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Eight Simple Tips for Editing Your Own Work

tips for editing

Editing your own work

One key factor that separates mediocre writers from good ones (and even good from great) is the quality of their editing.

If you’re working for a big magazine or publishing house, you’ll have an editor who goes through your work, checks for any clumsy or ambiguous phrasing, and fixes any typos – but if you’re working on your first novel, or publishing posts to a blog, you’re almost certainly going to be on your own.

It’s hard to edit your own work. You might end up skipping editing altogether because you hate it – or you might spend hours trying to get a piece right. These eight tips will help you develop your editing skills:

#1: Don’t Edit While You’re Writing

You’ve probably heard this one time and time again: don’t stop to edit while you’re writing. It’s great advice, though many writers find it hard to stick to.

It’s fine to pause and correct a typo, or restart a sentence, while you’re creating the first draft – but don’t keep going back to delete whole sentences or paragraphs.

If you really struggle to write without editing, try Write or Die, which forces you to make forwards progress by deleting your words if you stop typing for too long.

#2: Put Your Work Aside for a Few Days

Try to build extra time into your writing schedule, so that you can let your work sit before editing. With a short piece like a blog post, a day away from it – or even a few hours – is enough. If you’ve written a whole novel, try to put it aside for at least a week or two before starting the editing process.

By doing this, you make it easier to see your work afresh. You’ll come up with new ideas, and you’ll find that you can spot chapters that don’t fit, plot holes, inconsistent characterization and other big-picture problems.

#3: Read Through in a Different Format

Physically turning your words into a different format can help you spot problems or mistakes more easily. You might want to print out a blog post before editing it, or transfer your novel manuscript onto an e-reader device.

Often, it’s useful to take a look at your work in its published form (or as close to it as you can get). If you’ve got a blog post, for instance, you might use your blog platform’s “preview” function to check it out. If you’re writing an email newsletter, you could test it by emailing it to your own account. Sometimes, you’ll notice problems that didn’t stand out before, such as too many short/long paragraphs or glaring typos.

#4: Edit for Structure and Content First

Too often, writers start their editing by polishing up every sentence – and then end up cutting out huge chunks of their material later. It’s much more efficient to do your big picture editing first: that means looking for:

  • Chapters or sections that need to be cut out – perhaps they’re too advanced for the piece, or they’re a tangent to the main point
  • Missing information that you need to add in, like a whole new section or chapter
  • Scenes or sections that need to be radically revised

Major cuts, additions and rewrites need to happen before you start digging down into the individual sentences and words.

#5: Cut Out 10% of Your Words

Once you’re broadly happy with the shape and flow of your piece, it’s time to cut. Most writers over-write: we use more words than we need, and we weaken our argument or story in the process.

Do a word-count for your whole piece, and try to cut 10% of the words. If you’ve written an 800 word blog post, for instance, aim to cut it to 720. Look out for:

  • Repeating the same point several times – unless you’re deliberately doing this as a rhetorical device, it’s probably unnecessary. Trust that your reader will get it the first time.
  • Wishy-washy phrases like “in my opinion…” or “it is my belief that…” Occasionally these are warranted; often, you can simply cut them out.
  • Unnecessary adjectives. Don’t tell us “John said loudly” if you can say “John shouted”.

#6: Use Spell-Check – but Use Your Eyes Too

Always run your work through a spell-checker. That might mean using a browser plugin, or simply writing in Word or another word processing program so that you can check for red wiggly lines.

Don’t rely on spell-check to catch everything, though. Some errors will slip through – missing words are a common one, as are homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently, like “which” and “witch”). Sometimes, spell-check will pick up on words that are actually correct – mine has some bizarre ideas about “its” and “it’s” – so don’t blindly follow every suggestion.

#7: Read Your Piece Backwards (or Slowly)

It’s tough to proof-read your own writing: by this final stage of editing, you’re so familiar with the words on the page that mistakes just slide past you. One trick for better proof-reading is to read backwards from the end of the piece.

If you find reading backwards too awkward, then try reading s-l-o-w-l-y. That might mean running a pencil along each line as you read, or increasing the font size so that you don’t see so many words at a time on your screen.

#8: Let it Go

Finally, to edit well, you need to eventually stop! If you find yourself taking commas out and putting them back in, or rewriting the introduction one way then changing it back, then you’re done: it’s time to put your work out into the world.

If you’re like most writers, you’ll never feel entirely confident about your work. You’ll have a nagging sense that it could still be better. But perfection is an unattainable target – so settle for good enough. Even if a few imperfections remain, a published piece is infinitely more useful to your readers than a piece that sits on your hard drive forever.

Do you have a great tip for editing? Add it in the comments below…

About the author:
Ali Luke is a blogger, novelist and writing coach. If you’re trying to take your writing further, check out her post on 7 Habits of Serious Writers to find out how you could improve today.

