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…