I’ve been working as an editor for a few years now, and I can honestly say that checking content for typos, grammar, syntax, style, organization, logic and the like has become a pretty easy task for me. However, that changes dramatically when the writer I’m critiquing is myself.
Self-editing is exponentially harder than editing someone else’s work. Your brain knows exactly what the writing is supposed to say, so you can’t easily spot inconsistencies, awkwardness or typos. However, there will likely be times when you have to edit your own writing, so it’s important to have a few tricks up your sleeve that will help you become a better self-editor.
Step Back From Your Work
My biggest tip when it comes to self-editing is to take time away from your writing. After you draft the piece and give it a once-over, close your laptop and walk away. Seriously.
When the content is fresh in your mind and you’ve been working on it for hours, you’re going to get tunnel vision. You’ll only be able to see what you were trying to write — not necessarily what you actually wrote. By taking a step back and giving your brain a break, you’ll be able to come back and edit with a fresh mindset. You’ll be able to see where your logic is wonky, where you organization is sub-par and where you made silly typos.
Do You Need All Those Words?
When you’re writing, you may phrase things in a way that you think sounds smart or professional. However, the key to great writing (🔑) is stripping it down to the basics — unless you’re writing the next great American novel, you don’t need flowery, ostentatious language. When you’re editing, ask yourself, “Do I need this many words?”
There are a number of tricks that can help you streamline this task. Many editors will command+F and search for phrases like:
- In order
- I believe/I think
- Be sure to
This works, especially if you’re trying to cut back on word count, but it’s still not enough if you ask me. I like to take a sentence — any sentence — and ask, “How would I say this out loud?”
When we speak aloud, we usually opt for concise wording (unless you’re a rambler, then I really can’t help you). Pretend someone is sitting in front of you, and explain the concept. You’ll be able to cut your writing down to its bare minimum and present a pithy, well-explained argument.
Check Your Grammar
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to use proper grammar. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d probably be surprised how many professional writers don’t have a solid grasp on certain grammar rules.
For instance, pronouns need to match their antecedents in terms of number — it’s not correct to write that each student grabbed their textbook. “Each student” is a singular antecedent, so you need to use he or she as the subsequent pronoun.
Take the time to figure out what grammar rules you struggle with, and read up on correct usage. There are lots of things that trip people up — a few common issues include:
- Run-on sentences
- There is vs. there are
- Which vs. that
- Em vs. en dashes
- Passive sentence construction
- Affect vs. effect (admittedly a distinction I still struggle with!)
Stick to Your Chosen Style
Last, but not least, choose a writing style and stick to it. The most common stylebooks are AP and Chicago, but don’t run out and buy a style guide solely for your personal projects. Just be consistent with your use of serial commas, abbreviations, lists and spelling.
Keep an eye out for these things when you self-edit, and you’ll be producing cleaner, more concise content in no time!