using sight or considering, but a state-of-being verb when it indicates appearance. One way to tell is to substitute a form of the verb “to be” in the sentence: “She is angry,” or “She is tired.” While the meaning isn’t exactly the same, these sentences make grammatical sense, unlike “She is out of the window” or “She is to her friends for help.”

You generally want to use action verbs unless you are specifically equating two things. Action verbs let you put the most important work of the sentence into the word that is designed for that work.

Verbs vs. Verbals

There are words that look like verbs, but that aren’t actually verbs. For example, look at this sentence: “Strengthening your verbs can make a world of difference in the clarity and sophistication of your prose.” The very first word, “strengthening,” looks like a verb, but it actually isn’t. The verb in that sentence is “make” (with “can” as an auxiliary verb), and “strengthening” is functioning as a subject in that sentence, so it’s a noun.

There are three kinds of verbals in English:

  • Gerunds always end in -ing and function as nouns.
    Knitting is one of my favorite activities.
  • Infinitives are the base form of a verb plus to. These can function as nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.
    To knit well just requires yarn, needles, patience, and a bit of dexterity.
    Hats are an easy project to knit.
    It’s fun to knit winter clothes for yourself and your family.
  • Participles take either present form (ending in -ing) or past form (ending in -ed, or any of the other myriad past forms that go with “have” in forming verbs). Participles function as adjectives.
    Knitted hats are warm and functional.
    I sometimes attend knitting circles, where many crafters meet together.

None of the words in italics here are actually verbs. They just look like verbs.

Identifying Verbs

To be able to strengthen your verbs, you first need to be able to identify them, and with verbals throughout the English language, that can sometimes be difficult. However, there is an easy way to find verbs: Change the time.

In English, most indications of time appear in our verbs. We have words like “today” or “tomorrow” that indicate present or future, but the verbs do a much better job. Take, for example, these sentences and their meanings:

“Today, I am working on my paper.”

“Today, I worked on my paper.”

These are the same sentence with only a change in the verb, but the first sentence indicates that the activity (working) is happening either in the immediate future or it is going on as the person is speaking. We would know which from the context. The second sentence indicates that the activity is done, even though it happened on the same day.

To identify the verbs in your sentences, change the time. Usually the easiest is to change past to present or present to past. The words that change are your verbs.

Activity: Identify the Verbs

In the following paragraphs (from earlier in this section), exchange past and present in each sentence, and highlight the words that change. It may help to add words like “yesterday” and “today” to help you change the time. I’ve also separated out the contractions so that they don’t get in the way.

For example, I tend to write what most teachers would call “baggy sentences,” especially in my first drafts. When I am busy getting the ideas out, I don’t worry about weak verbs or too many prepositional phrases. As part of my editing process, though, I look for these weaknesses and work to fix them. On the other hand, I don’t usually have trouble with stylistic coherence, so I don’t spend much time on that.

The answers are at the end of this chapter. Don’t peek until you try it yourself.

And now that you’ve practiced here, try some of your own writing!

Helping Verbs

In English, we have a category called helping (or more technically, auxiliary) verbs. These often include words like “is” and “was” plus a present participle form of the verb: e.g., “is studying” or “was studying.” These forms indicate that the activity is ongoing, either in the present or the past. You should count helping verbs as part of the verb for technical purposes, but for strengthening your sentences, they aren’t as important as making sure you know whether your verbs are action verbs or state-of-being verbs. Just don’t assume that every “is” you see is a state-of-being verb.

When you see these with the past participle, you are looking at one form of the passive voice: “is studied,” for example, indicates that a subject is being studied, but the person doing the studying has disappeared from the sentence. I discuss passive voice a little later.

Strengthening Verbs

Once you have identified your verbs, you can look at each one to determine whether it needs strengthening. There are a few things to consider as you do this:

  • Every time you use a state-of-being verb, check that you really are trying to equate (at least roughly) the subject of the sentence with the idea that appears after the verb. If you aren’t, look for ways to convert that verb to an action verb:
    • Is there another word in the sentence that could become a verb?
      “She is a manager” could become “She manages three stores.”
    • Could that entire sentence become a dependent clause or phrase in another sentence?
      “She is a manager” could become “A manager of three stores, she works long hours.”
  • Check the specificity of the verb you are using. Sometimes we rely on general verbs when more specific ones would be better. Do we mean “write,” or do we mean “scribble” or “create” or “expound” or something else entirely?
  • Check your repetition. No matter whether you are using state-of-being verbs intentionally or action verbs, you want to provide some variety for your reader. Look for way to change at least some of the verbs.
Using a Thesaurus
A thesaurus can be a really helpful tool, but it has to be used wisely. Think about the difference between saying that someone’s mother is a “big” woman and calling her “huge.” Those words are synonyms, but the latter one could land you in a fight. Feel free to use a thesaurus, but take the time to look up the meaning of the synonym that you are thinking of using.

