10 Things You Can Do Now To Self-Edit Your Writing
Editing your own writing is a tricky thing.
Believe me, I’m often frustrated to write and read through something important, only to send it off to someone else and spot a pesky error! Even the most accomplished writers (especially the most accomplished writers) draft and redraft their work multiple times before they have a polished result.
So if you’re not sure of an effective approach to editing your writing, you might like to try some of these tips to get you going again!
Mix it Up: change the font and/or size of your writing.
This might sound odd, but it can be really easy to trick your brain. Think of all those optical illusions, or the one about chewing gum as your revise, which will supposedly jog your memory during the exam.
The idea behind changing the size or font of your text is to trick your brain into thinking it’s reading something new. Too often, we read over our own work and our brain skims over or misses mistakes, because it’s filling in the gaps automatically! So adjust your font for a while and see if you spot something new.
Engage in Aural: read it aloud.
This tip is a classic that needs little explanation; as you read your work out loud, it forces your brain to slow down and take in the individual words. It also involves more of your senses, meaning that you’re much more likely to spot any errors. You’ll hear them, too!
Let it Be: leave it for a little while.
Now, this one relies on the fact that you’ve not procrastinated until the night before a deadline, which you would never do… would you?
It might be a useless tip if that’s the case, but if you’re able to leave your writing for a while and come back to it a few days later - even better, a week or two or more! - then you can tackle the next read-through with a fresh pair of eyes.
So, be like the Beatles! Let it be!
That’s Some Fiiine Print: get yourself a paper copy.
Staring at a screen for long periods of time is not only damaging to your eye-sight, but it can hinder your ability to read intensively. This is especially true of your own work!
If you’re able to print out a hard copy of your work (without single-handedly killing the rainforest), you’ll be able to make marks and notes on it, highlight away, and visually see those bits that don’t sit right on the page and need formatting.
Plus, you’ll have the added bonus of re-reading it all again when you transfer those changes to your word processor version! The more you review it, the better!
Just make sure to recycle afterwards, alright?
Brave the Chop: banish unnecessary words.
You don’t need to be ‘wordy’ to get your point across - in fact, most of the time it’s the opposite! There are some words we use all the time in speech that often sneak into our writing without us realising it. These can be words like very, a lot, really, so, well. Do they really add anything to your work? Adverbs can be superfluous, too!
I’m Sorry, What?: how readable is your writing?
Have you ever read a sentence, got to the end, and realised that it went in one ear and out the other? Of course you have! Maybe it’s because your attention is waning, but it’s also quite likely that the text itself has some issues.
There are ways to measure a text’s readability; if I were to use multiple 3-or-more-syllable words within one sentence, it would become more difficult for the brain to sustain focus. There are whole studies that have been conducted on the ease or difficulty of reading, the first and most well-known being the Flesch–Kincaid readability test; essentially, you take your average sentence length and average syllable count and input them into the formula to find your score. The higher the score, the ‘easier’ it is to read, from 0 - 100.
Certain styles of writing are expected to have a certain readability score. For example, the children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham, has mostly mono-syllabic words, meaning that it’s ease of reading score is incredibly high. Someone reading and writing at university or collegiate level can expect a readability score of 30 - 50.
So maybe you could input your work (or a section of it) into a readability test and see where it sits; make it fair for your reader by aiming it at the appropriate level! You may need to take out some of that wordiness (i.e, too many polysyllabic words in a single sentence or paragraph).
Variety is the Spice of Writing: vary your sentence length.
This one is important for all types of writing, whether it be academic or fictional - even this blog post needs variation! When we use only one type of sentence, our writing suffers. Let’s fix that.
This could mean a lot of things in practice. You could take a given section - or paragraph - and count words. However, this would be very time consuming. One of my favourite practical examples of variety in writing is Gary Provost’s explanation of sentence lengths.
Perhaps you can highlight sentence lengths in different colours to make sure you have variety; if your text ends up looking like a single paint can tipped over on it (rather than the rainbow) then perhaps you need to adjust.
Overall, what you need is to keep the reader engaged. Make it easier for them to keep up! You may find your hefty paragraphs of long sentences are leaving them behind.
Teacher’s Pet: check the requirements.
This has been one of my favourites since I worked as a secondary school teacher myself; there were so many times that I agonised over class work, desperately wanting to give marks, but the student hadn’t quite hit the criteria. Despite it being a shocking reality of the education system, the truth is that when we’re submitting a piece of writing (for grades, for publication, etc), the person on the other end needs you to jump through hoops.
Sad, but true.
Do yourself and them a favour: look up the guidelines, requirements, or mark scheme associated with that piece of writing and make sure you are exceptionally clear where you are hitting those criteria. These can often be found on university intranet sites for modules, or you can directly ask your teachers/professors. If you’re submitting to a publisher or blog, it’s likely they have guidelines on their website that outline what they’re looking for.
If you’re not hitting the criteria, you might need to amend some sections of your work. I was once docked marks at university level because my essay may have included analysis of three ideas, but I didn’t explicitly state, ‘this is Idea One. This is Idea Two, etc.’ … Really!
Time After Time: edit in rounds.
Sometimes, when we edit, we’re looking for too much at once. Sure, you might be spotting grammar mistakes AND inconsistent capitalisation AND formatting problems, but if you try to do everything at once, you may well miss important things.
This is why Tip 9 is so essential. If you edit in rounds, you’ll be focussed on one specific aspect of your work, meaning that you won’t be distracted by everything else. Some suggestions for each round or redraft might be:
- Overall or chapter structure
- Consistency of tenses
- Using active rather than passive voice
This isn’t an exhaustive list; perhaps I’ll make another blog post soon and break down this idea more. In the meantime, you might be able to think of more yourself, or ask someone else to suggest some areas you need to focus on. This leads me nicely into our final point.
It Takes Two (or More): get a second pair of eyes.
It’s no secret that feedback from an outsider is often the best way to improve your writing. This might be someone in your area of study, a supervisor or teacher (where they’re allowed), or a family member or friend.
Sometimes it helps to have someone who knows the subject well, and other times it’s the opposite! I know nothing about conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa, but that fact meant that I was less focused on whether the ideas were correct, but rather on whether the sentences or punctuation made sense. If I, a complete novice, could follow it, then we were on to something good.
Of course, your second or third pair of eyes might be a professional copyeditor or proofreader. If that’s the case, I sincerely hope you will join me at The Loughborough Pen; we have experience in working with students and academics across a wide range of subject areas, as well as with ESL writers.
Until next time,