Editing tips (from someone who doesn’t edit himself well)

Marked up manuscript from George Orwell's 1984I have a hard time editing my own writing. Most people do. I can edit other people’s work well. I’m very good at catching their typos, unclear passages, and wordy text. As for editing my own stuff, after the 100th time reading the same paragraph, it looks correct to me — never mind the typos and missing words. It’s the same reason we don’t notice our zipper is open until someone points it out to us.

How do you edit your own writing? For your final draft before publication, you probably shouldn’t and instead invest in a professional editor. For everything else, here are a few tips I’ve used and found helpful.

Set It Aside

There are two benefits to setting your writing aside before sending it. First, you can look at it again with fresh eyes. The errors you don’t see when you’re in the throes of writing become visible after you’ve stopped looking at your text for a while.

Second, and most importantly, setting your writing aside keeps you from sending things you’ll regret. How many times have people said or written things out of anger or haste that have caused them serious problems? Setting aside your writing gives you a chance to calm down, get more information, and rethink your position. You can then revise your writing or decide the best thing to do is delete the whole thing.

Read It Aloud

By reading my work aloud, I can find missing words and sentences that don’t sound right. You can also use narration software or the text-to-speech feature built into some programs and operating systems. I find that the act of reading aloud and hearing the words in my own voice gives me a better feel of the document and helps me identify problems.

Read It out of Order

Have you ever lost your keys in the house, and you try to find them by retracing your steps? You walk the same route through the entire house several times, and you still can’t find them. You stop and walk into some room at random, and there they are!

We have the same problem finding writing errors when we keep reading and re-reading the same text. We know what words come next, so we don’t see the ones that are missing or misspelled. Looking at a section at random breaks our familiarity with the text. We are forced to read it more closely, and that’s when we can find problems.

Edit It Relentlessly

So, you find errors or even entire sections of a manuscript that don’t work. What do you do? What you shouldn’t do is get too attached to your words. If something doesn’t work, get rid of it. With computers, there is no loss when you get rid of sections of your writing. You can make backups of manuscripts or save your favorite writing in a clip folder so you can use it in another manuscript.

Get More Help

I gave you just a few tips on self-editing. Here are some great books that offer more. Consider adding them to your bookshelf.

Don’t submit your writing until you’ve edited it thoroughly. That doesn’t mean a typo or two won’t slip through; it happens to even professionally edited work. Editing helps you catch the most egregious errors, and it improves the quality of your work. It may also save you from sending something you’ll regret.

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