Writing Tips to Help You Become Your Own Best Editor
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve explored when you should edit your work. This week I’m going to dig into the ‘how?’ Precisely how should you edit your own writing? How do you go about turning that rough draft into a work of art?
My two previous posts tackled the thorny issue of whether or not you should edit as you write, and how you can stop doing this – if you want to, of course.
But whenever you choose to do your editing – whether you do some of it as you go along or treat it as a completely separate task – how should you go about it? What does it entail and how can you make sure you do a good job?
First of all, I’d like to stress that this post is about editing, not proofreading – I’ll have some advice for you about that next week.
For anyone who’s confused about the difference between the two, although there’s a bit of an overlap, this is how I think they differ:
The Difference Between Editing and Proofreading
- Proofreading is basically about correcting mistakes such as grammar and spelling errors, typos and other howlers.
- Editing involves revising and refining your text – it’s not so much about correcting it as improving it. It can include re-wording and rearranging the material and cutting bits out. Editing’s an essential part of the creative process, aimed at smoothing any rough edges and making sure your final script is the best it can possibly be.
Learning how to self-edit effectively is crucial if you want to improve as a writer, because it’s in the editing suite that you’ll hone and develop your craft. So don’t see it as a chore – it’s potentially one of the most exciting and important parts of the writing process. Every time you edit, you get the chance to learn from some of the best teachers in the world – from your own mistakes.
Top Ten Writing Tips For Editing Your Own Work
- 1. Mind the Gap: Even if you do some editing on the hoof, as I do, make sure you take a break from your script before you do the final edit. I can’t tell you what a difference this makes. And the longer you leave it the better – personally, I like to sleep on it and leave it until the following day before making any final editing checks. If you feel you don’t have time for that, at least leave it an hour or two and make sure you get right away from it by doing something completely different or having a change of scene. This will enable you to look at your draft with a fresh pair of eyes.
- 2. Don’t edit when you’re tired: If you’re an owl, don’t try editing in the morning when you’re bleary-eyed and falling off your perch – but if you’re a lark, the crack of dawn might be exactly the right time. Because editing requires your full concentration; you need to do it when your brain’s working on all four cylinders. It’s not a job to be done when you’re worn out, so make sure you choose a time when you’re wide awake – at least for that final edit.
- 3. Pretend it was written by someone else: It’s difficult to edit your own work, because it’s hard to be objective about it. Let’s face it, it’s your baby – you created this little beauty – so it’s a big ask to expect you to start pulling it to pieces. But I’m afraid that’s what editing’s all about – you need to be able to approach it dispassionately and impartially. Implementing point number one will help – putting a bit of space and time between your writing and the final edit. The other trick is to create some psychological distance between you and your draft – by reading it as if someone else has written it. Simply use your imagination and pretend you’re editing it for someone else. It’s much easier to be critical and spot potential flaws if you take that approach.
- 4. Get a second opinion: If you can find a willing recruit, I think one of the best editing tools you can get is another reader. See if you can persuade someone else to cast their eye over your draft and let you know what they think. My husband very kindly reads through my blog posts before I publish them and he’ll often notice things I’ve missed. When he says things like “I’m not sure what you mean by that….” I know I have to think about re-phrasing it to make it clearer. If you do get someone to read it for you, make sure they’re willing to be honest and critical – it’s no good getting it checked over by someone who just wants to massage your ego – you need a critic, not a fan! And you need to really listen and pay attention to their feedback – which means being open to criticism and prepared to swallow your pride.
- 5. Cut things out: The secret’s in the word – editing. It usually involves a pair of scissors and a trash can. Imagine what tedium we’d have to endure at the movies if a lot of stuff didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. I heard a lovely story from Michael Martine recently about a writer who apologised to his friend for sending him a long letter – because he didn’t have time to write a short one. A well edited piece of writing will usually be significantly shorter than the initial draft. Check you’re not repeating yourself or including unnecessary words – believe me, we all have a tendency to do this when we write. Like when we talk – we waffle and ramble on and on and on….. And even though it’s good to write in a conversational style, your chatter still needs editing before you hit ‘publish’, or you’ll risk boring your readers to tears. So be ruthless with your editor’s knife – and if you find one superfluous word, sentence or phrase, get rid of it! Here’s one small example you’re bound to come across – the word “that” is often redundant. So a sentence like “I know that I’m hopeless at editing my work” can be cut down to “I know I’m hopeless at editing my work”. Remember – “less is more” (usually!)
- 6. Simplify it: It never ceases to amaze me how people have a burning urge to use formal, stilted, complicated language when they write things down. Why write “purchase” when you mean “buy”? Why say “acquire” when the word “get” will do? Simpler language tends to be more powerful and direct. And keep your eyes open for any long, rambling sentences that leave your readers feeling they’ve lost the plot. You know the ones I mean – where you get to the end and don’t have a clue what it’s all about. Split sentences like that up into smaller, more digestible chunks.
- 7. Check how it sounds: Reading your draft out loud is one of the best ways to see how it’s going to come across to the reader. You’ll often pick up clunky, awkward bits of phrasing this way. If you find it difficult to read a section out loud without stumbling over the words, that’s a sure sign it needs re-wording.
- 8. Check how it looks: Stand back and take a look at your draft – is it easy on the eye? Are there some intimidatingly long paragraphs that are going to put people off? Have you got the layout right?
- 9. Check it flows and makes sense: Does the whole thing make good sense? Have you missed out any crucial points? Does each sentence and paragraph follow logically from the one before? Have you got things in the right order – will the reader be able to follow your train of thought? If you come across a passage that feels like a ball out of left field, cut it out or think about moving it so it makes more sense. And, perhaps the most important check of all – have you answered the question posed in your title or fulfilled the promise in your headline?
- 10. Set your own editing limits: Only you know when enough is enough. From the comments on my previous posts, it’s clear we all vary in the ways we edit and the time we spend on this task. There are probably some of you out there who don’t edit thoroughly enough and need to devote a bit more time and effort to this part of the process. On the other hand, there will be many of you who find it difficult to know when to stop – I know I’m in this camp. If you’re an obsessive compulsive editing maniac like me, you risk editing your work within an inch of its life and never getting to hit “publish”. You all know where you stand – and you need to set your own editing limits, which might mean doing a bit less or a bit more.
What you write will never be perfect. Hamlet and War and Peace aren’t flawless. But editing is what you do to make your writing as good as it can possibly be. As I finish this post, I’m agonizing about some other points I could have included, but I’m going to save those for another day. This isn’t perfect – but I hope it’s good enough to give you some useful pointers, particularly if you’re not sure how to tackle this editing lark.
OK – now it’s your turn. Do you have any editing tips you’d like to share? Is there anything crucial that needs adding to this list? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading – and don’t forget, if you’ve enjoyed this post and found it helpful, please share it with your friends!
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