The Chinese On-line Writing Lab

Editing for Conciseness and Clarity in an ESL Writing Class


Ted Knoy
tedaknoy@ms11.hinet.net
http://mx.nthu.edu.tw/~tedknoy
National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan)

Abstract
This article describes how ESL writers can acquire basic copyediting skills through the identification of areas of their writing which lack conciseness and clarity. Despite the increasing number of non-native English speaking authors submitting to international journals, manuscripts continue to be rejected. This is often due to the poor quality of written English contained within the articles, which in turn can be attributed to the absence of copyediting skills taught in ESL writing classes. More specifically, journal editors and reviewers often cite the writer's inability to (a) succinctly express his or her meaning (conciseness) and (b) ensure that the intended meaning is not misconstrued through the omission of ambiguity and obscurity (clarity) . Familiarization with the Microsoft Word editing feature or manual copyediting skills ensures efficiency. Based on these concerns, technical writing class assignments at the Department of Computer Science, National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan) are also described.

How to edit: a mouse or a red pen?
A computer mouse and a red pen both have copyediting advantages . While using a mouse may be a faster way to make and incorporate corrections into the final text than using a red pen, some editors still prefer to usea red pen. This is especially true when formats are used that do not contain the convenient editing function or when the author is not receptive to using such an editing function.

When deciding upon a correction method, the editor should prioritize quality (i.e., the level of detailed editing) and efficiency (i.e., time spent editing the text). Therefore, students learning copyediting skills should be taught both methods.

Original
A simple modification of these notions was made by Smith et al. for
determination of the constructs.
Revised
Smith simply modified these notions to determine the constructs.

Revised with a mouse
Smith et al. A simpley modifiedcation of these notions was made by Smith et al. ftor determineation of the constructs.

Revised with a red pen

Original
For determination of the optimum conditions for the
nominal-the-best robust design problems, this work is conducted to develop a simple procedure to do so.
Revised
This work develops a simple procedure to determine the optimum conditions for the nominal-the-best robust design problems.

Revised with a mouse
This work develops a simple procedure tFor determineation of the optimum conditions for the nominal-the-best robust design problems, this work is conducted to develop a simple procedure to do so.

Revised with a pen

Original
A continuous change of flexible manufacturing systems in a dynamic environment occurs.
Revised
Flexible manufacturing systems continuously change in a dynamic environment.

Revised with a mouse
A continuous change of fFlexible manufacturing systems continuously change in a dynamic environment occurs.
Revised with a pen

Copyediting suggestions for ESL writers

A. Conciseness

  1. Use active voice frequently
    A simple way to delete the length of a sentence and make it direct at the same time is to frequently use the active voice. Switching from passive voice to active voice often makes a sentence more direct, concise and persuasive. Whereas sentences using passive voice tend to be wordy or indecisive, sentences utilizing active voice make the technical document more immediate and concise. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    Modification of the heuristics was made by Lacksonen and
    Enscore (1993) to solve the dynamic layout problem.
    Revised
    Lacksonen and Enscore(1993) modified the heuristics to solve the dynamic layout problem.

    Original
    Precise measurement of neural networks by practitioners is
    a heavy emphasis of computer vision systems.
    Revised
    Computer vision systems heavily emphasize that practitioners precisely measure computer vision systems.

    Original
    The manager can be assisted by the proposed model so that
    the order size can be precisely determined.
    Revised
    The proposed model can assist the manager in precisely determining the order size.

    Original
    Objective assessment of the workplace is required by the supervisor.
    Revised
    The supervisor must objectively assess the workplace.

  2. Use verbs instead of nouns
    Wordiness also comes from creating nouns out of verbs (known as nominalizations), subsequently This tendency leads to weak verbs. In addition, overuse of nouns instead of verbs also creates needless prepositions. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    Difficulty is encountered in explanation of the method to inexperienced engineers owing to its computational complexity.
    Revised
    Explaining the method to inexperienced engineers is difficult owing to its computational complexity.

    Original
    Knowledge of how the variables are distributed is not required by novice engineers
    Revised
    Novice engineers do not need to know how the variables are distributed.

    Original
    Not only is the variability of the control factors considered by the proposed procedure, but implementation of related tasks is performed.
    Revised
    In addition to considering the variability of the control factors, the proposed procedure implements related tasks.

