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Great tips to edit your own writing

Editing your own work is not an easy task. You become so closely involved with providing content that you can no longer look at your writing in an objective way or take on a reader’s perspective.

However, there are many copyediting tasks that a writer can do at any stage of the editing process. Here are my top-ten copyediting tips. They are particularly relevant to writing of technical and scientific documents.

1. Edit headings and subheadings

Headings and subheadings show the structure of your document to the reader.

Make headings consistent, logical and short. Do not use more than three or four levels of headings.

The easiest way to edit headings and subheadings in large documents is to:

  • apply your word processor’s template styles to all heading levels in the document
  • create an electronic contents table or view the document in ‘Outline view’.

See also formatting tips.

2. Make a style sheet and apply it

A style sheet is a list of your decisions or rules about the spelling, format, punctuation or capitalisation of:

  • certain words, names, terms, expressions or phrases
  • acronyms and abbreviations
  • dates, numbers or formulas
  • citations and references.

Using a style sheet will greatly improve the consistency of your document. You should also pass the style sheet on to anyone who is involved in the production process of your document.

3. Check your use of the passive voice

Many scientists write in passive voice because it seems to enhance objectivity and removes the researcher out of the research presented (e.g. ‘the hypothesis was tested’ instead of ‘we tested the hypothesis’).

However, a passive writing style can make text very boring and sometimes lead to long and confusing sentence structures.

Try to use the passive voice sparingly and use the active voice. You will find that your writing becomes clearer, more concise and easier to read.

See also writing tips.

4. Avoid using pompous words

Plain English works best for technical and scientific documents. The topics you are trying to discuss are often complex and require attention to detail; so why make the language you use complex?

For example:

Pompous Plain
we commenced the experiment we started the experiment
to ascertain the level of risk to find the level of risk
for the purpose of analysing the costs to analyse the costs

5. Explain all acronyms and abbreviations

Use the full version of acronyms and abbreviations when first used in the text. After that, use the shortened form within the same section of the document.

For example: ‘The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was set up in 1945. The FAO has…’

Repeat the full version for each large section of your document (e.g. chapter).

For long documents, insert a list of all used acronyms and abbreviations at the beginning or end of your document.

6. Use your electronic spelling checker

Use the spelling checker on your document after each draft as a first screening for typographical errors. Make sure the spelling checker is set to use the correct language (e.g. English Australian).

However, do not rely on the spelling checker to find all errors!

7. Check data in tables

Design your tables well and make sure they have clear headings, are easy to understand and have correct data.

Always do a full check of the data in a table during the first edit of your draft and recheck the table after restructuring or reformatting the document.

Triple-check numerical data, as typographical errors in these can be very hard to find.

8. Check citations and cross-references

Recheck citations and cross-references each time you restructure your draft. You may need to do this several times during the editing process.

If you use the Vancouver system, use an automated numbering system. If not, any restructuring will require time-consuming renumbering of citations.

If you are using automatically inserted citations from a reference program (e.g. EndNote), check the fields for format corruption and make sure these update correctly.

9. Double-check the facts

While you are writing, you may allow yourself to skip searching for full details on papers, cross-references or other information that you cite, because doing so would interrupt the flow of writing. At the editing phase, you can no longer ignore these facts.

Check and double-check all sources, facts and information you have used. There is nothing worse than losing your reputation with the reader by presenting badly researched facts.

10. Edit illustrations

Copying and pasting of illustrations into documents has become very easy with modern word-processing software. However, illustrations are often used in more than one publication and may therefore not comply with the editorial style of your document.

Edit illustrations and their captions consistently as if they were part of the normal text.

Try to decide on a caption style for your illustrations early and use it consistently throughout your document.

If you cannot edit an illustration file, list the required changes in a comment (e.g. for the editor or designer).

These are my top-ten editing tips for technical and scientific documents.

After you have produced a first draft, your document will most likely require a comprehensive edit. This edit requires collaboration with a person removed from the writing process, such as a professional editor or an objective colleague who can:

  • analyse and improve the structure of your document
  • check and improve clarity and user-friendliness of your document
  • check the completeness of your document
  • correct grammar, language and spelling
  • improve consistency.

Your suggestions are welcome

If you have any comments or questions, or would like to suggest further content, please leave a comment below.


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