A Checklist for Editing

N. Sivin
rev. 2004.12.14

This checklist is a guide not only for revising drafts, but also for teaching yourself or reviewing the most basic elements that you need to think critically about your own writing. This is often necessary, since most schools no longer teach grammar. That may be unavoidable because of inadequate budgets, but it drastically shortchanges their students. [Go directly to the Checklist]

If you do not fully understand the concepts and general idea of any item below, click on the link at the end of it (underlined and in color) and you will be taken to a detailed explanation. Examples accompany each explanation. Many of the bad examples come from scholarly publications, since academic writing can be as prolix and sloppy as any other kind of writing. When you are ready to return to the original item, click on the return link. If any explanation is not clear, or if further detail is needed, see me or use the link at the end of this page to send me a message about the problem.

It may be that you need—or want—more help than this concentrated guide provides. Of the many detailed manuals and reference guides I have examined, A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker (4th ed., Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), is the best. It is available from Pennsylvania Book Center on 34th Street.

Good prose aims to be clear and concise, because its purpose is communication, to persuade other people to agree with something you think or believe. Great prose may take more winding paths to communication, but if you haven't learned to write well you will not learn to write superbly.

Keep in mind that most education takes place outside of schools, and that a good deal of it tends to make writing not clearer and more concise, but vaguer and wordier. Most of what you read and watch on the tube exists for one of two purposes. Adspeak aims to convince you that something just like its competitors is unique, so you will buy it. Bureaucratese aims to drown you in verbiage so that the functionary who writes it will not be held responsible when the document turns out to be wrong or misleading. You will find some remarks on the special characteristics of bureaucratese below.

1. Title and Lead Sentence: Titles are not generally required for course papers, but they are a good idea, since they let the reader know at the outset what you mean to say. A good lead sentence whets the reader's appetite with a taste of how you mean to say it. Comment_1

2. Concision: Unless you are able to write baroque prose with true art, ask of every word and every sentence whether it is essential. If it isn't, get rid of it. Comment 2

3. Clear Structure: As you go over each sentence, strip it down to its basic structure—usually subject-verb-object—and see whether problems emerge. **For instance, if you aren't sure what's wrong with "A broader spectrum of opinion should be given consideration," when you strip it down to "spectrum should be given consideration," its lack of impact, and the sidelining of the key word "broader," become obvious. This vague example may mean "[Who?] should ask more [of whose?] opinions." Comment 3

4. Noun Used as Adjective: Bureaucrats string nouns together to hide the relation that a preposition would clarify. If your aim is not to confuse, make sure that the relation will be unambiguous to someone who knows nothing about the subject matter. If it isn't, connect the nouns with a preposition, the normal connecting link. The bureaucratese "improving patient care" may refer to being more patient when caring, to patients caring more, or to taking care of patients. Comment 4

5. Action in Verb: What word in the sentence describes the main action? If not the verb, rewrite. The bureaucratese "perform customer servicing" combines a flabby verb with misuse of a word that means to maintain inanimate objects such as automobiles; the corresponding English phrase is "serve customers." Keep in mind too that whoever carries out the main action should ordinarily be the subject of the sentence. Comment 5

6. Apostrophe: Essential--never optional--to signal the possessive: "women's income," "the members' table." There is one important exception. "It's" means not "belonging to it" but "it is" (and, in speech, "it has"). "Its" is the possessive ("in its place"). Comment 6

7. Quotation Marks: Are they employed for a direct quotation, a technical term about to be defined, or for a word knowingly misused? If none of these—for instance, if you are writing an "ordinary" colloquial phrase—don't use them. They signal to readers that you don't mean what you say but aren't willing to reveal what you mean (what did I mean in the last sentence?). Comment 7

8. Punctuation. There are three common problems to keep in mind:

(a) Review, if necessary, when clauses need to be set off by commas and when they don't. A simple test: Are you sure of the difference of meaning between "This beetle has spread through the Eastern states where the climate suits it" and "This beetle has spread through the Eastern states, where the climate suits it"? Keep in mind too that unless a clause begins or ends a sentence one comma is not enough to set it off. Comment 8a

