Five Easy Steps to Editing Your Own Work

Proofreader

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.
    • Check for the correct use of homonyms like to/too/two, their/they’re/there, etc. Spellcheck doesn’t always make those distinctions.
    • Confirm you’ve spelled all names correctly. This mistake can be particularly embarrassing.
  • 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. You’ll have done your best, which is all anyone can really ask. And yes, I’m happy to tell that to your boss.

Anna Goldsmith is a partner at The Hired Pens, a Boston-based copywriting firm. You can reach her by email or at 617-359-8133.

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Reader Comments (73)

  1. says

    Wow. I’ve been waiting for this post for quite some time now—thank you!

    I often don’t have the opportunity to have someone else proofread my work, so little tricks like these can be really useful. I’ll try your 5 step process out on my blog article tonight to see how well it works.

    Someone once told me to proofread backwards because it makes you look at each word; do you think there is much validity to that? (seems to work just so-so for me)

    Thanks for the post,

    – Mason

  2. says

    Gosh this post has made me feel really inadequate! I am terrible with my typos – I make them all the time and I simply don’t see them! I find that it does really help if I get distance though so what I try to do now is when writing for my blog I try to write a post at least a day in advance and then re-read it the next day.

  3. says

    Thanks. Here’s an attational tip which comes from my from my undergrad days. I was one of those rare people who did better in final exams (essay-type) than in term papers. Here’s why. Regualrly – after every sentence or two sentences at most – I’d reread the question and remind myself: What exactly is the question asking again? It might seem laborious, but it guaranteed that my answers were always 100% on topic.
    (Eventually I twigged that my term papers and other writing could surely benefit from the same treatment.)

  4. says

    For me, walking away and reading aloud have been the difference between good posts and posting garbage. As a rule, I never publish a post the same day I write it. I’m not a great writer and fairly new to blogging, so taking time (even “sleeping on it”) has helped immensely. Thanks for the tips!

  5. says

    Spot-on advice, Anna! Here are a couple tips from my beloved high school English teacher, Mrs. Kelly (who was positively ruthless with the red pen):

    ++ Don’t start sentences with the same word. Mrs. Kelly killed this bad habit of mine by circling every first word that was the same and drawing a line to the bottom of the page. She called them “balloons,” and I had a shameful amount of them. Until I changed my ways.

    ++ Use a mixture of longer and shorter sentences. Very short sentences = drama. One of my favorite authors, Cory Doctorow, uses sentences like: “I weep.”

  6. says

    Very good suggestions! I’d only like to add that using descriptive images (like you did) really adds an xtra Umph to the post.

    Far too often I’ve read posts (on other blogs) where there are images that make me wonder, “Why in the world did they include THIS picture”?

    I also believe it’s important to answer the What? Why? Where? and How? in each post. You did an excellent job of it here.

  7. says

    A wonderful post on a topic that isn’t mentioned enough these days. I read so many blogs every day and marvel at the number that obviously did not read it back even once before hitting the ‘publish’ button; sentences that lose direction and context half way through, typos, terrible grammar and, quite frankly, limp and uninspiring writing.

    The best tip here is also the most obvious. Don’t edit straight away. Take a break and come back to it later. The longer you leave it, the better, I find. I keep a folder on my PC called “drafts” and pop all my scribblings in there. I usually leave each draft for at least a day before revisiting it and am always stunned at how many changes I want to make on something that I was entirely happy with only 24 hours previously.

  8. says

    Anna – thanks for this post! I too find that walking away is one of my best helps. Also, depending on what I’m writing for, I’ll try not the publish on the day of writing – it’s amazing what you pick up the following day!

  9. says

    As a seasoned editor (and now also a blogger!), I totally agree with your points! If there’s one thing I would like to add, it would be that writers should not edit their own work straight after finishing. Our minds tend to block our ability to detect errors in content which we have written just minutes ago.

    If possible, take a coffee break or move on to do something else, before editing your article. I’m sure you’ll see the difference!

  10. Saschaeh says

    To true! It is encouraging to see when you start to edit less. Clear sign that your writing skills are becoming more natural but as your rightly said there will always be some editing.

    Then you get those late nights where your brain is running on the sniff of an oil rag and you know you need to proof read your work! Not even by the power of Greyskull can I do it. In-fact id probably do more damage. lol on those days/nights sleep is the only way I can get to a proper proof read – (if i needs to be sent off on the same night a big warning to the person receiving it 😉 )

    PS: Nice Article Picture 😉

  11. says

    Fantastic article. My favorite self-editing tip is space. A couple of people have mentioned 24 hours, which is good for short pieces, but if it’s anything longer than two pages, I’d give it as much as a week, personally. Sure is inconvenient, but it’s better than getting a comment asking whether the plant was in a pot or the pot was the plant (that really did happen to me the other day) 😉

  12. says

    Thanks for the great article! It reminds me of the basics that I already know but sometimes ignore when in a hurry. I do a lot of proposal editing and am well reminded by this article that the simple path to explanation of complicated things is the better one. Thanks again.