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50 thoughts on “Eight Simple Tips for Editing Your Own Work”

  • Great tips. The one I always use is “read your writing aloud”. This tells you whether it flows or is stilted and it can pick up clumsy words and phrases easily. When you read silently your brain will accomodate errors because it is more interested in understanding than anything else. But when you read aloud your voice is forced to read every word and you can hear the problems.
    This is also a great way towards forming your writing voice in that it allows you to learn more about your writing style than silent reading will.

    • Ali Luke says:

      Great addition (and I can see lots of other commenters like this one too!) When my writing group meets, we read aloud, and I *always* end up spotting things that I want to change — even if I’ve edited the piece to death beforehand…

  • SusieR says:

    GREAT article! I love your suggestion of reformatting the article prior to editing, to allow a different look. Item 4 is also imperative, to address flow and readability. And knowing when to stop (item 8) is so important.

    I’d love to see someone adequately address the difference between proofreading and editing – and knowing when you’re likely crossing that fine line.

    I also like to read aloud – but that only tends to succeed when a few days have passed, since my mind still reads what I meant to write… but likely did not.

    Thanks for these tips!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Very good point about the difference between editing and proof-reading. For me, proof-reading is purely looking for typos (spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, etc) and ignoring any slightly clumsy phrasings or weak sentences: at some point, you just have to let it go…

  • Nikki says:

    Great article, Ali.

    I’ve saved this one so I can refer back to it.

    I’m guilty of editing as I go and publishing as soon as I’m happy… Rather than waiting and looking at it with fresh eyes. I also never read aloud.

    Smack on the wrist for me. Going to implement these in future and see how my writing improves ;-)

    Thanks!

  • Anne James says:

    ‘Don’t edit while you’re writing’ and ‘cut out 10% of your words’ are my favorites here! The easiest way not to be obsessive/compulsive about the editing and writing is to do it on an UNLINED sketch pad. We don’t think in lines, grids or qwerty formations because writing is an artform as much as painting or scupting. Funny, though, I was attracted to read the post because is numbered the tips to 10 and looked short, concise and very direct! We all need tips but the proof is in finished work, as I hit ‘submit’–Thanks, Ali Luke

  • Helpful article! I’m happy to say I utilize the majority of these tips in my own work (mostly blog posts at the moment). I agree with Christopher Wills that reading out loud is always helpful to catch not only missing words and homophones but awkward phrasing. My favorite point in your list (and something I attempt with any piece I write) is #2. Putting your work aside for a few days is never a bad idea!

  • maria grace says:

    The latest version of MS Word has a text to speech function that you can enable on the ‘ribbon’ with about two mouse clicks. You can then highlight a piece of text and the computer will read it to you. Granted, it is that awful, toneless computer voice, but it is great for catching awkward phrases or misused words or even spelling mistakes. I’ve even caught comma errors that way because it puts odds pauses in.

    Another trick I use are check lists for things I over use. My characters often sigh, shrug or smile to much. I have a list of these things and I run a ‘find’ on each of them so I can easily see when they are happening too often and then I can change them out. You also can use this strategy to help you find homophones that you typically misuse or words like ‘that’ which are often unnecessary and can be cut.

  • Ali, I go to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, First Edition (1969) frequently to check spelling or word usage. One word writers have trouble with is “lead.” I have seen it spelled “led” when the writer meant “lead” as in “She lead the dog home.” I have seen it spelled “lede” when the writer meant “lead” as in “The story has an interesting lead.”

  • J. R. Nova says:

    I love the advice for letting it sit for a week or two. That’s how I do it. I know many say two or three months, but if something sits that long, I lose my passion for it. I’ve got to work with hot irons!

    Reading through in a different format also works great for me. I put my manuscript on my Kindle and I feel like it’s a whole new story, or at least i get a whole new perspective and catch every mistake.

    These are all really great points of advice. I’m saving this, and I’ll be sharing it as well :)

  • Shlomo says:

    Ali:
    Thanks for these tips.

    I would just add one. I eventually come to the stage where I know soon I’m going to push the “publish” button. If I’ve made any change in a paragraph, I move the cursor away from it and read it again out loud.

    I’m often amazed at the errors my “simple” edits have introduced into the text.

  • Maria A W says:

    This was awesome advice. I have to admit that one of my worst problems is #1. I have been stuck on my prologue and first four chapters of two months now. Considering I am still learning this may be bad or good, I take what I have learned and go and fix it. But after this last time through I will stop and just write. Thank you for the grate advice!

  • I reread my sentences as I am writing to see if they make sense and if it flows right with the story .

  • Vonnie says:

    I agree with Christopher. Read it aloud. Makes all the difference to clumsy sentences and improbable ones.

  • Rhea Rhodan says:

    Nice and succinct. The only one you’re missing that I use is what Christopher and Vonnie said, reading out loud.