(b) If you aren't sure about the colon and semicolon, learn them or else don’t use them. A simple test: which one can you use to join closely related sentences? If you are tempted to run sentences together with "and," make sure they are intimately related. You can't use a comma to run two sentences together, no matter how closely related they may be. Avoid using the clumsy "however" to make run-on sentences. Comment 8b

(c) Hyphenate compound adjectives. "He is not an active duty officer" may mean he is lazy when on duty; "active-duty officer" is not ambiguous. Comment 8c

9. Passive: Is it essential? If not, make it active. Bureaucrats love passive constructions, because by concealing the actor they hide responsibility. The functionary's "it was asserted that all information exchanged within the organization should be via paper documents" (verb "be") might become in plain English "[someone] proposed that we exchange all information on paper" (verb "exchange). Comment 9

10. Consistency in Lists: If you list a series of items, are they consistent in number and form? There is no mystery about how to repair "the main causes of death are viruses, tuberculosis bacillus, and to eat too much." If you don't know whether "bacillus" is singular or plural, look it up. Comment 10

11. Number of Noun and Verb or Pronoun: Is a singular noun followed by a plural verb, or the other way around? When you strip down "the creative ideas that originate in this office is not always fruitful" to "ideas is fruitful" the error becomes obvious. Comment 11

12. Spelling: Spelling is not an adult problem. Cure it by getting and using a good dictionary--and by proofreading. Comment 12

13. Proofreading: An essential step in writing is to read your final copy carefully and make last-minute corrections in black ink. Even if your paper is beautifully written and printed, if it has many typos, readers will doubt that you cared enough to give it your best try. Comment 13

14. Printing: Make sure everything is double-spaced, including footnotes. Put a running header or footer with at least the page number on every page after the first. Comment 14

Return to the top of the Checklist


1. Title and Lead Sentence

One of the best ways to make writing dull is to assume that the reader doesn't mind being bored. In the so-called real world outside the university, readers pick up something, look at it, decide whether it looks interesting or useful, and put it down unless something about it has convinced them that it is worth the trouble. If you don't make your argument accessible and attractive, even those forced to read it will give it a minimum of attention and thought, and forget it right away. In other words, attention can never be taken for granted; it has to be earned.

Readers want to know what a piece of non-fiction writing is about. They normally give the author the benefit of the doubt, assuming that she has something she wants to communicate and to persuade them to think about. In return, they expect that she will tell them what that topic is.

The first step in satisfying this expectation is the title. A title states the subject clearly and concisely enough so that the reader begins with a general idea. Coy or mysterious wording will fascinate a few readers and drive away the rest. On the other hand, finding a funny or witty way to encapsulate the topic is likely to be attractive.

The second step is the lead sentence. It may reveal the basic elements of the paper—what it will argue, in what way, using what evidence—or it may say something fascinating. If it offers nothing that will make an undecided person read on, you will lose your readers. Even if it says something worth while, if it says it in a convoluted way, or meanders, or relies on academic windiness to sound authoritative, it will turn readers off. Deal boldly with a blah lead sentence. Throw it out, ask yourself what would tempt your roommate into reading on, and write that instead.

The actual beginning of an important article entitled "Learning Mathematical Sciences during the Early and Mid-Ch'ing": "The study of the role of scientific knowledge in learning and education in Ch'ing China can be linked to the concerns of comparative history." Academics write quite a lot about the role of this and that in something else, so this sentence prepares the reader for lots of clichés. Why are both "learning" and "education" necessary? The author gives no clue. "Can be linked" is what critics of writing call a "meta-statement." Meta-statements are not about the topic, but about talking about the topic. In academese, as a way of evading clear statement, they can become very elaborate, for instance "it can be said without undue fear of contradiction that " Such ruminations suggest that the author is more interested in writing about potentialities than in stating a concrete proposition with which some people will agree but others, inevitably, disagree. What action is going on in this all-too-stately sentence? Who can say? The main verb (item 5) is "link," but linking to concerns is hardly likely to be a major theme of the paper. "Can be linked" is also passive (item 9), so that it manages to hide who can potentially do this mysterious linking. Finally, the author assumes that the reader knows what Ch'ing China is, or doesn't care if she doesn't—one more turnoff. Ho hum!

