Self-editing – how to edit your own writing

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In this blog, I share my process for editing my own work, which could help you hone your writing, save you and your charity colleagues time, and make you a better writer in the process. 

It can be hard to step away from your own writing, particularly if you’ve spent a lot of time on your first draft. But sometimes, you’re well aware that your writing needs some polishing before you hand it over to your manager. And there’s not always someone available who can spot the problems.

Editing your own writing, or self-editing is pretty common in charities. While writing is a part of many charity workers’ jobs, not every charity can afford to have an in-house copywriter or editor to help hone this writing. 

As a freelancer, I’m pretty much always working on my own. So I’ve had to learn how to edit the work I do for clients as well as write it. Self-editing is a skill that anyone can learn. It can save you and your colleagues time – and make you a better writer in the process. 

A quick disclaimer – this is just the way that I do it, not the only way to do it. Adapt this guide for yourself to find a method that works for you.

The principles

I try and stick to three key principles when editing my own writing. 

1. The first draft is the worst it will ever be. 

That’s why we edit. So, as you’re writing that first draft, accept that it will be rubbish and get through it as quickly as possible. Take the pressure off yourself to get it right the first time. 

As you’re editing, accept that there will be a lot of work to do – no one’s first draft is perfect. Editing shouldn’t be seen as a chore, it’s an opportunity to make your writing the best it can be.

2. Separate the editing from the writing. 

Separate in your mind the process of writing and the process of editing. When editing, you identifying the work needed to improve the writing. During the writing, you’re carrying out that work.  

I used to combine the two and that’s a mistake. I would write something, and spot mistakes as I go then try to correct them at the same time. It’s a hugely inefficient process, as you’re focusing neither on the writing or the editing. This could mean you’ll miss something, or it’ll take twice as long.

My favourite way to separate editing from writing is with time. I’ll typically write the first draft, save it, then leave it until the next day to edit. I’ll go through it, pick out all the problems (with comments), and then leave it again. Then I’ll come back to it – later that day or even the next if I can – and re-write it to correct all those problems. I might even do two rounds of that editing process. 

There are plenty of other ways you could separate the editing and the writing. Some people like to print out their work and correct it with a red pen. Others like to edit in a different location, such as a different desk, a different room, outside, or a coffee shop. If you like to work to music, maybe you could have a writing playlist and an editing playlist. Whatever helps you get into a different mindset.  

3. Make the process systematic

Another mistake is trying to edit everything, in every way, all at once. I’d go through looking for spelling mistakes at the same time as trying to work out whether it flows right. I’d try to cut it down in one place while expanding on details in other places. Again, it’s hugely inefficient. Your attention is spread thin between lots of different aspects of your writing at once.

I try to work much more systematically now – just focussing on one thing at a time. In this blog, I’ll explain my thought processes in more detail, but the general idea is to start with the big difficult things first, and then end with the smaller details. 

But a few assumptions first, before then:

  • This general process can be applied to any form of writing. However, not everything here will be necessary. For example, if you’re writing a lay summary, you might not have much of a ‘narrative’ to consider. Just pick and adapt what is relevant to whatever you’re working on.
  • You have already decided on the format. For example, you don’t want to get as far as editing your blog to realise that your listicle should really be an interview.
  • What you’ve written is factually correct – having said that, ‘fact-checking’ could be part of the editing process if you wish. But I won’t be covering it here. 

Ok, here’s my thought process when I’m editing my own work. 

Big picture stuff

a person on top of a hill looking at scenery
  • Purpose. Remind yourself why this needs to be written. Consider the whole piece – does it meet that purpose? 
  • Audience. Remind yourself of the audience – is it what they need? Is it ‘pitched’ at the right level?
  • Is it complete? Does it have everything it needs? Is there anything missing, or too brief? (I sometimes make a note to come back and write something, only to completely forget to do so – just double check everything’s there!).  
  • Structure. Whether or not you wrote an ‘outline’ or any headings before you started, think about the different sections of the piece. Are these sections in the order that makes the most sense? (Tip: I write under little headings, whether I intend to keep the headings in the finished piece or not – it helps me to keep each section or paragraph focused.)
  • Flow. Do the sections naturally lead from one to the next? Are there any jumps that feel jarring or just don’t make any sense? Does it feel like it lags in some places? Or maybe moves too fast in others?
  • Story arc. If there’s a narrative arc in your piece, does it make sense? Does it come through clearly? Does it feel like there’s a ‘journey’ in your story? (For example, if you’ve introduced a ‘character’ early on, how is their story threaded through the whole piece?).
  • Theme. Forget the topic of the story (e.g. drug resistance, or mental illness, or whatever) – what the story is really about? If your piece has a theme, does it come through in the reading? 
  • Tone. Does it feel like it sets the right tone? If it’s written as an opinion piece, does it feel like that? Is it positive, uplifting, negative, depressing, alarmist, patronising, excited, conversational, enthusiastic, paternalistic, naggy…? Some of this might be down to the language, but equally it could be about the angle. (Also consider your charity’s house style, and any ‘brand personality’ that you want to get across.) 

