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Author: William Palmer

When students have completed what they think is the final draft of an essay, I find it useful to do the following editing activity. I don't tell students what we are about to do. I want them to discover the process of omitting needless words. Here are the steps I use, which you are welcome to use or adapt.
  1. Dictate two sentences, which students write down in their notebooks. I prefer having students discover the words as I say them rather than seeing the completed sentence, say, on a PowerPoint.Personally I feel that both men and women are equally guilty of gossiping. The point that I wish to make is essentially that people learn best what they teach others.  
  2. After students transcribe the sentences, ask them to count the number of words in each sentence: 13 and 17.
  3. Ask “Is there a problem with these sentences?” Someone will likely say the sentences are too wordy. Yes.
  4. Then ask students to cross out needless words and count the number of words in their revision. Ask some students to share their revisions with the class. Some sentences will still be wordy. Keep pushing for the most concise versions possible. Here are two examples: Both men and women gossip. (5) People learn best by teaching others. (6)
  5. Briefly discuss the revisions, especially how redundant it is to write “Personally I feel.” You can comment that students usually don't need to write “I feel” or “I think.” Readers will know from the sentence that's what the writer “feels” or “thinks.”
  6. Ask students to write down the lesson in capital letters beneath their examples: “OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS” (which comes from Strunk and White's Elements of Style).
  7. Last—and most important—have students apply this editing tool to their own papers. Tell them to go through their essay and cross out needless words (which often involves rewriting some sentences). Heads lowered in concentration, students will do this. It helps to tell students that you aren't asking them to omit specific details—only needless words. You can roam around the class helping students.
It's important to reinforce this editing activity throughout the term so it becomes a habit. Whenever students have a second or third draft of a paper, you can dictate a wordy sentence or two for them to transcribe and edit. Then have students edit their own writing, omitting needless words.
Contact William Palmer at palmer@alma.edu.