Turning the main point of this sentence into an uncomplicated and interesting statement is not easy, since the author did not provide enough clear and concrete information. Since you can't force it out of the author, you can only guess. My guess (after reading the essay) is that it means something like "From 1700 on, science was at least as important in Chinese education as it was anywhere else in the world." This is a bold claim—the point of the article is to prove it—and it certainly engages the reader's attention. The lead sentence doesn't need to go on about "the concerns of comparative history," since it has made the comparison concretely.

Try this one yourself: "When we discuss the all-important aspect of technology in the modernization of Japan, reference to the Dutch or the British connection is usually in order." (Return to item One)

2. Concision

Readers generally, like you, usually have more to read than they have time to read it. When an author takes a lot of words to say something that she could have said in a few, that signals a lack of regard for the reader's time. Readers sooner or later sense it, and lose patience, no matter how clever or sound an argument is hidden under the verbal flab. In "the areas of emphasis on which the researchers concentrated," "emphasis" and "concentrate" are saying the same thing, and "areas" doesn't add to the meaning. "The researchers' emphases" says it all.

Bureaucrats, who find it a professional asset not to be understood, look for complicated ways to say simple things. It is tempting, if you want a lie to sound innocuous, to say "at this point in time" instead of "now." At the moment, talking about a "time period," when either "time" or "period" will do the job, is trendy but just going out of fashion (that's the trouble with fashions). It is an interesting game to spot the prolixity in the writing of any second-rate academic author.

There is only one way to avoid this subversion of your own argument: banish the flab. A new problem often arises when, once you have peeled off the verbiage, an idea that seemed clear turns out not to be clear at all. You therefore need to make sure that the point you intended to make is the focus of the sentence.

This is the beginning of a book on the history of eye diseases: "No organ is comparable to the eye in its importance as a link between man and his environment. To be deaf, or to have lost dermal sensitivity—such handicaps are severe and create a definite obstacle to the perception of the world we live in.... No such impairment, though, equals blindness."

The idea is an interesting one, but the author is trying too hard to sound medically sophisticated and professorial. "Create a definite obstacle to the perception of the world we live in" is a wordy way to say that they are handicaps, a point promptly repeated. The sentence is also wordy, mainly because the author has taken the actions and put them into nouns (obstacle, perception; see item 5).

Thinking about the main idea, and trying to move it into the focus, how simply can we make this point? Although "numbness" is a bit less specific than "lost dermal sensitivity," it is a more concise and therefore more effective way to make the point of this non-technical sentence. Combining the two sentences makes the main point more clearly: "Deafness and numbness cut us off from the world we live in, but blindness is the worst obstacle of all." That's all the book needs.

Try this one: "China has been continuously inhabited by the Chinese since the Paleolithic period (500,000 B.C.), when Peking man, Homo erectus pekinensis, hunted large animals, butchered them with stone tools, and cooked them over open fires; yet as much as three-quarters of his diet may have been of vegetable origin." (Return to item two)

3. Clear Structure

To strip a sentence down to its elements, you have to recognize the elements. You don't need a whole high-school course in English to do that. The essential elements are subject, verb, and object. If you can recognize them, you can avoid most structural problems.

Let's review the essential characteristics of each. Keep in mind that many sentences have complex modifiers. The first question to ask is "what is the main part of the sentence, which the rest qualifies or elaborates?" In "regardless of whether you approve, I'm going, with no intention of coming back," the nucleus of the sentence is nothing more than "I'm going." Everything else just qualifies that, so you can strip it off mentally.

Subject. The subject names what the sentence is about. It can be a phrase, of course. When you encounter something like "Historical monographs that contain no lies are tedious," you can recognize that it is about certain kinds of monographs that are tedious; monograph is thus the simple subject. It clearly isn't saying that lies are tedious; "that contain no lies" simply specifies a subset of all monographs.

A sentence may have more than one subject, connected with "and" or "or" ("and/or" is bureaucratic verbiage, since either word can imply both). Resourceful writers can, of course, invert sentences. For instance, starting with "The head that wears the crown is heavy," you can put the emphasis on the burden by transforming it into "Heavy is the head that wears the crown." The sentence is still about a head, so turning it inside out doesn't change the subject.