Using Passive Voice Purposefully

You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t use the passive voice. In a passive voice sentence, the person or thing doing the action—what should be the subject of the sentence—is moved to a prepositional phrase, if it appears in the sentence at all.

To explain the concept, textbooks will often include examples like “The ball was thrown by Sam.” But no one really writes like that.

Passive voice usually results in a weaker sentence structure because your reader is left guessing who or what is doing the action. While verbs are the most important words in sentences, subjects are usually the second most important, and the passive voice buries the subject. When writers do this unnecessarily, their sentences are weaker.

However, there are appropriate uses of the passive voice:

  • When you want to emphasize the thing that was acted upon rather than the actor. For example, “The oldest quasar to-date, J0313-1806, was discovered in January 2021 by an international team of researchers.” The quasar is more important than the research team.
  • When you want to emphasize the action or the result rather than the actor. This is particularly common in scientific writing. For example, “The liquid was heated to 100 °C.” No one cares which researcher lit the Bunsen burner, only that the liquid was heated to that temperature.
  • When the person or thing doing the action isn’t important, only that the action was done. For example, “Barack Obama was reelected.” The fact that voters reelected Obama is not as important as the fact that he was elected to another term.
  • When you don’t know who did the action. For example, “The Lascaux Caves were painted sometime before 15,000 BCE.” We don’t know who made those paintings, so we simply can’t talk about the actor.

Sometimes, though, use of the passive voice is just obfuscation. For example, when Ronald Reagan claimed that “mistakes were made” in relation to the Iran-Contra scandal, his statement avoided indicating who made the mistakes. In this case, the passive voice is being used to avoid taking responsibility or laying blame.

Sometimes, however, even obfuscations are appropriate. Businesses will use this kind of language to focus on the problem or the fact that there is a solution rather than focusing on the employee responsible for the problem. In other cases, the passive points attention where we want it. For example, “Seventeen students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.” This passive sentence deliberately avoids naming the person who did the shooting to emphasize the victims.

Activity: Identifying and Checking the Passive Voice

You can check your use of the passive voice by reviewing the verbs you have identified.

  1. Look for some form of “to be” and a past participle: “is written,” “was walked,” “were discussed,” “have been examined.”
  2. When you find one of these constructions, identify who is doing the action of that verb. For example, who is doing the discussing?
  3. If that actor is known (or knowable) and important, try rewriting the sentence so that the actor occupies the subject position in the sentence.
  4. If that actor isn’t known or isn’t important, make sure that your choice of the passive voice meets one of the “appropriate uses” listed above.

Strengthening Sentence Structure and Variety

When we write well, we make our writing interesting to our reader. You’ve probably heard of sentence variety as one way to make your writing interesting, but sentence variety also gives you more tools to increase the sophistication of your writing and to allow you to explain complex ideas more effectively. To work on this kind of sophistication and complexity, we start with sentence types.

Sentence types are determined by the number and kind of clauses that a sentence has.

  • A clause is a grammatical structure that includes a subject and predicate.
  • Independent clauses are complete sentences and express complete thoughts. They do not need additional sentence parts in order to make sense.

Example: She looks tired although she has been sleeping well.

  • Dependent clauses have a subject and predicate, but they also have words that mark them as dependent on another clause, often a subordinating conjunction. They do not express a complete thought and require another clause to make sense.

Example: Although she has been sleeping well.

As you probably remember from earlier years of your education, there are four sentence types:

Type Description of the number and types of clauses
Simple one independent clause
Compound two or more independent clauses
Complex one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses
Compound-Complex two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses

Notice that identifying verbs can help you identify sentence types. Each verb (actual verb, not verbal) generally indicates a separate clause. Once you identify the verbs, you can start to figure out which kind of clause—independent or dependent—you have. Once you know that, you can figure out which kind of sentence you have.

The sentence types are more than just labels. Each type of sentence does a particular kind of work that helps you make meaning.

  • Simple sentences create emphasis by focusing on a single idea expressed in a single, focused clause. These are a good choice for when you want to make sure your reader gets your point.
  • Compound sentences use a concept called “coordination” to give equal weight to the ideas in each of the independent clauses in the sentence. These are a good choice for when you want to present ideas that are linked and that are of similar importance or value.
  • Complex sentences use a concept called “subordination” to give differential weight to the ideas in each of the clauses. Dependent clauses present ideas that are less important than the ideas in the independent clauses in the same sentence. These are a good choice for when you want to emphasize one idea over another.
  • Compound-complex sentences use both coordination and subordination to explain relationships among ideas. These are a good choice for when you have complex ideas to explain.