Cutting down

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably need to cut down your writing. 

Again, for me, it’s about working from big to small. If you’re trying to cut out hundreds of words, you won’t achieve that by nibbling at the edges, taking individual words out of sentences. 

Think about the purpose of the piece, why you’ve written it, what you want your audience to take away from it.  

Then look at the sections – are there any that feel unnecessary? Or that repeat an earlier point and don’t add anything? If so, take them out. 

Then move onto paragraphs, and do the same. Then finally sentences (and even individual words, if you want to get really detailed).

The motto here is ‘kill your darlings’ – be ruthless about what is needed and what isn’t. Don’t get sentimental about passages that you’re proud of. (Another reason why it helps to separate the writing and editing as much as possible). 

If you really find this difficult, use ‘tracked changes’ in your word processor, or cut and paste to a separate document – just in case you need them later (you probably won’t).  

Key sections

There are two particular sections I pay special attention to – the beginning and the end. 

Beginning: Think about the opening. The very first sentence(s) will grab the attention of the reader and make them want to read on. Do your first sentences feel like this? 

And moving beyond the opening lines, are people getting a sense early on of what the piece is really about? Or does it take a long time to get to the point? 

Ending: It is important to get it right. You don’t want your readers to be left with a bad or disappointing taste in their mouths. Does your ending bring everything together and wrap up loose ends? Has it got a strong point? Does it send a powerful message, or point out the next step? (That can be reinforced with a more explicit Call-To-Action in a concluding outro.)

Zooming in 

microscope

As we go on, we get more detailed. There are new things to look for, and as well as revisiting aspects we thought about earlier.  

  • Flow. How does each paragraph fit together? Does the next paragraph start where the previous one left off? (Tip: use similar words in the first sentence of the new paragraph that mirror the last sentence of the previous para). 
  • Does it make sense? Kind of obvious, but particularly important for explanations of science and other complicated things: does your explanation actually help? (Tip: Get someone else to read it and ask them to explain it back to you.) 
  • Clunky sentences. Do any of the sentences feel clunky, overly long, too complicated? The old adage of ‘one sentence, one idea’ is useful here. Also look out for whether a setence is passive or active – re-writing them can help. 
  • Stats. Too many figures and numbers in quick succession slows reading. It can make it more difficult to get your point across. Read aloud, and work out what needs to be kept to make argument. Get rid of anything that can be removed. 
  • Clichés. At the end of the day, reading phrases which have already been done to death is like watching paint dry. Try and avoid clichés as much as you can, unless there’s a good reason for it.

Details

Now once all the big stuff is out of the way, we can focus on the details. 

You can make things simpler by reading out aloud. Either do this yourself, get someone else to, or get your computer to dictate it for you. For example, in Microsoft Word, the Read Aloud function can be turned on and off with Ctrl + Alt + Space

A few things to look out for:

  • Spelling. (don’t depend only on spell-check)
  • Grammar and punctuation. (ditto).  
  • Repeated words – sometimes you’ll find you’re using the same word over and over again. Sometimes you’ll find the the same word twice next to each other by mistake. 
  • Simpler words – e.g. ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’. 
  • Unnecessary adverbs – e.g. ‘completely unique’ when ‘unique’ would do. 
  • Get rid of jargon – words like ‘stakeholders’, phrases like ‘as per our guidelines’, or terms like ‘disincentivise’ – just get rid of unnecessarily complicated language.
  • Style – your charity might have a house-style, including certain words or terms you use (or don’t use) – make sure these match up. 

What tips do you have for editing your own work? What do you look for in other people’s writing? Get in touch, either by email, tweet me @DrRichardBerks or follow me on LinkedIn.

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