A guide to editing your own work

After you write, take a break. Then divvy up tasks into manageable chunks such as spellchecking, eliminating clichés, adding transitions and improving flow.

Editing your own work is difficult and time-consuming, but it’s essential for sharp writing.

Even if you can afford to hire an outside editor, you’ll save money if you can trim and polish your copy first. Here’s how to approach the task:

Start by taking a break

If you’re writing a long-form project—such as a book or thesis—I suggest you take six weeks before you start editing anything you’ve written.

For shorter projects, such as blog entries, take a day if you can. If that’s not possible, break for at least an hour. Go for lunch, work on something totally different, or talk with a colleague.

After your break, divide the task into two main parts: substantive and copy editing. Which you attack first is a matter of preference. Doing the substantive editing first can save you time: Why clean up what you’re going to toss out?

Some prefer to make the copy clean before the substantive shoveling.

Copy editing tasks

Begin by running your piece through free readability statistics software. I suggest starting with Online-Utility.org. Just copy and paste your text into the box on its page, and hit the “process text” button.

Look for “average number of words per sentence.” Aim for 14 to 18 words; if your average is longer, shorten your sentences.

For advice on where to do this, paste your story into the Hemingway app. This software highlights long-winded sentences in red. Not all long sentences are a problem, but tighten up as needed to improve readability. Once you’ve done this, copy your material back into the Online-Utility.org to see how you fare.

Next, reconsider any text you’ve written in passive voice, which hides the main actor of the sentence. Hemingway can help with this, as well.

Then, watch for antecedent confusion. An antecedent is the word that a pronoun refers to. For example:

When you see the boss, please tell her I’ll submit my report later.

The noun “boss” is the antecedent to the pronoun “her.”

Here is an example of an unclear antecedent:

When writers procrastinate, it means they waste their time.

“It” does not refer to a specific word in the sentence, therefore the sentence is not entirely clear (even though you can probably guess the meaning.)

If you’re unsure, do a search for pronouns in your story. Use Command + F and type in “it,” “they,” “he” and “she,” separately. Check the antecedents in these sentences, and make sure each one is clear.

Make sure you have adequate transitions. Also known as bridges and connectors, these are the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct readers through our writing. The biggest difference between sophisticated writing and amateur efforts often rests with the quantity and quality of transitions. Shrewd writers use them to lead the reader along. Don’t skimp on these crucial signposts.

Look for and eliminate clichés. The Washington Post maintains a list of journalism clichés, which I suggest you review before your next edit. It can be tough to conjure fresh language, but your writing will improve if you try.

Check spelling. Run your spellcheck program; just be aware that it will not catch homonyms such as two, to and too.

Check grammar. I share Joan Didion‘s feeling that “grammar is a piano I play by ear.” If you were not born with this ear or haven’t trained it, get a friend to check your text for grammatical errors. Do this after you have completed the substantive edit, however.

Substantive editing tasks

Prepare an outline of your text. This is the only time in the writing process I recommend an outline. When you’re at the preparing-to-write stage, you’re better off using a mindmap.

Outlines can also be useful when you’re editing. They allow you to see, succinctly, what you have covered. If you have an entire section in the wrong place, an outline will reveal that.

I like to think of outlines as architectural plans that expose the overall structure of what you have written. Do you have a weak foundation? An outline will expose it.

Read for logic and flow. This is the most challenging and time-consuming part of the editing process. I like to handle it slowly, one sentence at a time. I read the first sentence and ask myself whether it raises questions. If it does, then I expect the second sentence to answer them. If it doesn’t, then I know more editing is required.

Finally, read your work aloud, considering your rhythm. When I worked in an open-area office in a newsroom, I did this with every story I handled. I’m sure people thought of me as the crazy woman muttering in the corner, but I never found a better system than reading aloud.

All sentences have rhythm. Saying them aloud is the only way to hear that. When you read silently—in your head—it’s tempting to skip over sections you may have read a dozen times already. Reading aloud reveals your writing’s cadence and clarity.

I hope I haven’t caused you to think that substantive editing is less important because I’ve given it less space here. It’s the most important step—and the most time-consuming one. That “read for logic and flow” instruction should take you longer than all the steps in the “copy editing” section combined.

Editing should take at least twice as long as writing. “To write is human; to edit is divine.”

A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn.


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