It’s easy to think that as a college-level writer, you should be using mostly compound-complex sentences. While it is true that you will probably need this sentence type more than you have in the past, it is not true that every sentence should become compound-complex.

Honestly, too many of any one kind of sentence, particularly when they appear in a row, creates difficulties for your reader:

  • Too many simple sentences in a row can make your writing seem “choppy.” Look for sentences that you could combine so that two or three sentences become one sentence. Look especially for ways that you can turn some sentences into dependent clauses or even phrases in other sentences.
  • Too many compound sentences in a row can make your reader feel like they are running a marathon, plodding along where every step is the same as every other step. Try turning some of the compound sentences into complex sentences by identifying places where subordination is appropriate. Alternatively, try separating some of the sentences into simple sentences.
  • Too many complex sentences in a row, particularly when they all begin or end with the dependent clause, can create a kind of rhythm to your prose that distracts from the meaning, almost like poetry or song lyrics. Try turning one or more of the dependent clauses into an independent clause or combining two of these sentences into a compound-complex sentence.
  • Too many compound-complex sentences in a row can make your ideas dense and hard to follow. Try breaking some of those sentences up into two or three sentences of other types.

Instead of choosing too many of one kind, think about the kind of work that you need your sentence to do, and use that kind of sentence. But don’t pile on too many at once. Your reader wants to be interested in your writing. Sentence variety makes that easier.

Activity: Checking Variety

Choose any single paragraph from a piece of writing you are editing, and do the following:

  1. Identify all of the verbs (not verbals), and mark them with a highlighter.
  2. Based on those verbs, identify the clauses in each sentence, and make note of whether they are independent or dependent.
  3. Based on those clause types, identify and make a list, sentence-by-sentence, of the types of sentences you have in the paragraph.
  4. If you have too many of one type in a row or not enough use of complex or compound-complex sentences, use the strategies in this section to make changes.

Checking Stylistic Coherence

In the paragraph revision chapter, I talk about logical coherence in paragraphs, which is the concept that ideas connect logically sentence-to-sentence in a sequence that makes sense to readers. Stylistic coherence does similar work, but the focus here is on how words literally connect sentences together.

In any given paragraph, after the first sentence, each sentence should contain words that connect to the ideas in the previous sentence. There are many ways to do this:

  • Repeated words or phrases
  • Synonyms
  • Pronouns
  • Parallel structures
  • Transition words
Activity: Checking Stylistic Coherence

Choose a paragraph to work on and do the following:

  1. Read the first sentence and then the second sentence.
  2. In the second sentence, circle the words that connect back to the first sentence and draw an arrow to the words that they connect to in the first sentence.
  3. Read the third sentence, and circle the words that connect back to the second sentence. Draw an arrow from those words to the words they connect to in the second sentence.
  4. Continue doing this for all of the sentences in the paragraph.
  5. Note any sentences that do not have a connection to the previous sentence and rewrite those so that there is a connection.

Eliminating Wordiness

Wordiness plagues a lot of written texts. My first drafts are always wordy, full of what I have described as “baggy” sentences. There’s nothing wrong with this in a first draft, but as you get closer to submitting your work, you want to find and eliminate wordiness so that your ideas are sharper and clearer for your reader.

Activity: Identifying and Fixing Wordiness

If you have a problem with wordiness—and not everyone does—you want to look specifically for the following signals:

  • Words (or synonyms) that are repeated unnecessarily in the same sentence. Try to rewrite the sentence so that you only use the word once or twice.
  • Search for “there is,” “there are,” and “it is.” These are sometimes called “dummy subjects” because they fill in the subject in a sentence but they aren’t actually the subject. These sentence openers often function as placeholders to signal that you are about to introduce a topic (e.g., “There are two problems with this approach.”), but they don’t actually say anything about the topic. Try to write the sentence to eliminate those placeholders, keeping in mind that sometimes you will want to use those for emphasis.
  • Reduce the number of prepositional phrases (phrases that begin with words like “of,” “for,” “in,” and “at”). If you have too many of these in a row, your reader can struggle to follow your meaning. Try rewriting the sentence by moving the meaning in those phrases to single word adjectives and adverbs or by making your nouns and verbs more specific to incorporate the meaning from the prepositional phrases.
  • Vague phrasing. Vague phrasing often requires more words than phrasing that is more concrete and precise—and more interesting! Look for places where you have used longer phrases that could be replaced with single words.
Wordiness and Word Counts

Students are prone to wordiness in part, I believe, because they are worried about meeting word count or page length requirements. The problem is that wordiness doesn’t actually help. Wordy prose doesn’t add much to the content, and readers—especially experienced readers, like professors—can see when students are padding their writing.