  13. says

    One of the best proofreading tips I’ve ever come across is to read through your writing – but from right to left. You’re not really reading it of course, just scanning your eyes across it. It makes you see the actual words and letters that are there rather than reading the text for meaning. It really helps you to spot glaring mistakes that you just don’t see reading the normal way, from left to right.

  14. says

    A joy to read!

    I write a lot and tend to move too quickly. Thanks for reminding me that spelling and grammar do matter. I needed that.

    Thanks ever so much!

  15. says

    Hi–I just wanted to say thanks for all the great feedback. It’s been really fun to read all of your tips and comments.

    I wanted to chime in on what Zach wrote about actually *listening* to your writing.

    I have screenwriting software called Final Draft and if you dump your word doc into Final Draft you can pick a voice and have it read back to you. It’s amazing how many errors you can catch that way. Plus, it’s just kinda funny to hear your writing read in the voice of an “Old man” or a “Young Girl.”

  16. says

    Oh the pain of finding a typo. I always proof read my blog posts and documents, and I think this is crucial. I’m very particular on spelling and grammar. Yesterday I published a document containing a schedule of training seminars I plan to conduct over the next 2 months. After extensive broadcasting, a friend emailed to say I made an error with 1 of the prices (which increased the actual price by a few thousand). This was quite embarassing and I had to issue a “correction” to avoid frowning customers.

    Earlier this week I also advised a good friend about his spelling and grammar. Almost every single post on his blog has major typing errors. He’s a graphic and web designer, and claims he’s in a “rush” when posting. Hopefully he’ll be more patient in future. He says he’s now looking for a spelling checker plugin. :) I doubt there’s 1 out there though! :)

  17. says

    When I have to edit my own work, I try to run through a checklist of common fixes. Here are a few:

    – Fatty constructions (He researched environmental economics, not He researched the field of environmental economics).
    – Overweight or inappropriate words (those ugly -ion words–I try to find something that’s more concrete or evocative).
    – Unclear pronoun references (“it” used far from its subject, or with two possible subjects)
    – Passive voice.
    – Dangling modifiers.
    – …

    There’s more, but you get the point. Using a checklist is helpful for anything I edit, but especially for my own work. Making “passes” over the different categories helps me step back and pretend it’s someone else’s.

  18. says

    Thank you for posting this. I constantly find myself trying to make my posts and garammar perfect but it doesn’t always work that way. I am not very good with punctuations either but I try and hopefully as I grow as a blogger I will learn more.

    I usually read my article 5 times before I publish it, I know a little extreme. I try to write posts in as simple words as it can be. Also, I ask my wife to read it first before I publish it just to see if she can figure what I am trying to say.

    The best thing is to provide your ideas and thoughts in the simplest way possible. Assume that you are someone else and read your own article, if there is something that makes you guess something else other than what you wrote, it needs to be edited!

  19. says

    Thanks for this great post.

    Part 3 is definately a point bloggers should take under review. I used to use big words for my essays in school, but the teacher never understood it. Definately something to change.

    -Mike

  20. says

    Very nice post, Anna.

    There have been many times that I have been embarrassed in my professional career by missing writing mistakes that could have been avoided by more effective editing (step three is particularly important).

    Here’s another tip that I have found useful. Instead of reading it out loud, use a text to speech synthesizer to read the document while you listen and read a hard copy of the text.

    I’ve picked up on many more errors and also heard clumsy grammer that I missed by reading it out loud myself.

    I have Dragon Naturally Speaking as my text to speech tool, but there are open source alternatives such as FreeTTS – http://freetts.sourceforge.net/docs/index.php and Text2speech – http://text2speech.sourceforge.net/index.html

  21. says

    Great TIP. Zooming out of the writings can give the better feel of it. Reading it again from a reader’s perspective definitely improves your writing.

  22. says

    Yes, thats recommendation is simple and i’ll try to use them in my blog.

    Clear texts, written and edited as the author advised, are easy to read. Especially for foreigners. So crear texts allow to internationalize your blogs.

  23. says

    Read it out loud? Absoutely. It helps me make sure my copy flows properly.

    I’d add a couple more:

    1) It can be difficult to spot typos on-screen, so try printing the piece out. Not the most environmentally-sound method, but I always do this with important pieces.

    2) Slimming down your copy? Look at how you use the word ‘that’. One of the most effective tips I was given when starting out was that sentences often make just as much sense without it.

  24. says

    The biggest problem for me is to sort out which spelling to use as I get english and american mixed up.
    English is not my mother language so it is not easy.

  25. QueenZee says

    This article came at just the right time. I just finished looking over a book I wrote. I was trying to find all my errors, before actually sending it out to get edited. Great topic!

  26. says

    Hello
    Just read your entire article with interest.
    It is really fantastic.
    I have recently started writing articles.I indeed had lots of editing problems.
    Your article has given a great help in this editing process.
    Thank you so mcuh

  27. says

    Very sound advice! Walking away is one of the best, and so is having someone else review your work. I’m SOOOO llucky to have a professional article editor for my mom, maya porter (mayaporter.com). She’s saved my butt for some college papers I turned in my freshman and sophmore years (I guess I learned from her, because I don’t need her touch anymore!).

  28. 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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