How to edit your own writing.

Cutting letters

Photo: Laborant/Shutterstock.

I should probably start this post by explaining one fundamental thing about editing your own writing.

You can’t.

That is, your writing will never truly be at its best if nobody else has read through it before it’s published. Sorry. The role of an editor (and I’m not just saying this because it’s my job) can’t be underestimated. No matter how amazing the writer, it takes a second pair of eyes to truly ‘see’ a piece of writing for what it is. Plus, it’s just really hard to spot your own typos.

I’m talking from experience here. When I started copywriting I was mortified to have several weeks’ worth of work returned covered in red pen. After several more weeks, having fought through a mixture of anger and embarrassment, I realised the final version was – I hated to admit – better than the original. And after a few more weeks again I started paying attention to the revisions and self-editing my work before I sent it over. Fortunately the red pen vanished, my editor seemed pretty happy and I managed to keep my job.

I realise, having said all that, it’s not always possible to have someone read through every single thing you write – particularly if you’re blogging (suffice to say this post won’t be edited before it’s published). So while I’d still recommend that someone, anyone, reads your stuff, there are things you can do to distance yourself from your writing so that you can edit it from a more objective point of view. Starting with…

1. PRINT IT OUT.

Yes – I know printing costs are a pain in the *ss if the money’s coming out of your own pocket. But it’s worth printing your work so you can read through it on paper with a pen in hand – you’ll spot so much more than if you just read through it on screen again. At the very least (or if you’ve run out of paper), change the view to a different layout, or adjust the zoom so you’re looking at things fresh.

2. MOVE AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER.

Seriously. When you’re happy with your blog post, article, paper, whatever – get away from the computer/laptop/tablet and do something else. Give yourself an hour at least, if you can. A day is better. Then come back and re-read and you’ll be AMAZED at the mistakes you’ll find and the amount of waffle you can cut out. Which brings me to point 3.

3. MURDER YOUR DARLINGS.

It’s an industry term for ‘get rid of the bits you love the most’, and it’s one of the hardest points to apply. That really clever play on words that doesn’t necessarily add anything useful but sounds really cool? Ditch it. That paragraph that goes off on a tangent from what your headline has promised but took you ages to come up with? Lose it. That opening line that will only make sense to people who are also into arthouse films? Bye bye.

Of course, I’m talking about copywriting – where you’re aiming to achieve a clear goal through your words – rather than creative writing here. And by all means, if your blog is all about arthouse cinema and so are your readers, keep that opening line. But as a general rule, if you want your writing to have the widest possible reach, this one’s got to be done.

4. CUT IT IN HALF.

Can you say it in fewer words? Then do. Point 3 will have helped to slim your wordcount down a little, but there’s still work to be done if you’re writing anything other than a novel or an in-depth research paper with no limit on wordcount (although even then I’d say you’re best to be concise). Truth is, we have very short attention spans these days, and the likelihood is – especially if people are reading your work on a screen – they’re also doing several other things at the same time. If there’s a way you can get your message across in fewer words – and therefore more quickly – so much the better.

5. SHORTEN YOUR SENTENCES.

It’s a good idea to stick to a rule of one idea per sentence. If you’ve had to use every type of punctuation going just to get your sentence to make sense, chances are it’s too long. It’s controversial I know, but things like colons and semicolons are fast becoming outdated and unnecessary for that very reason.

6. SHORTEN YOUR PARAGRAPHS.

For the same reason as the one above. Don’t be afraid of a bit of white space on the page/screen – it gives the reader somewhere to breathe. Within reason, that’s a good thing.

7. CHECK YOUR SPELLING AND GRAMMAR.

Spelling mistakes are pretty easily avoided – even if you’re typing straight into a post template in WordPress, you can make the most of the in-built spellchecker tool. And if you’re using Word or something similar, the same applies. Grammar is a bit more tricky, and I’m not going to go into subordinate clauses and the like in this post (mainly because I understand grammar in the same way I understand walking – I just sort of do it. I have no real idea of the processes involved in my body – and certainly couldn’t explain them to you – but somehow I can *usually* achieve the end result.)

One thing that even I can remember, though, is the dangling participle. It’s EVERYWHERE. This one is off the back of a book I’m reading:

Born in England, her first book is a tale of…‘ Her first book was born in England? Whaaa?

In a nutshell, the first part of the sentence modifies whatever’s straight after the comma in the second part, which is all wrong in this case. It’d need to be ‘Born in England, she wrote her first book…’ or something along those lines, because it’s the author that’s being referred to in ‘Born in England’, not the book. There. Clear as mud.

8. GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT.

Lastly, I always copy and paste weird names or words into a search engine to double-check I’ve spelt them correctly. If you’re blogging and linking to other sites, check the hyperlinks actually work, too. There’s nothing more annoying than a broken link.

DISCLAIMER: I regularly forget to employ many of these points in my own writing. Hey – we’re all human. Also, because of my background, a lot of these points are better suited to content marketing, blogging and copywriting, rather than creative writing in its most traditional sense. Please don’t be offended if you fall into the last camp and I’ve just suggested you slash your novel in half. Oh, and if there are any typos, grammatical errors or mistakes of any sort in this post, that’s because I put them there on purpose to see which eagle-eyed reader could pick them out. So congratulations – gold star to you.

PS. Want to read about this sort of stuff from people who are actually rather good at explaining it? Then you’ll want to read my list of 10 essential books for writers and editors.

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