By Chris Leslie and Elisa Linsky
The single most common mistake made by beginning writers is the failure to edit their work. Most students understand the value of reviewing a piece of writing for errors, but few budget the time to do it.
Often, we receive papers from students literally hot off the presses, the pages still warm from the printer down the hall. This practice invariably leads to errors, sometimes embarrassing ones. What can you do to avoid this pitfall?
Writing a lab report is not a simple process. Do not work on it at the last minute. You will need time to revise and edit your report before it is due. Once you have completed the first draft, spell check the report and print a copy. Let it sit for awhile; do not switch immediately from writer to editor.
Now, stop being a writer and become a reader. Does the report prove that the experimental result is accurate? Would a careful reader be able to reach the same determination that you did in your conclusion, or is there information missing? Have you jumped to conclusions that are not backed up by evidence, or have you carefully presented your case? If you have consulted outside research sources, make sure you have also given credit to any source outside of your own experience.
Once you have determined that your report is clear and well organized, you must check for errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. What are you looking for? You have already electronically checked your spelling; now do it manually. Spellcheckers are great, but they will not help you when you have used the wrong word but spelled it correctly. Next, check your grammar. Have you used complete sentences, do the subjects of your sentences agree with the verbs, have you chosen the best words to convey your meaning and arranged them in the right order, have you used articles (a, an, the) correctly? Finally, check your report for the correct use of punctuation. This is a critical step. Students frequently tell me that they think the correct use of punctuation is unimportant, that I am just being picky. Nothing could be further from the truth. Punctuation marks are signals to your readers, we use them to emphasize and clarify what we mean. Their misuse obscures meaning.
Before you finish, clean up anything that makes the report look sloppy. Are there any extra spaces? Are the headings separated from the text by a page break? Are the graphics clean and readable? Are your pages numbered, and is your formatting (bold, capitalization, and so forth) consistent? When you are satisfied that your report looks professional, you are ready to hand it in. Finally, never edit on your computer screen; print your work first and edit the hard copy. As accustomed as you are to working on your computer, you will miss errors if you try an on-screen edit. Another tip: read the report out loud. You will have the benefit of both hearing and seeing your mistakes. And if you have friends who can take a look at your work, let them. A friend can catch things you have missed because you are so familiar with your own work.
Carefully editing your work will make you a more successful engineer by helping you to avoid mistakes that detract from the meaning of your writing. Making a careless error in your report causes your reader to wonder whether that type of inattention permeates your other work.