Whenever your students work on a writing assignment, it’s important for them to self-edit their work. Doing this well can be tricky even for native speakers, so here are a few practices students can learn in order to find opportunities for improvement.
Sometimes a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph seems just fine in written form; it’s only when you read it aloud that the passage feels a little off.
The biggest benefit here is that process of reading aloud is slower than reading silently. When we read without speaking, our brain takes some shortcuts in order to go faster, which means that it might not register mistakes if they look close enough, or our brain might even fill in smaller words that we know should be there even though they could be missing on the page. Reading aloud forces us to pay more attention.
Here are some other ways reading aloud can help:
- We notice the pacing better. Perhaps it feels too choppy (in which case we might want to combine shorter sentences into longer complex sentences) or too long-winded (in which case we might want to break a sentence into two or three smaller ones). This can also guide paragraph breaks.
- We could catch a misspelled word that happens to form a different word (for instance, I might have typed ‘though’ when I intended to type ‘thought’).
- The way you read should be influenced by the punctuation. Should a period be an exclamation mark instead? Does a sentence have too many commas? Should a phrase be separated by dashes (or parenthesis)?
No, not every word. Read backward paragraph-by-paragraph, or if it’s not too disorienting: sentence-by-sentence. This draws our attention to the structure of sentences and the words they contain, moving away from the meaning.
If I’m reading a narrative, I might at some point get caught up in the narrative! Eventually, I’ll realize that I wasn’t being careful to check for errors, then will have to read that last bit again. Obviously, when editing for the message the writer is trying to convey, this won’t work, but it’s helpful for small-scale editing.
Search for Common Mistakes
Instead of looking at every word to see if it’s a mistake, you can start with some likely mistakes, then see if those happen to be in your writing. This is much easier if your work was typed, since almost every word processor has a search feature.
Since English has strange and inconsistent spelling rules with plenty of exceptions, there are many words that are all too easy to spell wrong. You can find lists of commonly-misspelled words like the one here or the one here. The trick is not to search for the correct spelling, but for the incorrect one.
There are also pairs of words that often get confused (again even by native speakers) because their spelling is similar, they sound similar, or the have similar meanings. These include pairs like affect and effect, or than and then. Check out lists like the ones here or here. If you notice a word that you remember using (or wanting to use, at least), search for both that word and the other in its pair.
Take A Break
Unless the writer is under a tight time-constraint, they should take a break between writing and editing. Writing and editing activate different parts of your brain, so if you try to edit right after you write, your mind will still be in ‘writing mode’ and will process information differently. Set the work aside for a few hours or a couple days before editing.