Editing your own writing is tricky. It’s an important, and necessary, step, but let me say right off the bat that nothing beats hiring an experienced professional. You are too close to your own work to catch every mistake.
However, I know it’s not always possible to hire an editor – and even if you do, the better your work is when you send it to them, the better it will turn out when they’re done with it. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of tips on editing your own writing.
1. Give Yourself Time
This might be the most effective of all the advice I can give you. After you’ve finished writing, leave the piece overnight. If you don’t have that much time, give it at least an hour and do something completely unrelated in the meantime – go running, bake some cookies, work in your garden, take a shower. Do anything that does not involve reading or writing, and that will completely take your mind off what you just wrote. That way you can come back with fresh eyes and read over it again without too much bias (since you wrote it, there will always be some bias, but that’s why you should hire an editor!). I guarantee that you’ll find some mistakes, but don’t just look for typos – consider structural elements, make sure each paragraph is in order, think about how well you got your point across and whether there’s anything you can do to get it across more effectively.
2. Edit for Structure and Content Before You Look for Typos
This is a common mistake: you polish every sentence, your grammar and spelling are perfect, and then you end up cutting out entire sections and restructuring the whole piece and you have to polish it and look for typos all over again. Don’t waste your time – get your piece in order first, then you can do your polishing. Here are a couple of things to look for as you edit your first draft:
- Sections that need to be cut out, like a paragraph or chapter that doesn’t really fit in or doesn’t help advance your point;
- Places where a section needs to be added, like where you jump from one point to the next and leave the reader hanging in the middle;
- Sections that need to be moved or restructured – do you have a section that doesn’t seem to fit in, but is necessary to the overall point of the work? Figure out where it will fit in better, or rewrite it so it does fit in. Do you have a paragraph that you feel is necessary, but it’s poorly written? Now is the time to fix it up.
3. Read it Out Loud
When you read your work aloud, awkward wording and things that don’t make sense will quickly become apparent. If possible, have someone else listen – it can be a bit uncomfortable, but it will help. Ask them not to say anything while you’re reading. You’ll want to focus on the words; they’re only there to help you hear yourself more clearly. And when you’re done, you can ask for input if you want to.
4. Print it Out
Whether or not it will ever be read in print (for example, most blog posts won’t), always print your work and proofread it on paper. Use a pen or pencil and mark everything you want to change. Proofreading on a computer screen is all well and good, but you’ll see things on paper that you won’t on a screen. I’ve been doing this for years and every time I print my work, I find mistakes I would have otherwise missed.
If you don’t have a printer available, it also helps to simply change your work into another format. If you’re writing on your laptop, try reading the document on your phone. If you’re writing a blog post, use the “preview” function to read it in its final, published format. If you’re not using it already, copy and paste your work into a word document. Even changing the font can help.
5. Use a Ruler
This is a good way to find typos, spelling errors, and minor grammatical issues. Print your work, then use a ruler, or another piece of paper, and go down the page one line at a time. Read each line carefully, looking for anything that needs to be corrected. Wait to do this, though, until you’re working on your semi-final draft – after you have your structure in order, your paragraphs where you want them, etc. It’s a waste of time to do this if you’re going to go back and rewrite sections anyway.
6. Let it Go
At some point, you’re going to have to hit “publish,” or turn in your paper, or whatever you need to do. If you’re like most writers, you’ll never be 100% happy with your work, but over-editing can be as harmful as under-editing. Just keep this in mind: even the best writers are rarely happy with their own work. You’re not alone. And as my mom likes to say, “No guts, no glory.” So be brave and put yourself out there!