  • These are great tips Ali and I use nearly all of them! I write and then step away, sleep on it. I try to confine it to a word max I have, which cuts out most of the early-appearing fat, I read it in Word to catch stupid things like repeated works :o and I read it aloud to hear what it sounds like. I notice something else too. Often I’ll wake up on post day knowing something I’ve missed, or something I should change. For instance, I was mentioning the Super Bowl the other day and I awoke on post day with the realization that not everyone would know what the Super Bowl was so I added a link through to wiki. I love it when inspiration is waiting for me in the morning.
    Needless to say, my better posts are written well in advance of publication day. Usually.
    Thanks for this wonderful resource!
    Lori

  • I find reading aloud a good way to pick up typos and other errors, and an even better way to assess the flow of my writing. Clumsy phrases that the eye might skim over become obvious when spoken. If you don’t mind listening to your own voice, try recording the piece, then play back and edit!

  • This is great! I actually just bought Write or Die, which is exactly what I need. I am a chronic edit-while-writng person—it’s more a form of procrastination than anything else, though I’m a huge fan of word whacking. I LOVE to cut words. Another trick of mine, is after I’ve edited, I put the ms on speech and let the computer read it to me. That tactic really helps me check the pace and flow.

  • Barb Sawyers says:

    Some wonderful points and comments. I would add that you need to put yourself in the readers’ shoes and ask whether they would pay attention and remember. Chopping ten per cent works only if you’re a lean writer. Most writers need to cut way more. In my book Write Like You Talk Only Better, I advise practical writers to make sure their work is focused and free of mistakes and apply advanced techniques to make good writing great.

  • Debra E Marvin says:

    I listen to my chapters via the voice reader on my MAC (free), and I’ve also found that sending them to my kindle (where they look strangely like someone else’s ebook, helps me see them with fresh eyes.

  • Maxine Clark says:

    You are right about not editing as you write. Let ideas, dialouges (spell check), description spill out onto the paper as you feel it. Then it will be as fresh as the moment you wrote it. Editing can come later.

  • Robin Coyle says:

    Enlist others! My test readers have spotted typos and other writing issues that I wasn’t able to see. For example, my eye knew that the word should be “buy” not “by and I read right over it . . . like 100 times~!

    • Ali Luke says:

      Yes, I’d definitely recommend getting other people involved if you can! It’s amazing how obvious a typo can be *after* your friend has highlighted in yellow…

  • Patrick Ross says:

    I love this list, particularly #1 and #2. As a newsroom reporter and editor I haven’t had that luxury, but it’s critical with my creative writing. I was going to add “read it aloud” but I see other commenters have already added that. I’ve started doing that recently, and it points out clunky prose that otherwise flies by.

  • Teri Heyer says:

    I read my blog post, poem, story or novel out loud to my dog, Dude. No kidding! Maybe he has a good ear? Whatever, he apparently likes listening to my voice, but his ears twitch when I hit a particularly funny/awkward/strange-sounding word. Hey, this works for me. I’d read it to my husband, but he’d fall asleep. :-))

  • Jack Apfel says:

    #8 is the hardest for me!

  • Andria says:

    Great post! I’m one of those wordy writers who could probably stand to lose 20% of her first draft words. It’s hard to get rid of them, but that’s where having time and distance can help.

    #8 is hardest for me too. I can keep editing forever if I left myself.

  • Heh. I just finished writing on why you need to edit your own work and now my RSS feed provides me with this post. Brilliant! I’ll need to include a link back here.

  • Graham says:

    Great post. The one thing I would add, perhaps before all others, is “think of your audience – they are more important than you”. Two examples and I’m sure you will see the pattern.

    # If you want to convince somebody, think about what convinces them, not what convinced you.
    # If you want to motivate somebody, think about what motivates them, not what motivated you.

    All too often I read copy and find myself thinking “I know why you wanted to tell me this, but I have no idea why I should listen to it.” Actually, the trust is, I get part way through such copy, and then stop reading. If you’re not talking to me, I won’t listen.

  • Karen says:

    Great advice! #6 is a great one to point out, because spell check, doesn’t find those typos like “hear” instead of “here” because the words aren’t misspelled, they are just the wrong word. And my favorite typo when I’m typing too fast is “HIS” always ends up being “HI” Such as “Hi car was green”
    Thanks for sharing!

  • These are all great tips. I would add one more; if you are writing a lengthy piece (e.g., manuscript, dissertation), use the services of a professional editor once you have taken the eight steps that Ali Luke provided. Many professionals will do a free sample edit of a small section of your work. This will allow you to assess the quality of their services and, if you provide the word count on the entire project, these same editors can typically give you a firm fee quote on editing the full manuscript, dissertation,etc.

  • I generally publish my posts and then proof-read them after a day. Not sure how many people find it inconvenient :P . Thanks for this post, BTW. Not editing while writing is something I need to follow.

    Destination Infinity

  • Catherine says:

    A great tip for editing: for further polishing, read your content aloud! It’s amazing what a difference it makes to hear your written words (and any mistakes) for a true sense of style flow.

  • manjeet says:

    great tips. i usually ask my wife to read my script when i finish. sometimes i give her a chapter to read when i finish. she usually tells me which parts are tedious and which parts flow easily. she tells me a reader’s point of view about characters being live and situations being vivid or insipid or tacky. i like her feedback as a reader but do the cutting and polishing myself.

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