    Original
    Normalization of operations is achieved by a simple calculation of the scores.
    Revised
    Simply calculating the scores normalizes operations.

  3. Create strong verbs
    Some verbs are weak in that they do not express a specific action. In contrast to using such weak verbs, a writer should use strong verbs such as is, are, was, were, has, give, make, come and take that imply a clear action. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    The guideline makes it specific that all parties will be notified by the proper authorities when a problem arises.
    Revised
    The guideline specifies that the proper authorities will notify all parties when a problem arises.

    Original
    The different groups have to reach an agreement on how to make an
    adjustment of the figures.
    Revised
    The different groups must agree on how to adjust the figures.

    Original
    The machine operator conducts transportation of the auto parts to the assembly line.
    Revised
    The machine operator transports the auto parts to the assembly line.

    Original
    The machine operator conducts transportation of the auto parts to the assembly line.
    Revised
    The machine operator transports the auto parts to the assembly line.

  4. Avoid sentences beginning with It and There
    Another form of wordiness and ambiguity is sentences beginning with There and It. Unless It refers to a specific noun in the previous sentence, omit It is entirely. Consider the following examples:


    Original
    There can be little doubt that ink jet printers have a higher per-page cost than laser printers.
    Revised
    Ink jet printers undoubtedly have a higher per-page cost than laser printers.

    Original
    It is important to develop a more effective approach to solve the complicated problem.
    Revised
    A more effective approach must be developed to solve the complicated problem.

    Original
    There is increasing evidence that supports the role of protein in prolonging life.
    Revised
    Increasing evidence supports the role of protein in prolonging life.

    Original
    It is necessary to examine exactly how nutrition affects growth.
    Revised
    Exactly how nutrition affects growth must be examined.

  5. Delete redundant and needless phrases.
    Many technical documents are cluttered with redundant or needless phrases that can be either deleted entirely or expressed more simply. The writer should try to avoid needless and redundant words and phrases that only make the sentence lengthy. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    It is recommended by us that the trackball be selected on the occasion of purchasing a user interface device of this type.
    Revised
    We recommend selecting the trackball when purchasing a user interface device of this type.

    Original
    The trackball is deficient of the mobility that a mouse has despite the fact that the trackball requires less hand movement than the mouse.
    Revised
    The trackball lacks the mobility of a mouse although the former requires less hand movement than the latter.

    Original
    The web browser in all cases gives consideration to the user's needs in a situation in which he or she is away from the office.
    Revised
    The web browser always considers the user's needs when he or she is away from the office.

B. Clarity

  1. Ensure subject and verb agreement
    Subject and verb disagreement not only creates confusion over how many people, places or objects are involved, but also gives the sentence a faulty logic. A major reason for subject-verb disagreement is failing to recognize the subject and the verb. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    Either the collected data set or two additional outputs was used to construct a neural network model.
    Revised
    Either the collected data set or two additional outputs were used to construct a neural network model.

    Original
    The research assistant and the doctoral candidate are the same person.
    Revised
    The research assistant and the doctoral candidate is the same person.

    Original
    Physics make most first year doctoral students nervous.
    Revised
    Physics makes most first year doctoral students nervous.

    Original
    The acoustics in the auditorium is excellent.
    Revised
    The acoustics in the auditorium are excellent.

  2. Ensure that pronoun references are clear in meaning
    Readers become confused when the sentences they are reading contain pronouns that do not have a clear antecedent. An antecedent is what a pronoun is referring to. Many problems can arise when a pronoun does not refer to a clear antecedent. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    When a decision reaches the final stage, it must be implemented promptly.
    Revised
    When reaching the final stage, a decision must be implemented promptly.
    Or
    A decision must be implemented promptly when reaching the final stage.

    Original
    No adjustment factors exist if (C1) is violated, which implies that the
    transformation approach can be implemented.
    Revised
    The fact that no adjustment factors exist if (C1) is violated implies that the transformation approach can be implemented.
    Or
    No adjustment factors exist if (C1) is violated, implying that the transformation approach can be implemented.
    Or
    No adjustment factors exist if (C1) is violated; this violation implies that the transformation can be implemented.

