Vol. 6. No. 1 R-1 June 2002
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Better Writing Through Editing

Stacy Hagan and Jan Peterson (1999)
New York, NY: McGraw-Hill College
Pp. x + 322
ISBN 0-07-049885-7(paper)
US $29.70

Editing skills are essential to good writers, be they native speakers or non-native speakers, experts or novices. To a large extent, editing involves identifying grammar errors and correcting them, especially for ESL/EFL learners who tend to repeat their errors. Hence the guideline they need to bear in mind is trouble-shooting. That is to say, the learners find out and correct the grammar errors, then classify them into error types, and practice relevant grammar intensively until they internalize those grammar rules.

Better Writing Through Editing by Stacy Hagan and Jan Peterson is a textbook embracing the trouble-shooting philosophy. It is designed for intermediate ESL/EFL learners to improve their writing through increasing their awareness of sentence variety and grammar error types as well as keeping track of their progresses with charts.

The book comprises 3 parts plus 7 appendices and 7 charts. Part 1, "Getting Started" contains 5 chapters beginning with a diagnostic grammar test. The following chapters introduce the editing system (error types and marking symbols such as "frag" for "fragment"," v" for "verb"), sample error chart, progress chart, and sample rewrite. Part 1 can be viewed as the book's gist, which is sufficient for people who have no time to finish reading the whole book. Targeting writing skills at the sentence and paragraph level, Part 2, "Writing Focus" takes in 7 chapters, dealing respectively with simple sentences, formal and informal compound sentences, complex sentences (adverb/adjective clauses), combination sentences and finally sentence variety. Each chapter in part 2 adopts such a format:

  1. Quick facts around a topic
  2. Words to know
  3. And you?
  4. Sentence form
  5. Example sentences
  6. Watch out for . . .(common errors)
  7. Writing practice (at sentence level)
  8. Writing topics (at paragraph/essay level)
  9. Answer key to exercise

Part 3, "Editing Focus" is the body of the whole book. Each chapter inspects one type of grammar error in the pattern of error description, examples and corrections, plus extensive exercises. According to the authors, there are 16 types of common grammar errors: 1: Unclear Sentences and Translation Problem; 2: Fragments; 3: Run-ons; 4: Comma Splices; 5: Verbs; 6: Singular/Plural; 7: Subject-Verb Agreement; 8: Noun-Pronoun Agreement; 9: Word Choice; 10: Word Form; 11: Word Order; 12: Prepositions; 13: Articles: 14: Punctuation; 15: Capitalization; and 16: Spelling. The last chapter of Part 3 is another diagnostic test for checking the overall efficacy of using the book. [-1-]

The seven appendices of the book list examples and grammar rules (if any) for irregular verbs, nouns, gerunds and infinitives, quotations, etc. The book ends with handy error charts and progress charts so that the students can have clear checklists for errors and be able to keep track of their progresses.

In addition to those helpful charts, Better Writing Through Editing includes other invaluable features. A beginning test can uncover the common errors of the students and the teacher may arrange the sequence of the chapters according to the strengths and weaknesses of the students, while the final test may reveal the students progress. Grammar presentations are simple and concise. Students mainly acquire grammar rules by correcting errors. Learning from failures of others or their own can cultivate positive learning attitudes. Writing assignments are explicitly labeled as comparison/contrast, description, cause, effect etc. and are closely related to students' life. An interesting activity in the book is the so-called "ten perfect sentences," in which the students are asked to write 10 sentences belonging to a specific type (e.g. compound sentence). The teacher then crosses out those with errors, and the students write the equivalent amount of incorrect sentences until they get 10 perfectly correct sentences.

Better Writing Through Editing is good for an editing/grammar class with intermediate ESL/ESL students. It can also be used as a supplementary resource for a writing class. The Teacher's Edition contains adaptable charts, chapter quizzes, sample lesson plans, and teaching suggestions.

My advice for using the book would be not to hesitate to add/delete types of errors on the charts. To accommodate my class, I added "wrong shift of tense/ person" and "vague pronoun reference" as another two common errors. In addition, I tried to rearrange the sequence of the error types according to their frequency. Among the words in a sentence, verbs are the most important (since they indicate state, action and trend) and the trickiest (as their tense and form vary). Thus, I would suggest coping with verb errors first. In contrast, Chapter 1 of Part 3, Unclear Sentences and Translation Problem, may be positioned to the end, because any unidentified errors, such as those related to semantics, idioms and conventions, can be put into this category.

With reader-friendly design, clear-cut grammar error targets and contextualized practice, Better Writing Through Editing will be a powerful tool for ESL/EFL students who are anxious to be capable of editing and polishing their writing.

Yuehai Xiao
University of Cincinnati

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