Updated: Sep 26, 2020
A good self-edit can make a huge difference in your writing, but only if you know how to do it well. Even if you’re planning to use a professional editor or Beta Readers (which I highly recommend), self-editing beforehand can save your editor/readers a lot of frustration and make the process way less work for you in the long run.
I actually do editing work on the side occasionally, so I’m well-practiced in editing others’ writing. But editing my own can be so much more challenging! Good editing requires objectivity and the ability to see both the details and the big picture, which can be hard to achieve when you’re also the writer. I have found some things that help me, though, so I’m sharing them in the hopes they may help you as well.
7 tips to help you self-edit your work:
1. The Hemingway app
Ernest Hemingway was known for his ability to write concisely but powerfully, and the Hemingway app is designed to help you do the same. It’s an amazing, FREE online program that is so easy to use. It’s my go-to first step in the self-editing process. You just go to http://hemingwayapp.com and copy/paste your writing into the box they provide. Their program automatically analyzes your writing and color-codes it based on readability. It flags passive voice, wordiness, and anything confusing. It even lets you know if you’ve used too many adverbs. You can correct your writing onscreen, and it updates the analytics as you do so. When you’re done, simply copy/paste your edited version back out and save it in whatever writing program you use.
I tend to be wordy in my first draft, and I cannot express how helpful this simple app has been in improving my rambling first-draft sentences. It is not intended to help with conceptual or big-picture things (like logic, story structure, etc.), but it is amazing for line editing and streamlining your sentences and I highly recommend it. There is also a paid version, which installs on your computer and allows you to work offline.
2. Read Aloud
This one is awkward but effective. Find a quiet place, and simply read your writing out loud to yourself. You might be surprised how many errors, clumsy sentences, repetitive phrases, etc., you catch simply by hearing it out loud. Our brains tend to autocorrect when we read silently, interpreting the intended message even if it’s not exactly what’s on the page. The act of physically reading it aloud engages a different portion of your brain, and your mouth will stumble over (or your ear will catch) problems that your eyes simply overlooked.
3. Give It Time
I understand that this one may not always be possible, but I always recommend this if it’s an option: set what you’ve written aside for a few days and “let it get cold.” Just put it in a drawer, close the file, whatever, and don’t reopen it for a week or two. In the meantime, write something else or read to allow your brain to shift its focus. This cooling-off period allows your brain time to shift out of the mental state you were in when you were writing, and when you come back, you might be surprised at how many things you notice in your writing now that you’re seeing it with fresh eyes. The other things you’ve read or written during that waiting period may also spawn new ideas or an enhanced clarity, allowing you to see your writing from a different perspective.
4. Chunk It and Mix It
Forgive the strange label on this one, but I wanted something memorable. The basic idea here is to break your writing up into smaller chunks (no more than a couple paragraphs each), and then mix them all around so that you’re reading them out of order. You can do this by copy/pasting into a new file, or go old-school with a printed draft and scissors.
The benefit of this slightly-bizzare method is that your brain will be forced to read each chunk as it actually is on the page, outside of its context. Seeing it this way helps you remove any imagined contextual information that you think is there but isn’t, and simply see what’s actually written down, the way the readers will see it. It will help you spot contradictory descriptions, and also help with catching grammar issues you may have glossed over before. This method isn’t great for addressing flow or story structure, of course, since you’re seeing the story (or essay, etc.) all out of order. But it can help identify smaller-scale issues. You may even find that whole sections are unnecessary or irrelevant or repetitive, and decide to cut them, which can improve the piece as a whole. (Just don’t forget to put it back in order when you’re done!)
5. Reader Notes
This one requires playing a little mind-game with yourself, but it can be well worth it. For this step, you must remove the ability to edit as you read so that you can get into the mindset of experiencing the story exactly as your readers will. The easiest way to do this is to save your writing as a PDF, and then open it in a program that only allows you to read (no editing capability). You can also send the file to your Kindle or e-reader device, if you have one, and do it that way, or print the entire thing out and read it as a hard-copy.
As you read, take notes (on the screen if possible, or on a separate paper), but ONLY notes a reader would make. Things like, “Who is this character? I don’t remember seeing him before,” or “Why would she say this? It doesn’t make sense.” The key is to imagine that you have only the information your reader has while reading. As writers, we sometimes believe we’ve communicated something clearly — because we understand the story or characters or explanations so well — when in reality that information never actually appears on the page. Reading your story purely as a reader can help you catch any holes in your narrative and anything that might confuse or distract your reader.
It can be challenging not to let your writer-mind interfere and supply additional information, but that’s why putting in a read-only format helps… it creates the environment you’re used to being in as a reader, putting your mind in a better state to perceive how readers will actually experience your story.
6. Listen to Someone Else Read It
So, this is a self-editing step that requires some assistance, but it can be really helpful. Lie down or sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and let someone else read your writing out loud to you. (You might want to have a notebook nearby to jot down notes.) Hearing your writing in someone else’s voice gives it a fresh spin that can help you catch things you may not have before, plus you’ll be able to hear what inflections your writing urges the reader to use, words or phrases the reader stumbles over, what words they emphasize or seem to focus on, etc. It can be an incredible tool for highlighting what works and doesn’t work in your writing. (Plus you can ask them afterward what they thought or if anything confused them, and add their feedback to your data.)
7. Pre-and-Post Outlining
This one is like creating your own checks-and-balances system for your writing. First, create a brief bullet-point outline of what is in your writing. If it’s a story, write out the beats or the plot points of your basic story structure. If it’s an essay, etc., write an outline of your main arguments and supporting points. Or you can use your original outline, if you made one before writing and pretty much stuck to it through the writing process. The important thing is to have an outline that matches what you think your writing contains. Then, set that outline aside and grab your actual draft. Read through one paragraph at a time, and beside each paragraph (the “Comments” feature in Word is great for this!), write a one-line description of what that paragraph contains. Do this for every paragraph in your document.
When you’re done, take all those one-line descriptions and copy them over into a new outline for your writing. Compare your new outline to your original outline. Does your writing actually say what you meant it to? Are there tangents or additional sections that distract from or muddy your focus? Are there pieces missing that you intended to include? Use this info to cut or add sections as needed. In some cases, what ended up in your draft is actually better than the original outline. If that’s the case, take this information and create a new-and-improved outline that includes your new version of the piece, and then do the process again, to be sure it really does achieve those goals. Repeat the process until your writing matches the outline of what you intended it to be.
I know that some of these suggestions are simple, and some may seem strange, but hopefully they help you through the self-editing process so you can achieve your best writing.
Have you tried any of these suggestions?
Which of these do you find helpful?
Get my FREE downloadable checklist of these Self-Editing tips in PDF here: https://crawfordwriting.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/how-to-self-edit-checklist
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