How to self-edit (properly) in 5 steps

Revising materials, highlighters, pen, sticky notes, correction fluid

Oh, what? An editor saying you can self-edit? Don’t get too excited. You can do it, and you should do it, but you should not be the last person to do it. That said, there are some pretty standard steps involved when reviewing your work before you send it out into the world (or even to an editor!).

Here’s how to self-edit successfully:

1. Take a breather

First things first: Just stop. Put down the pen, remove your fingers from the keyboard, put that document away. You’ll be amazed how much work your subconscious will do if you give it a little time.

Taking a break from your work gives you perspective. When you’re so close to your subject, how can you see it from your reader’s point of view? This is one of the things your editor will do, so give yourself an edge and get more out of your first round of editing by challenging yourself to see your work with fresh eyes.

Whether you stop for an hour or a day, you’ll come back with a clearer vision for the piece and fewer words cluttering your mind.

2. Read out loud

If I had a dollar for every time I caught a typo in my own writing from doing this, I’d vacation a lot more often. Being as there’s not normally a positive monetary return on casual, avoidable writing mistakes, it’s a good idea to give yourself a solid chance to catch them before someone else does. An easy way to do this is to slow down and read out loud.

Aaaaaawkward… right?

I don’t know many writers who enjoy reading their own work out loud, but that doesn’t stop me from telling my authors to do it. A little discomfort now will improve your delivery. Plus, your most flagrant errors will pop out at you for immediate fixing.

3. Measure your sentences

Here’s a fun one. Have you ever noticed how long your sentences are? Or how short? What does it do to your reading cadence when you come across patterns in sentence length?

Believe it or not, how long your sentences are (and therefore how complex they are) really impacts how much of your message gets through. You can affect one kind of mood through short, staccato sentences and another by those that are grandiose and filled with interesting verbiage. What you need to be mindful of is the reading comprehension level of your target audience and the feeling you want to get across.

There are tools to help you manage this, though, don’t worry. The Flesch reading ease scale gives insight into how your words are absorbed by your reader. It relates directly to reading level, and addresses elements like sentence length, punctuation complexity, transition words, and other elements of language that impact our ability to absorb information as we read.

You want to aim for a 70 on the Flesch reading ease scale to hit the widest audience.

Of course, you might be writing something more academic and can ride that scale all the way down to zero. In any event, take a quick measure of your sentences and see if they’re working for or against your message.

4. Keep notes

If you’re not keeping notes, you ought to be. From research to insights, these notes become your road (or mind) map for the entire project… or at least a compilation of things that don’t work. And this is valuable, too, since many of these ideas can be reused on other projects or help you notice a pattern in how you think or subjects you lean towards.

A lot of writers journal or keep a notebook on hand to record inspirations and observations. You can handily reference this as you write so you stay focused and on topic, and compare your notes to the finished product to make sure you didn’t miss a major point.

Additionally, if you’re cutting material, you can put it into your notes instead of losing it completely. This is easier to do on a computer than on paper, but I have been known to cut and tape my writing together as I shuffle things around physically. You will find a system that works for you!

For bonus points, give yourself a dedicated review day each year to go through all your notes for inspiration. You may find a new article or book lurking in there!

5. Have fun with it

Seriously, though, editing should be fun. Coming from an editor, this might not have as much impact as it should. But I’ll tell ya, it’s way more fun pulling out your highlighters, the dreaded RED PEN, and sticky notes and getting creative while you review. It’s the one thing I miss from the 90s—for revisions, anyway. Thankfully, computers have highlighting options too.

Using different colours for different insights is especially useful, since you can pick up patterns at a glance. Notice a super long sentence? And another? Pick a colour, any colour, and step right up to the revision board. Do you need to add in some research? Mark that with a sticky note.

If you can make this ‘chore’ into a fun exercise, you won’t dread it as much. Maybe you’ll even start looking forward to editing. Maybe that’s an editor’s pipe dream.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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