Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009 | 1 a.m.
How do we know when our work is complete?
Our field's top genealogists preach about letting one's work age before performing final edits. That advice has helped me catch many sentences, paragraphs and articles that do not say what I thought they did. When I don't take the time to edit work properly I usually regret it. Under the best circumstances I perform several types of edits before I call a written piece "final."
Most scholars and writers recommend letting one's work "go cold" before editing. Complete the first draft and set it aside, ideally for at least a few days. But even a few hours helps. When I come back and read my work with a fresh and critical eye I notice awkward transitions, points I need to make, and sentences that go nowhere.
Second, I read my work aloud, ideally to some poor soul, but most often to myself. I catch mis-typed dates, awkward sentences and incorrect words when I "hear" my work.
I then edit from the bottom. I begin by reading the last sentence of the last paragraph, and I work my way to the beginning. This exercise enables me to see each sentence in isolation to determine if I worded it the best way I could to make my point. It helps me to judge whether the sentence is necessary. When I move to the next sentence I can determine if the flow of the sentences works. After I complete the first sentence of each paragraph, I analyze the entire paragraph as a unit of thought, and I question whether it supports the topic sentence. Then I move on to the next paragraph beginning with the last sentence. And so on.
These techniques presuppose that one has completed the first draft in time to allow the manuscript to age, to force myself to listen to my own words, and to tinker backwards, sentence by sentence from end to beginning. Sometimes I simply don't have that much time. But by setting a deadline on the calendar I can work backwards and build in the time I need for first draft, first edit, second edit, read-aloud edit, and from-the-bottom edit.
When I break a large project into smaller assignments with specific due dates I borrow from generations of English and social studies teachers who assigned term papers but required that we submit our outlines, note cards, rough draft and final draft on assigned dates. Large projects, whether they are class assignments or certification portfolios, benefit by time.
I must have edited my Board of Certification for Genealogists (BCG) portfolio 137 times. But I did not do a read-aloud edit, so I kept missing items I would otherwise have caught. For example, in one instance I cited the Saturday Evening Post when I meant to cite the New York Evening Post. I also cited New York County death registers when I should have cited New York City death registers. Each of my judges commented that I should have performed a "final edit." My judges were correct. If I had performed a final read-aloud edit I may have caught those errors.
In his writing course at Samford Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, recommends "Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works With Words," by Bruce Ross-Larson. The author specifically targets verbal "fat" — useless words or phrases that bloat written work. By limiting the size of the portfolios it accepts, BCG encourages applicants to cut the fat; Ross-Larson's book helps. I found my used-but-clean copy for a few dollars online.
The best writers can't disguise sloppy or shallow research. And good research will shine through awkward sentences and misplaced commas. But a well-edited presentation can make excellent research sing.
Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or firstname.lastname@example.org.