Self editing your work

  • Editing refers to the process of improving writing, mostly to get it ready for publication. Editing involves looking at structure, word use, spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Self editing is an important part of research and ideally should not be done while writing. The aim of editing a text is to make it ready for sharing, for passing on to other readers. Writing is about something else altogether – it is about putting ideas on paper.

Getting started with writing

Good writing is important as it reflects clear and logical thinking. The editing process is an important stage as it is where you show that you know what you are doing.

Writing is about making choices that need to then be scrupulously adhered to to ensure that you never leave your reader guessing what is meant. At the editing stage what you partly do is go back to these choices, making sure they work and are coherent with each other and what you propose.

These pages explore:

  • Structural editing
  • Editing at sentence and word level
    • Sentences
    • Writing concisely
    • Avoiding ambiguity
    • Consistency
    • Understanding punctuation
    • Common word errors
    • Your voice – on tone and  confidence


Editing at the structural level

Having a clear structure is crucial. When working on it keep in mind the reader and the examiner, who may start reading your document from any point in the document.

Make sure that:

  • the different sections are linked together, talk to each other
  • everything is logically presented
  • every chapter fits in an overarching structure.

Do so by paying attention to:

Signposting to show how the thesis is organised and presented as an argument. Signpost in

  • Table of content
  • Abstract as a summary of the work
  • Headings that are clear summaries of what is to follow
  • Chapters and sub-chapters (check table of content to see if they are organised logically)
  • Overall introduction and conclusion as well as introductions and conclusions of each chapter
  • Paragraphs starting with topic sentences and closing sentences
  • Keep using the same keywords throughout the text  – do not surprise readers by coming up with a variety of synonyms
  • Remind readers of the narrative, the story, the argument you are unfolding

The structure of your thesis: does each section do what it is meant to do?

  • The introduction: does it say why you did what you did, how you did it, what you found?
  • Does the literature review fit in with the discussion presented?
  • Is the discussion the result of an argument built through the thesis.
  • Does the conclusion complement the introduction?
  • Do you have chapters that do not seem to be linked with the rest?
  • Should some material be in appendices?

Check out the following resources:

Reverse Outlining – a clear step by step strategy to review your structure

Say it once, say it right: Seven strategies to improve your academic writing.

Editing at the sentence & word level

Sentences can be

  • Simple – one main independent clause. E.g. They are not listening.
  • Compound – two sentences joined together by
  1. a coordinator (for,and, nor, but, or, yet, so)
  2. a connector – linking word (e.g. however, also, therefore, for example…..),
  3. a ;
  • Complex – more than one clause

What makes a good sentence?

Sentence length

Sometimes people think that long sentences sound more ‘academic’. Long sentences (27+ words) are important for expressing complex ideas and illustrating connections among ideas. Having the odd long sentence here and there is not a problem.  Good writing tends to use a variety of sentence lengths, a mix of simple and complex sentences.

If all your sentences are long, you make your text harder to read. If you tend to write long sentences check:

  • Are you using too many words that do not add meaning? (check advice on conciseness on this page)
  • How much information is in each sentence?

If you tend to pack a lot of information in your sentences, try to shorten them. Keep in mind that sentences are units of meaning. Express only one idea in one sentence and where necessary create several sentences by:

  • cutting compound sentences in two
  • separating clauses in complex sentences to create individual sentences.

Including short sentences (20 – words) helps ensure clarity.

aquestion Check out and improve the following sentences

Burroughs (2012) stated that the public had felt excluded from the climate policy discussions and decisions due to the technical and political nature of the climate debate. He reported that the Prime Minister, in proposing the assembly, had realised that excluding the public from climate policy discussions could have implications for securing broader public legitimacy for reforms, particularly if they imposed significant costs on the public, and required lifestyle and behavioral changes.

While the ability to leverage technological advances and the frequent introduction of introduce new products have been credited with providing firms with a competitive advantage, the adoption of both a fast pace of knowledge accumulation together with a high level of task complexity may be detrimental to firm performance.

toolboxIf you are not sure whether your writing is easy to read try a readability test: is a free to use test which combines a few existing tests. Note however, that the test focuses on sentence length and complexity of words etc., but not internal logic of meaning.

Starting a sentence

Think about how you start sentences. The first words tend to make the strongest impact so it is best to start with the most important information.

