Five Easy Steps for Editing Your Own Work

In a perfect world, you’d never have to edit your own work, but well, you know the drill. The world’s not perfect, life’s not fair, yada yada. So spend a little time now or a lot of time later trying to convince your boss to let you keep your job as a “pubic relations director.”

Step One: Just walk away, Renée (or Kevin or Amy).

We all know that when we’re too close to things, we don’t see them clearly. This can be good for relationships, but hazardous for the editing process.

See, you know what you meant to write, so your eyes just fill in the blanks, overlook typos, etc. That’s why you need to get a little distance. So after you write a first draft, go get a cup of coffee or take a walk to clear your head.

Step Two: Imagine you’re not you.

Instead, imagine you’re the intended audience reading your document for the first time. The big questions you want to answer here are:

  • Does it make sense? Would the reader understand what you’re trying to say?
  • Does it hold your interest from start to finish?
  • Does it include all the information you need (e.g. important numbers, URL, event location)?

Step Three: Is your writing PHAT or FAT?

I don’t mean to give your writing body image issues, but if it’s not lean and mean, you’ve got some work to do. Here are three ways to lose the fat:

  • Trim long sentences: If any are longer than 25 words or so, consider turning them into two sentences or removing any unnecessary words.
  • Slim down the words: Replace long words and phrases with short ones. In other words, why say “ascertain the location of” when you can just say “find”?
  • Remember that black flatters figures, but white flatters writing. Nothing is more daunting to a reader than a dense block of text. Add some breathing room with white space between paragraphs, bold subheads and (where appropriate) bullet points.

Step Four: Listen to your high school English teacher – except when it’s best to tune her out.

Marketing writing is not the same as writing for your old English teacher. For example, you can in fact start a sentence with “and” or “but.” But only if it adds clarity and impact. That said, she was right about a lot of things. Here are a few major points we can all agree on:

  • Good writing is error-free. This means perfect spelling and no typos. So check for the correct use of homonyms like to/too/two, and confirm you’ve spelled all names correctly.
  • Good writing avoids the energy-draining passive voice. Write Bob threw the ball. Not The ball was thrown by Bob.
  • Good writing is formatted correctly. Check your margins, use of spacing and consistency in style of headings – font, bold or not bold, capitalization, etc.

Step Five: Now clean it up and read it again. Out loud.

After you’ve made your revisions, print your document (don’t edit onscreen!) and read it again. If you’re in a crowded office, whisper instead, but don’t skip this step. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll catch.

Yay, I’m done! Does that mean it’s perfect?

Don’t feel bad, but probably not. Editing is a real skill that can take years to perfect. But if you follow these recommendations, you’ll greatly improve whatever you write. Plus, you’ll have done your best, which is all anyone can really ask. (How’s that for a feel-good conclusion?)

Have any editing tips of your own? Let us know.

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2 replies
  1. Ruth Dean says:

    Another editing tip:
    Keep a list of your own typical errors, and make a separate check for each of them. Typo errors may include writing you for your and then for than. (I know which is which, but my fingers don’t always encode these words correctly as I type.) I also watch for monotonous sentence patterns – all about the same length, or the same structure. And can I chop unnecessary words, especially very?

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