I know something’s not right, but I can’t tell what it is!
How many times has that thought crossed your mind while working on an email, inter-office memo, or short story? Learning to edit your own writing is really tough, even for professional writers like me!
As a freelancer, I must deliver work that’s ready for prime time. After all, I’m supposed to make an editor’s life easier, not burden her with piles of disorganized thoughts, run-on sentences, and content she can’t use. Over my 15 years of professional experience, I’ve built an editorial toolkit powerful enough to gut problematic pieces, but precise enough to surgically correct the ones that are actually pretty good.
Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks:
Cut and paste, the old fashioned way.
This is my first step when editing a longer piece. I print it out, then cut it up with scissors so each paragraph is separate. Then I shuffle them and sit down on the floor with a roll of Scotch tape and reread my work. As I do this, I reassemble it in whatever order seems to make sense, without worrying about transitions. When I’m finished, I reread the whole thing. Generally, my thoughts appear more coherent in their new order. I add transitions as needed before doing a deep dive into sentence structure and grammar.
Identify your target audience, and edit for that person.
I recently took a humor writing class and where I did a piece about mom guilt. In it, I used a sentence from my internal monologue: “Step off, bitch!” When my classmates critiqued my piece, every single one called out that one sentence. They all said it was jarring, and one was even a little disturbed by it. While my twenty-something self had used that phrase to joke with friends, I had written the piece as a thirty-something mom with fellow parents as my target audience. In hindsight, that part of my inner voice is a leftover from my younger years when I thought speaking like that was funny and cool. When you edit your own writing, it’s sometimes about self-awareness as much as creating good work.
Things to consider: how old are my readers? Are they mostly male or female? Where do they live? How do they spend most of their time? Use that information to create a mental image of the person you’re writing for. When you read your work, ask yourself if you’d speak to that person the way you’re writing to them. If the answer is “no,” then rewrite that part of your piece.
Read it out loud.
Rushed, whispered proofreading doesn’t count. When you edit your own writing, speaking and hearing your words is crucial. It will alert you to everything from garbled thoughts and run-on sentences to typos and grammatical errors. In newsrooms, it’s common to hear colleagues reading their work in full voice, but I understand it might feel weird in a different office setting. If you don’t have a door you can close, print out or upload your piece to your phone and read it in the bathroom to an empty row of stalls. It’s worth the hassle, and the acoustics will probably make your work sound even better.
Keep a special folder of ideas you love.
Your most eloquent sentences deserve to be shared…just maybe not in THAT piece. Believe me, I know how much it stings to cut a sentence that sang as you typed it. That’s why I have a folder on my computer labeled “Good Stuff” where I save those gems as individual documents labeled by subject. I click through them whenever I’m stuck. This often yields one of two discoveries: 1) the thing I thought was great was actually horrible, or 2) a beautiful sentence about a disparate subject can work well for whatever I’m currently writing about.
Step away for a minute.
When I’ve read my work so many times that I know it by heart, I take a quick break. Often the right word or thought will come to me as I’m taking the dog to pee, or making myself a snack. There’s actually scientific basis for this. It turns out that taking a break from the task at hand frees up part of your brain to search for and combine information. The result: creative problem solving. And that’s key when you edit your own writing.
Read it backwards.
When you aren’t concentrating on the ideas you’re trying to convey, you’re more apt to catch misspellings, grammatical errors, and sentence fragments. I like to do this as the last step before sharing my work.
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