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.
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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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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.