If possible avoid starting a sentence with something like, ‘there is…” as in, for example There are a number of examples that support this. You are wasting a very importance sentence component on ’empty’ words, or words that do not add meaning.

Remember, as a general rule to always start with the most important information (in sentences, in paragraphs and in whole text). The emphasis goes in what comes in the beginning.

Linking sentences

Make sure sentences link to each other, ensuring a clear narrative. Check

  • Use of transitional expressions
  • Good use of pronouns (covered in the section on ambiguity on thsi page)
  • Verb and noun agreement

Using words effectively

Words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. Value them for their strength and precision. And remember: somebody out there is listening.(Zinsser, W. (2006).

Writing concisely

Writing concisely is important as it will help your reader to focus on what you are saying. As an academic writer, your main aim is to share a message; your research. You want people to read you and to understand your message. Here are a few things to pay attention to:

Omit unnecessary words

Unnecessary words are words that do not add meaning.

Eliminate tautology (the use of different words to say the same thing)

  • already existing
  • never before
  • at the present time
  • none at all
  • basic fundamentals
  • now at this time
  • completely eliminate
  • connect together
  • refer back
  • continue to remain
  • separate entities
  • start out
  • empty space
  • had done previously
  • still persists
  • end result
  • joint cooperation
  • introduced a new
  • mix together
  • outside of
  • adequately enough
 qualitative in nature

  • still continue
  • final completion
  • at this point in time
  • he is the person who works hard
  • he roof is red in colour
  • true fact
  • reduce down
  • vital necessities
  • consensus of opinion

Do not add pronouns when they are not needed: 

There a number of examples to support this

I’m surprised by the fact that the goods have not arrived

It is this element that confirms it versus this element confirms this

The products which are described in the catalogue have been ordered

Avoid cliché sentences that add no meaning:

it can be seen that

it has been indicated that

it should be remembered that

it should be noted that

thus, it is imperative that

Put action into verbs

Nouns ending in– ment, -action, – ion and –ing may hide a verb. They are often the result of  a process referred to as nominalisation. Nominalisation occurs when a suffix (-tion, -ism,..) is added to an adjective, verb or noun to create news words. Changing verbs into nouns weakens the verb.

watch video icon Sword, Helen. Beware of nominalisations


  • have knowledge (know)
  • conduct an investigation (investigate)
  • provide an explanation (explain)
  • give a conclusion (conclude)
  • realize an improvement (improve)
  • held a meeting (met)
  • carry out an inspection (inspect)
  • have an objection (object)
  • make a suggestion (suggest)

aquestionActivity: how can you make the following sentences  shorter and clearer?

The university will allow for the provision of more funds to help students.

This design serves to explain the three stages of the project

Their decision was to expand

This technique is an improvement

The office will conduct an investigation

Can we carry out a room inspection tomorrow?

Examination assessments were performed by doctoral students.

Avoid ambiguity

Ambiguity is generally caused if more than one meaning can be attributed to a text. This can come from unexplained acronyms, misuse of pronouns, misplaced modifiers or unfamiliar words.

Using acronyms

New unfamiliar terms and long words need to be defined when they first appear: E.g. NATO, ABC

  • Use acronyms and abbreviations carefully. People might have alternative meanings for them
  • Make sure you write every acronym in full text at least for the first time
  • Have a list at the end of your thesis.

Noun-pronoun agreement

Pronouns stand in for nouns and noun phrases already mentioned.

Personal pronouns; who, his, he, hers, she are used for people.  Impersonal pronouns; it, its for objects. Their is used for both people and objects.

Pronouns are an invitation for readers to pick up the first possible noun used before. No doubt should be left as to what the pronoun stands for.

Examine the pronoun use in the following sentence:

Alyssa took out the drawing, adjusted her glasses on her nose and invited him to admire it.

Why is it ambiguous?

What is meant in the following sentences?

  • He told the receptionist his phone was not working.
  • The unit outlines should not be distributed to the students before they have been approved.


A modifier is a word, or group of words, that describes another word and makes its meaning more specific. Modifiers are generally adverbs (words that modify the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb), adjectives or verbs. Sometimes they can be groups of words which operate as adjectives.

Adverbs: words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Often end in -ly.

Adverbial clauses: groups of words that act as adverbs

Adjectives: words that modify nouns. Cold water. Prickly leaves. Large house. Tiny shed. High roof.

A common cause of ambiguity is placement of a modifier that is too far away from the text it modifies, particularly if it can apply to more than one word or clause.

