I recently read a blog post about Jim Taylor's eight-step editing method, and I thought it gave a helpful overview of some of the changes editors make to improve prose. (Taylor offers workshops on this method; I've never taken one, but I read a fantastic review of one of the workshops, and am taking my list of the steps from Haagsma's post.)
- Shorten sentences. One of the easiest ways to improve readability is to break long sentences into two or more shorter sentences.
- Take out the trash. Wherever possible, remove unnecessary words and phrases that slow readers down, or replace them with simpler words.
- Overcome the negatives. Negatives inhibit comprehension because they force readers to work through two mental stages: first to imagine something, and then to imagine its opposite. Use the positive to ease readers’ understanding.
- Deflate pomposity. Improve clarity by breaking down words and phrases to get at what is actually being said.
- Eliminate the equations. Equating verbs (also known as linking verbs) lower the energy of a sentence because they do not convey any action. Find the action and replace the verb.
- Activate the passives. Passive voice adds complexity by reversing the expected flow of action. Use active voice to aid comprehension and add energy.
- Lead with strength. Find the most interesting and important information, and move it to the beginning (of the sentence, paragraph, chapter, etc.).
- Parade your paragraphs. Start a new paragraph for each new idea; ideally, the first sentence of each paragraph should tell the entire story.
Taylor developed these steps specifically for business writing—which addresses a very different audience than scholarly writing. Number 1, for example, is sometimes useful for academic writing, but I find that pulling the grammatical subject and verb closer together to be much more crucial for these highly competent and motivated readers than simply shortening sentences.
Still, many of these recommendations are very useful: 2 and 3 reduce wordiness and streamline your prose; 5 and 6 increase narrative drive and help pull the reader through your compelling argument. 8 is simple good sense.
7, though, I think is incorrect for academic writing. Conveying complex ideas through writing requires real attention to your audience; I believe that Joseph Williams and George Gopen have it right for academic writing. They tell us to use the openings of sentences for transitional material that connects back to previous material and to save sentence endings for new ideas and material that should be emphasized. (This can be very subtle; for example, the opener of the previous clause—"this"—and of this one—"for example"—are both examples of transitional material.)
If you'd like an overview of the kind of structural rhetorical thinking that both Williams and Gopen engage in, Gopen published (with Judith Swan) an article that lays out his basic principles of reader awareness. That article, "The Science of Scientific Writing," is available free online. I've introduced many colleagues to this article and they've always found it transformational!