Let me start by saying that this is not a “cheat sheet” to writing the perfect article. Nor is it an exhaustive list of the things to consider as an editor. Both writing and editing are hard work and there are no effective shortcuts. Nevertheless, when approached with an open mind and a good attitude, the revision process can be helpful and rewarding for all parties involved. Below are just a few insights on how to make that happen.
I was once told by an English teacher that writing an essay is like building a body. First, you need the skeleton, an outline of your piece with the thesis and main points. Then you add the muscles, the evidence for your points that comprises the bulk of the piece. Finally, you add the skin, varying vocabulary, style and syntax to make the finished product articulate and stimulating. It is all too easy to write a piece lacking either meat or the bones to support it, with an excess of “skin” to make it seem sophisticated. So before you start playing around with fancy-sounding words or famous quotations, make sure that your structure is solid.
Writers and editors, I will tell you a secret: Editing will not “fix” something that is poorly written. If you, as the author, spend an hour churning out your first draft without making an outline or looking up some reference material, I can guarantee that you will get it back drenched in red or with a polite email that asks you to go back to the drawing board. Some people need more time than others to produce a workable draft; as the writer, you should have a sense of your own strengths and limitations. Put in the time accordingly and it will make all the difference.
As a writer, you spend precious time shaping a message for the world. Whether you care about the subject matter or not, that message is written in your words, making it intensely personal. So when someone comes along with a big red pen and tells you that this or that could be better, it can feel like your intellect is being insulted. Here is some advice: don’t take it personally. This is easier said than done, but it spells the difference between a constructive discussion on structure and a nasty fight between inflated egos. Let yourself feel a bit disappointed, accept that there is always room for improvement, and move forward.
Don’t panic – chances are, if there is something you’re unsure about regarding grammar or style, there is a free resource explaining it either online or on campus. UofT is chock-full of writing resources. Undergraduate students have access to the college and faculty writing centres while graduate students can sign up for free workshops, courses or private consultations through the Office of English Language and Writing Support. Even the Department of Immunology is on board, with BBI writing workshops scheduled for the coming year. Finally, one very easy way to help yourself become a better writer is to read. If you want to write about historical figures, read biographies. If you want to write fiction, read prize-winning stories. And if you want to write magazine articles… well, you get the idea. Reading works from well established authors will not only improve your vocabulary and grammar, but it will also help you build confidence in your own writing style. That way, when you eventually get back your first edited draft, you’ll remember that seeing red can be a good thing.