Five Essential Self-editing Tips for People Who Don’t Like Self-editing

Like it or not, most of us have to spend at least part of our workday writing. You may be carefully crafting a new page for your website or just dashing off a few emails over morning coffee.

If whatever it is you’re writing is important — and you don’t have the luxury of a copyeditor watching your back — then you have to spend some time self-editing.

“But I’m not an editor,” I can hear you whine. “I hated English in high school, and I majored in engineering in college,” you mutter as the sweat begins dripping down your brow. “If it involves anything more than running Spellcheck, I don’t think I can take it!” you scream.

It’s okay. Relax. You may never be a professional-level editor, but you can at least do a pretty good job. Start by following these five tips. And while you’re at it, always take a few minutes to read your writing aloud. That step alone will help you catch the most embarrassing errors.

1) The sentence that wouldn’t end.

You might not be aware of your transgression as you’re in the middle of it. But when you finally hit the period key and take a look at the serpentine sentence you just birthed, it should be perfectly clear: You’ve created a horrific run-on sentence. Now it’s your duty to slay the beast. Try trimming a few words or, better yet, break it into two or three shorter sentences.

2) I repeat: Don’t repeat that verb.

Anyone who’s done some business writing has probably struggled with this one: verb repetition. It’s so easy to fall back on versatile (yet bland) verbs like offer, provide and deliver. Repeating these or other verbs in paragraph after paragraph looks lazy and can even distract the reader.

TIP: Use Microsoft Word’s “Find and Replace” feature. Hit CTRL-F to access this function, type in the verb, click “Highlight all items found in” and click Find All. All instances of the word you specify will be highlighted. If the verb pops up too often, try substituting some synonyms.

3) You’re bare is hear. I mean, your bear is here.

Way back in junior high, I learned about “homophones.” (Given my 13-year-old tastes in humor, I’m guessing I found this word hilarious.) These pesky creatures are words that sound alike but have different spellings and/or meanings. Aisle, I’ll, isle. There, they’re, their. Two, to, too. You get the idea. Now don’t get stuck using kernel when referring to a colonel.

4) When words go missing.

That shiny new sales sheet you just printed for your company’s shiny new thingamajig looks great, but it’s fatally flawed. Why? You left out the word “it” in that subhead halfway down the left column. And now every time you see that damn sales sheet, the phantom “it” cries out to you, “How could you have forgotten me? Didn’t you understand how important I was to that subhead?” You would have caught “it” if you had only read your copy aloud.

TIP: If you ever hear “it” or any other word speaking to you, please consult a good psychiatrist.

5) Unparallel lines.

This is kind of a nitpick, but what the heck. Let’s say you have a list of bullet points. Each one should take the same form. For instance, start each bullet with an active verb (operate), a past-tense verb (operated) or a gerund (operating), but don’t mix the three. And either use a period at the end of each bullet or don’t. My rule of thumb: If the bullet makes a complete sentence, include a period. If not, skip the period.

What self-editing tips would you add to the list? Let us know.

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4 replies
  1. Lucy_njr says:

    I would add, if you think something should be capitalized, think again. I see some of the weirdest words capitalized sometimes, like Football or House (and not refering to the TV series).

    • Dan O'Sullivan says:

      Yes, a pet peeve of mine: the random nouns that are capitalized! (Is it for added emphasis? I’m not sure why.)

  2. Dave Atkins says:

    Here are a couple of very production-oriented tips:
    1) to be absolutely rigorous in a manual spell check and to possibly catch the weird correct spelling, wrong word issues, read backwards. Check from right to left so you do not race ahead in your reading. If you are like me, you just can’t edit because you read so fast you are always skipping words and filling in what was supposed be there. I am not an editor. :)2) when you have hardcopy or just some massive dense mess that you need to compare to a previous version, print it out, lay new page on top of old, then  a) hold up to the light to view where the differences are or, if the paper is too thick, b) flip the pages back and forth. What is different will be darker or will move as you flip the two pages of before and after copy. This is fun if you have a print ad that you think somebody changed but you just can’t find the change.

    • Dan O'Sullivan says:

      Good tips, Dave. Spellcheck is a double edged sword — I think people get too reliant on it. I’m also a fan of reviewing hard copies, though I haven’t tried the ‘holding up to the light’ trick. I’ll add that to my arsenal!

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