A common way of transforming a sentence into a question is by changing the subject or order. "Somebody will go with you," by changing the subject into a question word, becomes "Who will go with you?" "Going with you is always boring" can become "Why is going with you always boring?" "You will go with me," if the subject goes inside the complex verb, can become the question "Will you go with me?"

Verb. Verbs can express a state or an action. "John is tired" is about John's state. In addition to "be" verbs, others such as "feel, look," can express a state: "John looks tired." But most verbs say what the subject did: "John ate dinner." Some verbs do it better than others (item 5).

Object. The object says what or who received the action. Some verbs (transitive ones) have to specify the object ("dinner" in the last example) and others (intransitive ones) don't. Normal past tense, for instance, is "he lay on the bed," without an object (unlike "he painted the bed"). A hallmark of Philadelphia dialect is "he laid on the bed." But "laid" is a transitive verb, so he must have laid something on the bed. Outside of Philly, if you used "laid," you would have to say something like "he laid an egg on the bed." "Egg" in that sentence is called a direct object, since with some verbs you can also have, even in the same sentence, a second object. This indirect object tells to whom or for whom the action was done. In "he gave me the cat,"—which is the same as "he gave the cat to me"—the cat is what he gave, and I am the recipient. This sounds complicated, but if you remember that the direct object does not imply "to", "for," etc. and the indirect object does, it's easy to keep them separated. Since dealing with the passive voice (item 9) needs a clear understanding of these basic elements, it is a good idea when editing to pay particular attention to that item. (Return to item three)

4. Noun Used as Adjective

Advertising copywriters despise candor, but often seek the appearance of efficiency by clumping nouns together. If you see "user patronage free offer," and you have been initiated into adspeak, you may be able to guess that this means "a free offer to users in return for their patronage," and of course will realize that you will actually pay in one way or another for what you get. If you are not used to it, without the prepositions "to" and "in return for" that provide clarity in normal English, you may not be able to tell how the three nouns are related. If you get so used to the patterns of adspeak that you confuse them with English, you may find, as you edit your drafts, that you are piling up sequences of nouns. The way to overcome this habit is to be alert for them, and to ask yourself whether you will do better to connect them with prepositions. (Return to item four)


5. Action in Verb

The art of bureaucratese is to mislead: to do what you have to do without admitting it, to make people think you are doing something they want done, to make sure if they complain that you can deny that they are complaining about the right thing, and above all to avoid responsibility when you are wrong. There are two supreme techniques: hiding the action, discussed here, and hiding who is acting (item 9). If you do it well, readers won’t guess that "it was determined that a recision of A should be enacted" means that you have arranged (without public legislation, of course) that they are no longer entitled to what their elected representatives decided you are supposed to provide them. If you were to say honestly "I have made sure that you will no longer get A," once the storm was over you might be unemployed.

Like other bureaucratic tools, this one has penetrated deeply into everyday writing. It is not at all unusual to use a blah verb and hide the action somewhere else--not for any purpose, but just as a habit. Like the passive (item 9), it is one that some scientists and engineers cultivate, because their teachers tell them it is professional to hide the fact that a mere human being is doing the research and forming conclusions. Humanists, to the contrary, are not ashamed to admit it, and to acknowledge that objectivity is hypocrisy.

Getting rid of this problem is easier than getting rid of the habit. As you edit, for each sentence just ask yourself "what is the main action of the sentence?" If it isn’t in the verb, move it there.

In "a surge of power was responsible for the destruction of the cooling pumps," the action is destroying, and the verb is "was." Once you realize that, it becomes clear how wordy this sentence is. The simplest way to improve it is "a surge of power destroyed the cooling pumps." You have made your point in 8 words instead of 13, without leaving out a single idea (responsibility is not what the sentence is about). (Return to item five)


6. Apostrophe

Confusing "its" and "it’s" is nothing more elaborate than either poor English skills or carelessness. The latter is a very dangerous habit. It can guarantee that a professional school's admissions committee will reject your application as substandard in command of English. Look thoughtfully at every instance of either word in your drafts.