To resolve ambiguity, the modifier has to be as close as possible to the word/text it modifies.

If it is not, the result is often nonsensical. See for example:

  • The ice-cream man sold some ice-cream with a white hat.
  • Roger looked at twenty-five sofas shopping on Saturday.

Look at the following examples:

  • While walking down the road, a tree caught Tina‘s attention.
  • While walking down the road, Tina noticed a tree.
  • A tree caught Tina’s attention as she walked down the road.

aquestionCheck  and clarify:

Watching from the ground below, the eagles circled high above the observers. (example from Faigley, 2011, p 236)

Note that modifiers only, almost, already, always, just, nearly, even, merely should always appear before the word they modify:


They almost worked five years on that system OR They worked almost five years on that system.

They just wanted a 30 days extension OR They wanted just a 30 days extension.

(example from Weiss, 1990)

Discuss meanings in 

The union wants to buy the company’s assets. 

Only the union wants to buy the company’s assets.

The union want to buy only the company’s assets.

The union only want to buy the company’s assets.

(example from Weiss, 1990)

Avoid ambiguity: watch out when using unfamiliar words

  • Watch out when using elaborate words that are not part of your active vocabulary. Look them up.
  • Be careful using a thesaurus for finding synonyms. Synonyms are never perfectly interchangeable.
  • Practice new words – make them part of your active vocabulary.
  • If a term is unfamiliar define it right away.
  • If needed, create a glossary.

Check common word errors


Make sure you understand rules of punctuation to avoid ambiguity.


Consistency is important. It eliminates potential ambiguity and indicates that you have given attention to details.  Consistency makes your writing look professional. It is important in the use of numbers, capital letters, spelling of some words and references.

It is also important to be consistent when using American or English spelling: organisation, colour, harbour, labour.

Use an existing style guide or create your own style guide to ensure consistent writing. Make suer you set out the spelling and capitalization of foreign words, names, percentages, dates, punctuation (hyphens, quotation marks) , titles….

Consistency with numbers

Decide which numbers you write in letters and which in numbers e.g. spell out numbers below 10 (one, two…11, 12)

Decide on spelling of:

  • 20,000 or 20 000
  • 1924 or 1 924

Numbers with lots of zeros need to be written as words e.g. millions, billion.

Never begin a sentence with a number written in number. Ten children were missing. NOT 10 children were missing.

Do you hyphenate two-word numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine

Twenty five per cent or 25 per cent or 25% or 25 percent

If one number modifies another, have one in text and the other as a number. She took 7 five cent pieces.

Consistent capitalisation

The basic rule is that capital letters are used at the beginning of a sentence and when using a proper noun, but also:

When using adjectives that are derivatives of names, such as e.g. Indonesian, Marxist, Shakespearean theatre.

Names of organisations

  • Department of Finance…..but write department when referring to a department in general
  • The University of Canberra ….but university when referring to a university in general
  • Government (as part of formal title) or government…………also with ‘federal’
  • Academic disciplines: science, health, journalism (but Faculty of Health).

Job titles

  • Do not capitalise job titles: general manager, chief executive
  • Heads of countries and national institutions take capitals: the Queen, Prime Minister, President.

But ‘the prime ministers will meet tomorrow’ and ‘when he was prime minister’.

  • God or god?

Brand names that become common names

Jeep (refers to the brand)  and a jeep (refers to a general type of car).

Your position, tone and style 

Your position, your tone refer to your attitude (Creswell, 2005). Tone is difficult to define  – tone needs to be in keeping with the topic and writing genre.

  • Towards yourself as a writer
  • The subject matter you are discussing
  • Your reader

Tone is conveyed in:

  • Potential tentativeness of your language – are you conveying modesty or uncertainty? Check the use of terms such as might, possibly, believe, perhaps, clearly, in fact, absolutely, it is obvious, of course..
  • Potential neutrality of your language.  Terms such as I agree, hopefully, unfortunately, have to, must + use of quotation ( the ‘supervisor’) indicates an attitude.
  • Use of pronouns that position you in relation to your research and the reader.
  • Voice or the use  of  passive or active voice
  • Narrative/storyline
I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article…— that fear may be intense.

King, Stephen (2000). On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. Pocket Books: New York

Best tone for doctoral writers (Kamler & Thomson, 2006):

  • Not too passive and tentative
  • Not too confident

Consider how probable or true an assertion is.  Use verbs to make your position clear.  See

Use of personal pronouns: 1st, 2nd or 3rd person.