While you may need to meet a minimum word count, you can do that more effectively with substantive additions to your writing. If you are struggling with the word count, try meeting with a writing tutor or your professor to make sure that you have something substantial to say.

Checking Your Person

Most academic writing uses third person, but there are occasional uses for first and second.

  • First person relies on the perspective of the writer or narrator (in the case of literary works). First person writing relies on the use of “I,” “me,” “we,” “our,” and so forth.
  • Second person points attention at the reader, using “you,” “your,” and “yours.”
  • Third person uses the perspective of the person or thing being discussed. There is limited (or no) use of first person and instead, the pronouns used are “she,” “his,” “it,” “their,” and so on.

As you edit, you will want to make sure you are using the person that you should for the type of writing that you are doing.

First Person

When you are being asked to discuss your experiences, reflect on readings, or otherwise write about your personal responses, you cannot avoid the use of first person—nor will your professors expect you to. You may have been told in high school that you should not use “I,” but honestly that probably had more to do with the need for you to practice writing outside of yourself. If your teacher had let you write in first person at age 15, how likely is it, for example, that you would have focused on the experiment or the background information that your paper required?

So even in projects that are primarily written in the third person, the occasional “I” is usually fine. Just be sure that you actually need it. For example, saying “I think” and “I believe” frequently in your paper can undermine your points. You wrote the piece, so your reader is already assuming that these are your thoughts and beliefs. Do you really need those phrases? At this stage of your writing process, it might be time to edit those out.

Note, though, that this is not true in some disciplines. For example, writing in chemistry—at least as of the time I’m writing this textbook—does not allow for first person at all. Some areas of biology do, but some don’t. You want to become familiar with the expectations for the course you’re in and the type of project you’re doing.

Second Person

When your assignment asks you to write instructions, the use of second person is necessary. After all, in those circumstances, you are giving directions to your reader. “You” should be used when you are talking directly to your reader.

However, this situation is rare in academic writing. Students tend to use “you” when they actually are presenting a hypothetical situation.

Example: “You” and a Hypothetical

Take the following sentence: “When you have cancer, there are several treatment options.”

While it seems innocent enough, the use of “you” here forces your reader into the position of having cancer. As it does that, it draws attention away from the true emphasis in that sentence: “treatment options.” If the reader in fact has cancer, they are now thinking about that cancer. If the reader doesn’t, they are saying, “no, I don’t”; arguing with you a little instead of paying attention to what you want them to.

Notice how this structure also sets you up to use a dummy subject (“there are”), which can be a weaker sentence structure.

Compare this with “Patients have several treatment options for cancer.”

Luckily, the second person can be very easy to find in your writing. Just search for “you”!

Third Person

Third person is needed most often in academic writing because the focus is on something outside of the writer and outside of the reader. Academic work focuses on concepts, phenomena, objects, processes, and the like, so third person is the most common.

In college-level writing, you can use first and second person sometimes; just make sure that use is purposeful.

Answer Key

Answer Key: Identify the Verbs

Here are the verbs marked in the Identify the Verbs activity:

For example, I tend to write what most teachers would* call “baggy sentences,” especially in my first drafts. When I am busy getting the ideas out, I do* not worry about weak verbs or too many prepositional phrases. As part of my editing process, though, I look for these weaknesses and work to fix them. On the other hand, I do* not usually have trouble with stylistic coherence, so I do* not spend much time on that.

* There are a number of auxiliary verbs in this paragraph. To give you some of the technical language, “would” is a modal auxiliary that expresses possibility. “Do” is an auxiliary verb that helps us, in this case, to express the negative. When you run into auxiliary verbs, look nearby to see if there is a main verb. You’ll find it if you can get rid of the auxiliary (and the negative), and the sentence still makes sense.

Key Points: Editing

  • Strengthening your sentences helps you make your meaning more precisely and makes your prose more interesting for your reader.
  • Strengthening your verbs can be particularly effective because verbs are the most important words in English sentences.
  • You can also strengthen your writing by creating variety in your choice of sentence structure.
  • Stylistic coherence makes connections at the word level between sentences, which makes it easier for your reader to understand the links between your ideas.
  • Wordiness may seem to help your word count, but it irritates your reader.
  • Be sure you are using first person only when appropriate (you need to talk about yourself) and second person only when talking to your reader directly (like instructions). Most academic writing is done in third person.




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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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