Note that bureaucrats, to blur meaning, use nouns as adjectives instead of the possessive (item 4). "Clinical patient understanding" has three possible meanings; "clinical patient's understanding" is clear. (Return to item six)

7. Quotation Marks

The three normal uses of quotation marks, enumerated above, are unproblematic. Many writers misuse quotation marks because they feel uneasy about a word they are using, and haven't thought out why that is. They want to warn the reader to look at it thoughtfully. It doesn't work. When you say something like "the purpose of an army is to win a war or to keep the peace," for instance, you may feel that states of peace, once armies get involved, are likely no longer to be peaceful. Your skepticism may motivate you to write "to keep the ‘peace.’" But that is a subtle thought, and most readers whose minds are on different wavelengths from yours won’t get it. If you don’t spell out what you mean by "peace," your idea will be lost, and you will leave the reader frustrated. (Return to item seven)


8. Punctuation

First, punctuating clauses: there are two kinds of clauses that describe nouns or pronouns (clauses are groups of words that hang together). A restrictive clause affects the meaning of the word it modifies by specifying a subset. If you leave it out, the meaning of the sentence changes. Because it is essential, you do not set it off by commas. For instance, if you begin with "short people can’t see far in a crowd" and make it more specific, you may come up with something like "members of the sophomore class who are not over five feet tall can’t see far in a crowd." That sentence makes sense, since the restrictive clause "who are not over five feet tall" makes it clear you don’t mean the whole class, and specifies which subset you have in mind.

Setting a clause off by commas makes it a nonrestrictive clause. The commas signal that it applies to the whole set, and therefore does not affect the meaning in any necessary way. "Members of the sophomore class, who are not over five feet tall, can’t see far in a crowd" has quite a different meaning, as you learn by reading it without the clause: "members of the sophomore class can’t see far in a crowd." All the clause does is give additional but not essential information about the same set of people, asserting here that no sophomore is more than five feet tall. But the sentence could still be true even if the clause were false.

There is a common error in using nonrestrictive clauses, namely forgetting one of the two commas. "Members of the sophomore class who are not over five feet tall, can’t see far in a crowd" is just plain confusing, since the reader can’t tell which of the two kinds of clauses you have in mind. If you find an unmatched comma as you edit, make sure you know why.

Second, most high-school teachers, overburdened as they are, never get round to teaching people how to use colons and semicolons. Most students brave enough to use them improvise. Readers may admire your ingenuity, but that doesn't mean they will understand you. That's why I recommend avoiding them or learning them. If you want to learn them, it's not hard:

Colon. Colons introduce or call attention to what follows them. That's all they do. What follows them can be

(a) a list, e.g. "A meal should include at least three elements: appetizer, cooked or uncooked; a main course, with meat or vegetarian; and dessert, the bigger the better." If you are introducing the list with "are," "such as," "consist of," etc., you don't need a colon. On lists, see item 10.

(b) a clarification of some word or phrase that comes before the colon, e.g., "There are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don't."

(c) a quotation, as in the next paragraph, or

(d) the body of a letter when the colon is used in the salutation.

Semicolon. Semicolons connect items of equal grammatical rank. Most of the time these items are sentences. Keep in mind that sentences should stay separate unless there is an intimate connection.
In order to understand the semicolon, you need to be aware of your options for joining two closely related sentences. One is to use a conjunction. For instance, "It's eleven o'clock, but I don't feel like going home." That makes the relation between the two sentences crystal clear. Keep in mind two details: using "however" instead of "but" in a sentence like that doesn't work, and splicing two sentences together with "and" looks childish if you do it often, or if the two are not really part of the flow of one idea (think about why I used "and" to assemble the last sentence.)
The semicolon works only when the relation is clear enough that you don't need a conjunction or any other word to clarify it. For instance, "there are thirty-six tactics applicable to our predicament; the superior one is to bug out." Using "and" between the two sentences would make the connection flabby. Obviously semicolons need to be used with restraint, in fact rationed.

Finally, if you have a list of items with commas in them, you will need a semicolon to show the separations between them; see the sentence in (a) above.

