Why self-editing is the key to better writing

There are five stages to putting together a piece of text. Are you shortchanging—or completely neglecting—this essential phase?

What do you think is the secret to improving your writing?

  • Getting a better grasp of grammar?
  • Developing a keener eye for jargon?
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of your reader?

All these skills are useful, of course, but they’ll take you only so far.

Do you want to know how to write content that persuades? That “engages”? That people actually want to read?

Here’s the simple step you must take: Stop writing, and start editing.

Yes, becoming a better writer isn’t about knowing how to write. It’s about knowing how to self-edit.

Download this free white paper to discover 10 ways to improve your writing today.

It’s about knowing when your writing’s, well, rubbish, and it’s about enjoying going back and honing your work over and over until it’s right.

Often when I’m teaching people how to write better, someone will ask: “How can I get my writing right the first time?” The implication being that that’s what a professional writer does. It’s always fun to disabuse people of that myth.

In case you were wondering, I’m not the only writer who usually gets it wrong the first time.

Check out this page from a manuscript of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” as the author describes the character of George Smiley:

Or this extract from the same author’s The Tailor of Panama”:

All this looks familiar to me. Does it to you? If not, you might want to consider tweaking how you proceed the next time you have a document to produce.

Below is a chart showing the various stages involved in producing a written document—and the percentage of time different writers might spend on each. I’ve identified five stages: research, planning, writing, editing and proofreading. (Note: proofreading is not the same as editing.)

The chart on the left shows my own writing process. The chart in the middle shows what I suspect is fairly typical for most people, and the chart on the right shows the writing process of a recent client who came to me for coaching.

As you can see, I’m not a great planner. (Other writers swear by “mind maps,” but I can’t think of anything less useful than a load of squiggly lines in no logical order. Check out my simple alternative to mind maps here.) I do, however, spend a huge amount of time editing: re-ordering great chunks, rephrasing, generally honing and honing away.

I suppose you could argue that my lack of planning is the reason I have to spend so much time editing. But something else is going on. It’s that I think by writing and editing. I never really feel I’ve got something straight in my head until I’ve got it straight on the page.

If you look at the chart again, you’ll see on the right the writing process for someone I recently coached—an economist who had to express complex ideas quickly.

He came to me for one-to-one training because he’d done numerous writing workshops but people were still telling him his writing was “dense.”

With a little probing, I discovered he spent most of his time researching his documents—which just generated loads of ideas he felt he had to cram in.

Because he spent no time planning—and no time going back and filtering stuff out—it was hard for him to detect a clear, logical argument. I pointed out to him, too, that every other sentence seemed to contain at least one set of brackets—symptomatic of a lack of filtering and structure.

After just a few one-to-one coaching sessions, my client has become a much better writer—or, rather, a much better self-editor.

How do you divide your time among research, planning, writing, editing and proofreading? Please share your writing process in the comments section.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.


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