After Hours

10+ ways to improve your writing by self-editing

If you want your writing to be polished, professional, and effective, you'll need to develop a system for reviewing your work with a critical eye. Here are some concrete steps you can take to vastly improve the results.

If you want your writing to be polished, professional, and effective, you'll need to develop a system for reviewing your work with a critical eye. Here are some concrete steps you can take to vastly improve the results.


Despite our best efforts, most of us make mistakes while writing. After all, we occasionally mispronounce words, use the wrong tense, or stop to reclaim a thought while talking. Writing is no different.

Unfortunately, catching mistakes in your own writing is difficult. Your mind knows what you meant to write so it glosses over the mistake and reads what you meant to write, not what you actually wrote. It's a difficult phenomenon to beat. Fortunately, you can improve your self-editing skills to cut down on mistakes and improve the quality of what you write.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Put some distance between you and your work

The most important rule to successful self-editing is often the hardest to apply: Put it aside for a few hours or even a few days. Don't try to edit your own writing as soon as you're done. It's just too fresh in your mind and you will read what you think you wrote and not what you really wrote. Your mind will glance right over even the most obvious errors. The more time your work sits, the easier and more productive your editing effort will be. Be sure to add this downtime to your schedule.

2: Read like a reader, not like an editor

The first time you read through a piece, read it as a reader. Ignore mistakes and read for comprehension. Knowing that you made your point is the most important step to editing your own work. The editor in you will still spot errors, just don't belabor them -- keep reading.

3: Limit your first edit

During the first edit, resist the urge to change everything. Only correct glaring errors. If you feel strongly about a change, make a note in the margin. Later, you can always make the change, but more than likely, you won't. Your first instincts are usually correct. You'll save time and a bit of wear and tear on yourself by limiting those first changes to the most important ones -- the true errors.

4: Now, you can edit

At this point, you're ready to correct errors and improve the language and organization:

  • Correct typos, spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Make sure you've used the most appropriate words -- the biggest or most technical word is seldom the best word.
  • Check for redundancy. Delete words, sentences, and even whole paragraphs, if necessary.

5: Perform a line edit

Ignore the piece as a whole and review each sentence individually:

  • Rewrite run-on sentences by deleting extraneous words and phrases.
  • See if your subjects and verbs agree.
  • Make sure the sentence conveys your intended point.
  • Depending on the piece, you'll probably want to replace passive verbs with active ones. Only rarely are passive verbs the best use, but it does happen.
  • Vary sentence structure if necessary. The same noun/verb construct is boring if used repeatedly.

6: Take it apart

After your first major edit, edit each paragraph or section separately. How you approach this step is up to you, but the trick is to read the paragraphs or sections out of order. Each paragraph or section should stand on its own. Then, review them as a whole again for the following:

  • Vary paragraph length. Long paragraphs are acceptable, but avoid one-sentence paragraphs.
  • Move paragraphs and even individual sentences to support the flow of logic, if necessary.

7: Return to the outline

If you're an outliner, compare the edited version to your original outline. They don't have to match. In fact, they often won't. Not everything in your outline has to be in the finished piece, and the finished piece might have items you didn't include in the outline. However, this is a good time to make sure you didn't accidentally omit an important item. What matters is that everything that needs to be in the finished piece, is.

8: Read it aloud

Read the piece aloud. This tip sounds like overkill, but it works. Reading the article aloud puts energy behind the organization and the words. There's a cadence to every piece, and reading it aloud is the only way to make sure the words flow soundly through the entire piece. When you stumble over a word or phrase, simply rewrite it. Repeat this step as many times as necessary.

9: Remove emphasis, unless you really mean it

While writing, it's easy to add emphasis to your words. For instance, you might add italics to words or phrases and use exclamation points to end sentences. A little emphasis is often necessary, but don't overuse it. If you have more than a few italicized words in the same piece, you probably have too many. Exclamation points are appropriate, but only if you really mean them.

10: Run a spell check

Make use of technology and run a spelling and grammar check. You can use these features more than once. In fact, you might start out with one and end with one. That way, you can check your changes. But don't depend on these features because they don't catch everything.

11: Know yourself

Pay attention to the mistakes you make repeatedly. For instance, you might overuse certain phrases or words or you might have trouble with verb tense or punctuation. Knowing your weaknesses will make it easier to correct your work thoroughly.

12: Know your goal

Every piece has a goal or point. Write a sentence or short synopsis of the piece before you begin. After editing your work, make sure it truly honors your point. Every sentence and every paragraph should support the overall thesis. If they don't, delete or rewrite them.

13: Edit other people's work

If possible, volunteer to help others edit their writing. The practice will pay off: By helping others, you'll improve your skills as a writer and an editor.