Third, hyphenating compound adjectives. If you have a complex phrase a b c, you will want to make sure the reader can tell how the three words group. "High profile poet" is confusing, because it could be about a poet in the news, or someone who writes poems about high profiles, or one who writes poems about profiles while smoking something illegal. "High-profile poet" resolves the ambiguity by signalling the reader that "high-profile" is a single adjective. When you are editing and you see two nouns in a row, you may have a compound adjective that needs a hyphen.

You will also want to keep your eyes open while editing for a related problem. Once you have learned to write "twentieth-century mentality," if you are writing while half asleep, you may find yourself saying "all this happened in the twentieth-century." This booboo is fairly common on course papers. If it ain't a compound adjective, don't hyphenate it. (Return to item eight)

9. Passive

The most important application of the basic subject-verb-object categories is in understanding the passive voice, probably the main cause of verbosity and sloppiness in academic writing. Passive is the opposite of active.

Speakers often make complex sentences (usually without thinking about it) by changing simple ones. The passive voice is a trick that everyone knows but seldom knows they know. This transformation technique lets you move the object to the front of the sentence, where it will get the emphasis, and either tuck the subject out of the way after the verb or even get rid of it. What you do is (a) move the object before the verb, (b) change the verb to the passive voice, and (c) dispose of the subject or identify it with "by." "John ate dinner" becomes "The dinner [object that receives the action] was eaten [passive form of "eat"] by [used to mark the subject if any] John" and, one step further, "The dinner was eaten" [effectively hiding John's responsibility].

There are excellent reasons to use the passive: when the subject is irrelevant or needs to be hidden, or when the object needs to be in the most prominent place. "The passive is used more often than it is thought about" makes its point, where the underlying active sentence might be something like "thoughtless writers use the passive more often than they think about it." The first version politely avoids pointing the finger.

Here is part of an actual sentence from a draft that misuses the passive twice: " … disease monographs on classes of disorders that were thought to be discussed insufficiently, but understood to be more prevalent in frontier regions, more common in the present than in the past, and inadequately understood in the available medical literature." Who thought that? Who understood that? Not a clue! Were the classes actually not discussed enough? Were they really more prevalent or not? That is precisely what the passive hides. Is the last clause part of what the concealed person understood, or an added thought? Think about that, and try turning this fragment of a long sentence into normal English. (Return to item nine)

10. Consistency in Lists

Editors use "lists" to mean any series of equivalent elements: "I have three coins: a dime, a nickel, and a quarter" or "I have three jobs to do today: finishing a paper for HSS 152, watching 'The Young and the Restless,' and reading 300 pages of Tolstoy." The point is that equivalent items need to be in equivalent form. The verbs with "ing" take care of that. Otherwise the sentence becomes incoherent: "I have three jobs to finish today, finishing a paper for HSS 152, to watch 'The Young and the Restless,' and 300 pages of Tolstoy." As you edit your lists, ask whether the items match in number (singular, plural) and form (verb phrases, nouns, etc.). (Return to item ten)

11. Number of Noun and Verb or Pronoun

The errors of this kind that confuse readers usually happen when authors lose track of what the subject of the sentence is. In "the main reason, which has many components, are complex" the verb agrees with the nearest noun, not the main one of the sentence. It doesn't make sense, because the main verb is tied to a noun that is not even essential to the meaning of the sentence (it is in a nonrestrictive clause).

As for nouns and pronouns, in "when you give something to someone you expect them to be grateful," note the shift from "someone," a singular noun, to "them," a plural pronoun that has to stand for a plural noun.

Some related issues: If you don't want to write "he or she," make the whole shebang plural. Slashes are bureaucratese. Unless you say "he slash she," write "he or she," not "he/she." "And/or" is meant to dump the choice of "and" or "or" into the reader's lap. Writers who care about clarity choose "and" or "or." In formal logic the two may be mutually exclusive, but in the English written language either word is flexible enough to leave open the possibility of the other. "I would like some milk or juice" does not rule out having both. Finally, since you don't say "he gave it to I," you can't say "He gave it to Bill and I." (Return to item eleven)


12. Spelling

If you didn't learn to spell in high school, it was because your school had to, or wanted to, save money. It wasn't because people don't care whether you can spell. They care whether they can understand you, and wrong spelling often makes that impossible. It also wasn't because all you will ever need is a spelling checker. Your spelling checker is an unintelligent list of words. It won't catch problems as simple as "that's to bad." There is also a larger problem: people who never learned to spell generally don't have a large enough active vocabulary to write with force and precision.

