Revising for better English

08.25.2011

in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

“So what is good English?” asks William Zinsser. “…it’s plain and it’s strong,” he answers. “It has a huge vocabulary of words that have a precise shade of meaning; there’s no subject however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to the ordinary reader in good English – if it’s used right.”

Better writing starts in the middle

Writing in English is different than writing in your language. I’m sure you’ve discovered that. And you’ve probably been frustrated by it. But what can you do about it? Where’s the best place to begin if you want to turn your writing into good English?

Good writing begins to appear when you revise what you’ve written. Revising – improving your writing by rereading it and making changes – is the heart of the writing process. And revising is the best place to begin if you want to turn your writing into English that is – in Zinsser’s words – “clear, simple, brief, and human.”

A strategy for revising

To help my students revise their writing, I’ve borrowed several ideas from a strategy UCLA professor Richard Lanham recommends to make writing clear and understandable. His method helps them focus on what’s important for good writing. And after they use it for a while, many begin to automatically include his ideas in their writing. You could do the same. Let’s try it.

Here are two sample sentences from one of Lanham’s books. You won’t find any grammatical errors in them. But at the same time, you won’t find – or you’ll have trouble finding – the writer’s meaning.

The history of Western philosophical thought has long been dominated by philosophical considerations as to the nature of man. These notions have dictated corresponding considerations of the nature of the child within society, the practices by which children were to be raised, and the purposes of studying the child.

Lanham suggests marking all the prepositions and forms of the verb to be when you begin to revise a sentence. Why? If you use too many prepositional phrases and if you use to be too often, you lose the strength of good English – short strong nouns and active verbs – and your writing becomes foggy. When you mark them, you begin to see how often you use them, and it becomes easier to find what’s important in the sentence.

Here are the sentences with the prepositions and the verb to be marked:

The history of Western philosophical thought has long been dominated by philosophical considerations as to the nature of man. These notions have dictated corresponding considerations of the nature of the child within society, the practices by which children were to be raised, and the purposes of studying the child.

Next, to try to understand a sentence, Lanham asks three questions: (1) What’s the action? (2) Who or what does the action? (3) Who or what receives the action?

Take a minute to look at the first sentence and try to answer the questions.

In the first sentence:

  • “[P]hilosophical considerations as to the nature of man” do the acting.
  • Dominate is what they do.
  • “The history of Western philosophical thought” is what they dominate.

This helps, but there’s still a problem: What are “philosophical considerations as to the nature of man”?

Take a moment to think about it. Philosophy asks questions and considers, or thinks about, their answers. So if philosophy is considering – asking and thinking about – the nature of man, it must be asking this question: “What is the nature of man?”

You can also simplify “the history of Western psychological thought.” Lanham points out that the idea of history is already contained in “Western psychological thought,” it refers to both past and present. That’s the way you should write it.

When you put all these ideas together and connect them with our active verb “dominate,” you get this:

One question has dominated Western psychological thought: What is the nature of man?

Much better! How did we do it?

  • We found and simplified the actor – “one question.”
  • We replaced the passive verb – “has been dominated by” – with an active verb – “has dominated.”
  • We simplified the recipient of the action – “Western psychological thought.”
  • We identified the question – “What is the nature of man?” – and put it where it would be most effective – at the end of the sentence.

It’s your turn

Try it for yourself. Find something you’ve written and see what happens when you use these steps to revise it.

Remember, when you write, one thing is more important than anything else: making your ideas clear and understandable to your readers. You may be writing to explain. Describe. Convince. Or tell a story. But you won’t succeed at any of them if your readers can’t understand what you’ve written.

Warren Ediger

Reference: Lanham (2007) Revising Prose; Zinsser (2009) Writing English as a Second Language.

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Ethan August 28, 2011

Wow thanks for the advice!
It’s gonna help me write my journal a lot!!

Hannah September 12, 2011

I very much enjoy writing in English.
But I won’t lie – revising is the most difficult part of it.
At the same time, though, it’s where the fun is.

This article is like a recap of my entire learning experience with you!
I’ll share it with my friends who are wanting to improve their writing skills.

Thank you, Mr. Ediger!

P.S. How many revisions did it take you to write this article? I know you can revise a writing a hundred times and still revise more! *wink wink*

Hannah

Warren Ediger September 13, 2011

Ethan and Hannah – Thanks for your comments!

Hannah – 100 times? 🙂 As you’ve experienced, revising is the key to good writing, and I agree that “it’s where the fun is”. It’s only after revising that you can sit back, look at what you’ve done and say, “It’s good.”

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