Guest post by Joan DeMartin
In the perfect writing world, you would have teams of dedicated professional editors to review each piece of your writing, and their insightful comments would only enhance your otherwise gifted prose. Uh, wake up! Reality intrudes with the dawn, and we writers mostly have to edit our own writing, whether it's our daily email communiques, blog posts or more detailed business communications.
Admittedly, professional writers for magazines and other publications do have editors, and maybe they’ve also cultivated a few trusted friends who read their work before it hits the editor’s desk. In fact, I heard one New York Times bestselling author say that she always engages two tiers of reviewers: The first group are fellow writers who regularly critique each other’s pieces; the second tier were not professional writers, but friends and acquaintances who loved to read. Only after considering comments from both tiers did the revised piece go to her editor.
But I’m sure she edited her own writing, too, just like we all must before we hit that send button. There are many tried and true self-editing techniques, and others I know have worked for me. But let's review the basics.
Print Out. Read Aloud.
Yes, you can certainly do some quick proofing and revisions on the computer screen, but for serious editing, always print your draft and read it aloud...even if no one is there to hear you. Why is this one of the most recommended and trusted tips for self-editing? First, you're viewing your writing in a different medium than you created it in—digital versus print—which gives your brain a different perspective. And perhaps more importantly, you can hear mistakes, like superfluous words or stilted phrases, that you can't see, so reading your work aloud is crucial to the editing process. But "hearing" your words is not just for catching glaring mistakes, you will also quickly discover whether your writing has "rhythm and flow", and all good writing flows easily off the tongue.
And some words were simply meant for great oratory—they have more of an impact spoken than read. For example, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is widely considered a masterpiece, not just for the substance of his call for justice, but for it’s lyrical prose. Although Dr. King’s oratory is unmatched, try reading that speech aloud just to hear the magnificent rhythm of his words—you’re practically swept away on a magic carpet.
Sleep On It
Although we're all under tight deadlines for most of our writing projects, try to write your first full draft far enough ahead of your deadline to have the time to put it away overnight. This really isn't a luxury, it's a necessity for most of us to produce a quality written product. Although some advocate just a quick break, like a walk or lunch, this tip hasn't helped me—there’s something about the rest your brain gets during sleep that allows you to see your work with a fresh sets of eyes. I assure you that when I wait until the next day to read something I’ve written, it's covered with red-inked revisions in a matter of minutes. This technique is particularly helpful with longer pieces where you must tie together several different scenes or flesh out numerous points. After too many read-throughs without a break, all of your brilliant ideas start to run together and you couldn't edit successfully if you took a sledgehammer to your precious words.
Focus On One Area For Each Read-Through
This one is going to sound tedious and time consuming and, well, it is. But it can also be fun to see your work from a variety of perspectives. The idea is to read through your entire document and only focus on correcting one general type of error. Repeat for each subsequent area of concern. It’s worth the extra time and effort to create superior written work, isn’t it?
Choose any area you like to start. I go with what I think is easiest: grammar and punctuation. (You’ve at least run it through spell check, right?) Remember that correcting grammar and punctuation can sometimes overlap into correcting sentence structure problems, so be prepared to rewrite the occasional awkward sentence.
The next logical category for me (I tend to start with form and move to substantive issues) is cutting superfluous words and phrases. I overuse the words “that” to achieve what I think is clarity, and “so” to impersonate a substantive transition to the next idea. Both usually can be cut and your objective realized simply by rewriting the sentence. Here’s my personal favorite to help you cut the clutter in your own writing: Change “due to the fact that”, which I think should be banned from all but scientific writing, to “because”. You’ve just eliminated four superfluous words!
On the third or fourth re-read, I finally hit the substantive issues, like clarity of thought: Does what I’m saying make sense overall, did I leave out crucial information, and perhaps most importantly, will it hold a reader’s interest? And don’t forget to back up your thoughts and ideas with factual or expert data relevant to your topic. Remember that even officially labeled “opinion pieces” use facts to back up the author’s opinions.
Although re-reads for substantive issues tend to be the most difficult to self-edit because the writer is always closest to the topic, some professional writers recommend a bit of “role playing”. Pretend you’re the intended reader and take it from there. No, this doesn’t require an acting coach. With a bit of discipline, it actually works to help you channel someone else’s perspective on your writing, and that’s the key to being your own best editor.