I’m just going to say it — self-editing is the bane of my existence.
It’s that one thing I have never enjoyed doing. Now, I’ll edit the heck out of someone else’s writing and return it full of red markups and comments. But my own work? Doing laundry, washing the windows, and repainting the exterior siding would all be more enjoyable tasks.
Once I have finished writing a “masterpiece,” the last thing I want to do is go through it with a fine-tooth comb and identify everything that is wrong with it.
But, self-editing is an integral part of what I do, and so I’ve learned to come to terms with it and even embrace it. I’ve also learned a few useful techniques over the years that help take some of the frustration out of self-editing.
So, *drum roll, please* below are my top five tips for self-editing.
1) PRINT IT OUT!!
If I were pressed to give only one tip for self-editing, it would be this one. Editing on paper versus editing on a screen is a game-changer when it comes to reviewing your work. If you’re already thinking you don’t have time to go through the “hassle” of printing something out, how long does it really take to walk over to the printer and back? A minute? Trust me, that extra minute is worth it.
Not only does printing something out let you put your red pen to good use, it is also a way to review your work in a form that differs from how you wrote it. Why is that important? Because it will let you edit your work with a new perspective; you’ll see things differently editing on paper than you ever would on a screen. Bonus points for taking those printed pages and reviewing them somewhere different from where you were writing.
For folks who learn visually, editing on paper is also helpful for identifying repeat errors and areas you may want to work on in the future.
2) Walk away
After you’ve put together your first draft, step away from it for a bit. Go for lunch, take a walk, clean out your inbox, take a nap (if you’re lucky enough to be able to), and then come back to your work with a fresh set of eyes. A bit of time away will help separate you from your original draft and better enable you to spot mistakes.
If you have the time and can leave it until the next day to tackle, all the better!
3) Read it out loud
Back when I worked in an actual office, with actual human colleagues instead of cats, on more than one occasion I had someone stop by my desk to ask why the heck I was talking to myself. But after a little while, I had other folks doing the same thing.
Reading your work out loud lets you hear the mistakes; it’s a great way to identify phrasing that doesn’t make sense or sounds odd.
One piece of advice — remember to focus on reading the words as they appear on the page rather than what you think should be there.
4) Be ruthless
When it comes to editing, it’s better to be ruthless to your work than wait for someone else to be. (Having a piece you submitted come back with very few corrections will do wonders for your self-confidence.)
A few tips to get you started:
- Remove unnecessary words. I’m looking at you, adverbs. Keep an eye out for crutch words (i.e., actually, basically, literally, honestly) that serve little purpose and can de-emphasize whatever point you’re trying to make. Remember this quote from Stephen King when you’re going through your work: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
- Less is more. When writing for a business, a shorter piece is often better since you want your audience to stay interested. Focus on getting to the point by keeping your wording straightforward and direct, along with using a simple sentence structure (subject, verb, and object).
- Use plain language. Get rid of industry jargon and words that can make your writing sound academic. (No one says “We consumed dinner” so don’t write that way.)
5) Invest in resources
Spellcheck is useful, but it isn’t able to catch all mistakes. If you are often editing your writing, invest in a couple of resources to take your self-editing to the next level. A dictionary is an essential item for anyone who writes for a living. Sure the online dictionary sites are helpful, but a print edition is still your best bet.
A style guide is another great tool to have on hand — not only does it serve as a phenomenal reference but also helps ensure you have consistency in your writing by following a particular style. If you’re not sure what style guide to use (and your place of work doesn’t have a set style), I recommend checking out The Canadian Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style.
Is self-editing challenging to master? You bet. Can it help advance your writing and career? Without question. Approach self-editing as a chance to improve your overall writing technique, and you’ll see positive results in no time.