Editing tips for teens: Proofreading for style
A Garden Analogy
Your story is like a garden, and you, the author, are the gardener. As a gardener surveys his plot of land, his trained eye looks for ways to keep it looking its best. You want your story to look its best too! What can your eye search for? How can you improve a piece of writing?
Last time, we talked about content. In our garden analogy, content includes the main features: lawn, trees, shrubs, patios, gazebos, ponds, and paths of brick or stone. How those elements are arranged, on the other hand, reflects the gardener’s style. Similarly, the way you arrange and structure your sentences, use descriptive language, and make word choices sets a mood and defines your own writing style.
To prune an overgrown story or essay, you’ll want to trim away weak words and find synonyms for words you have repeated too often. As part of the “transplanting” process, you may need to alter or rearrange sentences. And if your paper seems like it’s missing something, look for ways to “plant” more description or colorful words in a story or add more factual details to a report.
Get Ready to Edit!
This week, spend several days editing for style. Read through the story several times as you edit. Each time, keep your eye open for something new. Are you ready to beautify your
Add description and detail.
Adding ground cover, pots of flowers, or a pretty bench are all ways to introduce color and interest to a garden. In the same way, look for ways to add more detail to your story or report.
- See if your paper needs a stronger or more interesting thesis statement (or opening sentence, for a story).
- Find places that would benefit from a bit more explanation or description.
- In a story, show instead of tell by using more specific descriptive information. Instead of saying a woman is old, describe her wrinkled skin, gnarled hands, and shuffling gait. Instead of saying the boy got dirty, describe his scuffed jeans, muddy shoes, and stiff, straw-like hair.
Remove words, phrases, or sentences that don’t fit or make sense.
Did you include facts or information that isn’t really necessary? Move the story or report along by trimming this deadwood.
- Tighten up any rambling or wordy text.
- Cut back overly descriptive sentences or paragraphs.
- Identify your adjectives. If you use a string of adjectives to describe one noun, narrow it down to one or two favorites and get rid of the rest.
- Watch your use of adverbs. It’s better to choose a single powerful verb than try improving a weak verb with adverbs. For example, write ambled instead of walked slowly or banged the drum instead of loudly hit the drum.
Move words or sentences.
- See what might work better in another spot.
- Circle the text you want to move and draw an arrow to its new place.
Add sentence variations.
Sentence variations bring greater depth and maturity to your writing while improving rhythm and cadence. Try some of these tips to sprinkle sentence variety throughout your story:
- Begin a sentence with a participial phrase (-ing verb).
Pressing his nose to the glass, Winthrop peered into the shabby room.
According to legend, Saint Patrick chased snakes into the sea after they attacked him.
- Begin a sentence with a prepositional phrase.
At noon, he walked to the coffee shop for a sandwich.
In the Amazon region, rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate.
- Begin a sentence with a subordinating conjunction.
When I opened the door, Rover leaped into the hallway and knocked over the umbrella stand as he skidded towards me.
Because the earth’s gravity has less pull in space, astronauts experience weightlessness.
- Add sparkle to a story with a simile. Similes compare two things that are basically different but have strong similarities. They use LIKE or AS to make the comparison.
By morning, ice covered the streets like a sheet of glass.
His argument is as weak as a wet paper sack.
Vary your sentence length.
Editing for style includes checking sentence length. If all your sentences are similar in length, your story or report will sound monotonous.
- Longer sentences. In stories, use compound sentences and sentences longer than five words to create scenes that feel lazy or slow—particularly in parts of the story that don’t have much action. In essays or reports, longer sentences are effective for listing the steps of a process or items in a series.
- Shorter sentences. In stories, short sentences of five words or fewer help create fast-action scenes that hold readers on the edge of their seat. In essays and reports, short sentences can be used to make or reinforce a point or to break up longer strings of text.
Add (or tighten up) dialog.
Dialog should bring characters to life and add interest to your story.
- Show, don’t tell, through dialog.
- Use interesting, emotional, exciting, or dramatic words to spice up dialog.
- See if you can replace long or boring explanations with dialog.
Find substitutes for vague or dull words.
- Do you see boring or weak words that could be exchanged for stronger, more concrete ones? If you’ve used words such as good, nice, funny, thing, stuff, and went, then a few well-chosen replacements are definitely in order. For example, a vivid word like enchanting, exquisite, or charming sounds more interesting than very pretty.
- Strong verbs actively engage the reader and add interest to the the writing. So instead of saying, “The waves came into shore,” try: “The waves crashed onto the shore”; “The waves tossed and tumbled toward shore”; or “The waves rolled onto the shore.”
- Are there repeated words that could be replaced by appropriate synonyms? A thesaurus is a great tool for finding words that say similar things.
Also in This Series
Proofreading for Content Before you start looking for synonyms or fixing sentence construction, make sure your content is in good shape.
Proofreading for Mechanics During the process of editing for style and content, you probably also noticed a few punctuation or spelling errors in your paper. It’s possible you even created a few new errors as you moved text around! That’s why we’re saving mechanics for our very last Editing Tip, coming next month.