There is no right or wrong option, but you need to make a conscious choice. Do not let ‘we’, and ‘I ‘ and ‘you’ slip in the text inadvertently.

Take into account:

  • Your position as a researcher (refers to underlying assumptions you make as a researcher about reality and the knowledge of reality).
  • Research culture of your discipline, your country.
  • Who will read you.

Use of the first person:

  • Indicative of assumption that reality is not objective, and can (only) be approached subjectively.
  • Indicates you take responsibility for your work.

Third person:

  • Removes the researcher from the research.
  • Presents the research process as an objective process, and findings as objective – true findings.
  • Positions the researcher as an independent/objective observer.
  • Complies with academic expectations of independence/status as objective observer.
  • Requires use of passive tense.
  • Used to avoid what may appear to be ‘self promotion’.
  • Used to avoid personal feelings or attitudes.

Mixing first and third person:

Creswell (2005, p 68) suggests that while you may avoid using ‘I ‘ in the body of text, you could use it ‘in parts of an introduction detailing the topic, research questions or objective and procedure detailing the overall structure.’

Questioning guy


Voice refers to what indicates whether the subject is performing the verb’s action – active voice – or whether the subject is acted upon – passive voice. You need to understand when to use passive tense.

Check emphasis in:

The prize-winning thesis was written by a young Indigenous student.

A young Indigenous student wrote the prize-winning thesis.

Passive can be used to hide obfuscate meaning

It is known … or It has long been understood …Who knows? Who understands?

In academic writing it is also used to avoid using the first person and by doing so position oneself as an objective outsider. E.g. Data was collected in three cities. 


Style is that indefinable something in your writing voice that sounds like you. It is almost hearing someone speaking when you read their writing. There are no strict rules about style. As you practice writing, you will develop your own style.

Final tips for self-editing

  1.  Leave a text aside for as long as possible before going back to edit it. Be detached from the text. Be ruthless and efficient and if you are not sure about something, use a reference.
  2. Read your text aloud. Any hiccups – awkward phrasing, ungrammatical sentences, too much repetition – will be evident. It will not read smoothly. Rewrite until it reads smoothly.
  3. Identify and hunt for your weaknesses (nominalisations, long sentences, grammar). Eliminate them all.

For those interested in  professional editing, check out the Canberra Society of Editors.


Amis, Kingsley (1997). The King’s English London, Harper Collins.

Belmont, W. & Sharkey, M. (2006), The easy writer. Formal writing for academic purposes. Pearson Longman: Frenchs Forest.

Craswell, Gail (2005), Writing for academic success. A postgraduate Guide. Sage Study Skills: London.

Faigley, Lester (2009), The Little Penguin Handbook. Pearson: French Forest

Kamler & Thomson (2006) Helping doctoral students to write. Pedagogies for Supervision. Routledge, Milton Park.

Kaplan, Bruce (2003), Editing made easy. Penguin Books:  Camberwell

King, Stephen (2000). On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. Pocket Books: New York

Partridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors, Routledge, London & New York.

Purdue Online Writing Lab,

Truss, Lynn (2003). Eats Shoots & Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation London, Profile.

Watson, Don (2003) Death Sentence: the decay of public language Random House, Sydney.

Weiss, Edmond H. (1990), Writing remedies. Practical exercises for technical writing. Oryx Press. (UC library PE1413W5151990)

Zinsser, W. (2006). On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Harper-Collins



Springer examplar  looks at how terms are commonly used in scientific literature.

Style guides

Style guides are useful as they set out spelling and capitalisation of certain words (e.g foreign words, names, percentages, dates), punctuation (hyphens, quotation marks) and titles etc.  Having a style guide allows you to be write consistently. You can create your own style sheet or use an existing style sheet.

The University of Canberra Library has the following on loan:

The little book of style / compiled by Shirley Purchase. Published Canberra : AusInfo, Dept. of Finance and Administration. Z253.L57 1998

Style manual for authors, editors and printers / revised by Snooks & Co. Published Milton, Qld. : John Wiley & Sons, 2002. UC Short Loan 7 day  Z253.S7 2002

The Oxford guide to style / [edited by] R.M. Ritter. Published Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002.  UC Short Loan 7 day  Z25O84 2002

Some online Style Guides:

UTS Style Guide

ABC radio national


The writer’s diet