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About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

18 comments
whiteshark21
whiteshark21

Great article, I always keep myself looking for new tips and ways on how to improve my writing and one of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

lousephyr
lousephyr

goog article thanks; will pass this onto my teen son;whom aspires to be next j.k rowling or j.r.r tolkien,

lastchip
lastchip

Very many years ago, when I was at school (yes, I was; honest), by far my worst subjects were English, spelling and grammar. Over the years and as I've written more and more, I think I may have improved a little, but still retain the stigma of teachers writing on my efforts: "could do better". It's strange how even though all those years have past, I still have this millstone around my neck claiming I can't write or spell. New teachers take note: you may be responsible for instilling failure into your pupils, without realising it. Of course, the advent of computer word processors and the "spell check" has transformed the speed at which I can write. Whereas, I used to find myself checking almost every other word in a dictionary, spell check takes away most of that chore for me. But I still need to have an understanding of which variations to use, if I'm not to be ridiculed: which or witch for example! In recent years, I've written content for my local LUG, some of which has had many thousands of hits. It is always on my mind, can what I've written be understood by a novice? I believe, your article will allow me to take this to the next level, so thank you.

gene.saker
gene.saker

Simple, concise, useful, professional, educational and greatly appreciated.

TheComputerator
TheComputerator

It is very hard for good readers to proofread/edit anyone's work much less their own. I've written and edited several organizational newspapers over the years and found a 3-sweep editing approach to work well. Sweep 1, read through forward for basic organization of the piece -- does it flow, does one thought follow logically from the next, etc. Sweep 2, read backwards for spelling. Sweep 3, read through forward again for syntax, punctuation and comprehension. Fast readers don't read individual words which is why it is so hard for good readers to edit. I found that even reading the piece backwards required that I use a pencil to touch each word to make sure I actually looked at it.

gjdaly
gjdaly

Good stuff... however tip 5 in doc says... "See if your subjects and verb agrees." LMAO

Vandy-SJ
Vandy-SJ

Great article! Good advise. Applies to all writing, from e-mail and project documents to novels. Thanks!

cerolog
cerolog

Thanks for your article. The tips I found most helpful were the one where you point out we tend to use certain phrases often. That's very accurate indeed! LOL Also reading sentences to see if you made your point. Often I write something thinking I conveyed something, only to realize later that the sentence doesn't make much sense by itself. I left out a bunch of things that were flashing through my mind while writing the sentence! And no, readers do not have mind reading powers to know what I was thinking when I wrote the article. What I don't have the time to do sometimes is leaving editing for later, but good tip anyway, when I do have the time, I'll try it out.

lousephyr
lousephyr

appears i need to read article again; not sure what goog means; but presume i meant good

ssharkins
ssharkins

I appreciate your thoughts and I'm glad you found the article useful. You might think that I adhere to strict rules and guidelines. I don't -- well, I try to apply each publication's particular guidelines and styles -- but beyond that, I'm more concerned with communication than I am rules. When I see readers admonish someone for a misspelled or inappropriate word, or a grammar mistake, it kind of hurts. Yes, the rules are important, but if the writer communicates his or her idea, does the mistake matter? To me, it doesn't. What you write is important to you and to your readers. Although, I admire your effort to produce the best work you can, I hope you can relax a bit too. Those who expect perfection have a problem you can't resolve. :)

ronaldwwoods
ronaldwwoods

A very good way to check for spelling errors is to read your work backwards. Yes, backwards. Reading the work backwards forces you to look at each word individually without context.

Falconeer
Falconeer

In you reply you stated that the author wrote, "See if your subjects and verb agrees." -- However, I read it as, "See if your subjects and verbs agree." Now, I often read corrections into someones slightly 'marred' sentence - but I seem never to be able to do it for myself. So, on many occasions I get to LMAO & ROTF at my own mistakes...

pdr5407
pdr5407

These steps are helpful for me because I do keep several weekly journals and blogs. I want to further develop my writing skills and could volunteer to correct errors in other's documents, like the article mentions.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Thank you for the kind words. It's great to know when you're reaching people.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Thank you for your kind response to the article. I'm glad you found it helpful. My most particular demon is redundancy -- but not in the more common way -- for instance, "revert back" is a redundant phrase. My problem is repeating the same thought in different ways, without meaning to.

ssharkins
ssharkins

If I had a nickel for every time I've missed a typo... :) BTW, I hope your son finds the article useful. Editing fiction is a completely different ballgame, but presenting a clean manuscript is an important part of the process. Writing for children is probably the most competitive genre. I suggest he join Society of Childrens Writers and Illustrators. At least, check out their web site and join one of their regional lists. Good luck to him!

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