    Original
    Driving a car and talking on a cellular phone at the same time is dangerous; this could cause an accident.
    Revised
    Driving a car and talking on a cellular phone at the same time is dangerous; this habit could cause an accident.

  3. Create sentences parallel in structure and meaning
    Parallelism in writing means that all parts of a sentence must have a similar construction. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    The numerical example concentrates mainly on illustration of the cases derived in the previous section and demonstrating the effectiveness of the proposed model.
    Revised
    The numerical example illustrates the cases derived in the previous section and demonstrates the effectiveness of the proposed model.

    Original
    The committee made a decision to set a new agenda and that the meeting should be adjourned.
    Revised
    The committee decided to set a new agenda and adjourn the meeting.

    Original
    The robust design focuses not only on collecting data accumulated from the designed experiment, but also that the results obtained by using Taguchi's two-step procedure are compared.
    Revised
    The robust design focuses not only on collecting data accumulated from the designed experiment, but also on comparing the results obtained by using Taguchi's two-step procedure.

    Original
    The proposed project is promising, creative, and has innovative ideas.
    Revised
    The proposed project is promising, creative, and innovative.

  4. Eliminate modifier problems
    As a word, phrase, or clause, a modifier describes another word, phrase, or clause. The reader becomes confused when the modifying clause or phrase is not next to the word it modifies. This often creates a gap between the author's intended meaning and what is actually written. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    To keep in shape, exercise is a must for an athlete.
    Revised
    An athlete must exercise to keep in shape.

    Original
    When an engineer, customer satisfaction should be attempted.
    Revised
    An engineer should attempt to satisfy the customer.

    Original
    After simulating a real environment, a consensus was reached.
    Revised
    After the researchers simulated a real environment, a consensus was reached.

    Original
    Being radioactive, the technician handled the materials with extreme care.
    Revised
    The technician handled the radioactive materials with extreme care.

  5. Double check for faulty comparisons and omissions
    Sentences that contain comparisons that are illogical and incomplete create further ambiguity in technical writing. Editors must also recognize words that have been carelessly omitted. Consider the following examples:

    Original
    Our algorithm is more accurate with respect to computational time.
    Revised
    Our algorithm is more accurate than conventional ones with respect to computational time.

    Original
    The chemistry department cooperates with local industry more than their department.
    Revised
    The chemistry department cooperates with local industry more than their department does.

    Original
    The novel material is as strong, if not stronger than, available ones.
    Revised
    The novel material is as strong as, if not stronger than, available ones.

    Original
    The research department's productivity is higher than the administrative division.
    Revised
    The research department's productivity is higher than that of the administrative division.

  6. Avoid unnecessary shifts in a sentence
    Another obstacle to clarity in technical writing is unnecessary shifts in subject, tense, voice and mood.

    Original
    Communicators must share a common language or protocol so that we can easily understand each other.
    Revised
    Communicators must share a common language or protocol so that they can easily understand each other.

    Original
    A computer mouse needs some available workspace and even the beginning user can operate them with very little difficulty.
    Revised
    A computer mouse needs some available workspace and even the beginning user can operate one with very little difficulty.

    Original
    Execute the program commands and the iteration steps must be
    repeated.
    Revised
    Execute the program commands and repeat the iteration steps.

    Original
    The supervisor asked her employees if the assignment was ready and could it be handed in tomorrow.
    Revised
    The supervisor asked her employees if the assignment was ready and could be handed in tomorrow.

Related assignments in an ESL technical writing class
In addition to instructing graduate students on how to organize research papers and prepare for publication, the technical writing course (asynchronous distance learning) offered at the Department of Computer Science, National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan) stresses the instruction of basic copyediting skills introduced in the previous section. As part of their homework, students must complete twenty seven conciseness-related and twenty eight clarity-related copyediting exercises.

Conclusion
ESL writers should not be expected to edit a manuscript as thoroughly as would a native English-speaking editor. However, basic copyediting skills should be incorporated into ESL writing curricula to ensure conciseness and clarity. Through this gradual process, the gap between expectations and ability can be closed.

References
Knoy, Ted (2000) An Editing Workbook for Chinese Technical Writers Hsinchu, Taiwan C Web Technology.
Knoy, Ted Knoy (2000) Advanced Copyediting Practice for Chinese Technical Writers Hsinchu, Taiwan C Web Technology.