Well, what is the moral of this? If your high school left you hopeless at spelling, are you doomed to semi-literacy? Hardly. The purpose of higher education is to prepare you to learn anything you want to learn for the rest of your life without taking courses. Instead of lamenting your bad fortune, learn to spell now.

The secret is to have a good dictionary, and to use it. You have a great many to choose from. Most people buy one without much thought, and tend to have inadequate ones. There is no point in having a 15-pound dictionary if you will hesitate to use it. It is even worse to have a small one that has all the words you already know, and not enough of those you don't. That is why most paperback dictionaries are bad investments. If you are a college or graduate student, you will want one labeled "college edition," which is the largest portable version of a given title.

There are a several excellent dictionaries, on paper, on disk, and online. I use the Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition. It reflects current usage, and shows how to choose between words with similar meanings. I have it installed on my hard disk, and I have a copy on my bookshelf to use when my computer is off.

You will also want to know about the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive dictionary in English. It lists every sense of every word from early medieval English to the present day, with the earliest known sentence that uses each sense. This prodigy of scholarship is the equivalent of at least 25 normal volumes, but you don't have to buy it (although you can). If you are a student or faculty member, you can access it via the Penn Library's web site. You won't need it to check spelling, but it is wonderful for increasing your grasp of language.

(Return to item twelve)

13. Proofreading

Proofreading can be an extremely inefficient process unless you are doing it attentively and reflectively. Try to set your draft aside for a day or so before doing the final editing and proofreading, so that you can look at it with a fresh eye. Find a place where nothing will distract you. On the other hand, don't wait until the last moment, when you are under so much stress that it is difficult to concentrate.

(Return to item thirteen)

14. Printing

By the time you print out the final version, your paper ought to be your best say on your topic, thoughtful, interesting and informative, carefully edited and proofread. It ought also to be easily readable, with pages numbered so the reader can reassemble it if it comes apart. If you need guidelines to help with the layout, get a style sheet for your major or discipline from your department, or check the main journal in your field to see which style it prescribes. If there is none, ask me for a copy of my simple and minimal "Guide to Style," which can be used for any paper.

By the way, printing may be an unnecessary step. If you don't have ready access to a printer that will produce clear copy from your file, or if your printer breaks down half an hour before the deadline for a paper, it will be worth your while to know whether the instructor accepts papers in electronic form. I do, and can handle them in almost any PC format, and in Macintosh Word format. It is generally easier to deal with files sent as attachments to email messages than with those submitted on floppy disks, but either will do. If you are coping with a catastrophe, you may find it possible to save the file to the Windows clipboard as plain text and paste it into the body of an email message.

A final suggestion about computer catastrophes: An almost universal experience is to have a file disappear into the void, to accidentally erase it, or to destroy a whole folder or even hard disk without meaning to. It will happen to you sooner or later. You can prevent disastrous losses by backing up your work. You can set your word processor to back up your file every 5 minutes. But since every computer breaks down sooner or later, and theft is not rare, you will also want to save copies on a removable medium.

The simplest way is, just before you close down for the night, to copy to a floppy disk the files you created or changed that day. That takes less than a minute. The techies' rule of thumb is that not keeping a given file on two separate media is the same as praying to lose it. People who can't get their heads together to back up daily do have one recourse if a file disappears. The file is still there, somewhere, even if you have erased it! Stop working on that computer right away and contact someone who knows how to recover erased files and directories. Only if you continue working will you destroy it. You may have the knowledge (e.g., of the Recycle Bin) and software (e.g., the Norton Utilities) you need. If not, get in touch with the Computer Resources Center or your local guru.

(Return to item fourteen)

Return to the top of the Checklist

Copyright reserved by Nathan Sivin. Please email
nsivin! at sas! dot upenn! dot edu! (but use normal form and omit the exclamation points)
with comments and corrections.

Back to Nathan Sivin's home page Back to the Department of History and Sociology of Science home page

Use your browser's "back" button to return to your last location.

Last Modified 2004.12.14