Editing is a necessary step in creating an impactful text. However, students often skip it or limit it to proofreading for grammar and spelling. In reality, editing is much more complex. It’s about finding precisely the right words to convey your message to the intended audience; the right structure to keep your text flowing; the right rhythm to maintain the grip on your audience.
Self-editing is notoriously difficult because it involves looking at your beloved creation critically. It means changing something you like because it doesn’t work. It means throwing out entire paragraphs, which you spend time and effort creating. In the words of a novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, it means “killing all your darlings.” Yet in return, you gain a chance you never get in a conversation – say it once again, this time better! Of course, when you have a fellow paper writer or an editor to help you out, it makes the process a lot easier. Still, most of us will need to learn how to edit everything we write on our own. It takes some practice, but it’s absolutely manageable. Start with the 10 tips below and see how your papers ascend to perfection with each step!
Finish your writing
The first rule of self-editing – finish your drafts first. Say what you need to say. If you have to take breaks, just pick up at the sentence where you have left previously and keep going. No looking back. If you start editing before you finish writing, you may become self-conscious, bogged down by details, and too distracted to continue a coherent argument. Moreover, you won’t get the distance you need to edit productively (more on that in the next section).
Seeing what you write as merely a draft gives you more freedom and works wonders for writer’s block, so just type away and leave editing for later.
Distance yourself from the draft
I know from experience how many papers are finished at the last minute, so I won’t pretend that “letting it sit in the desk for a couple of days” is viable advice for students. However, if you can afford the luxury, sleep on it. Return to editing in the morning, when you are refreshed and ready for a new perspective. When you edit your draft later, you can be more objective – and ruthless. Even if you have to hand it in today, space your writing and editing. An hour or at least 15 minutes will do. Get away from the desk, go and grab a snack, or chat with a roommate.
This is one of the best pieces of advice on improving your writing that I’ve ever had. It works for academic writers as well as journalists and novelists. Neil Gaiman gives to all aspiring writers: “When you’re ready, pick it up and read it as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.”
Print it out
What if you are on a tight deadline and have no time to space out writing and editing? Another trick to create a distance between you and your draft is changing the appearance of your text – for example, printing it out. For many, this change is enough to start treating the text as a reader rather than the author. Take a red pen or any other brightly colored writing implement and mark your paper as if you were a teacher. This role-play makes self-editing much more satisfying – just try it.
If you don’t own a printer and have no time to visit your college library for this, just change the format. For example, convert your file into PDF, change the typeface or font size. Anything to make it appear different and cheat your eyes into taking a fresh look.
Revise before you proofread
The first round of editing should be about the structure, flow, and coherency of your text. Focus on what you’ve written instead of how you’ve done it. Are your ideas clear? Is your argument persuasive? Are your reasons compelling? You will change a lot, so don’t waste your time nit-picking and rearranging the commas. You might want to get rid of that paragraph altogether!
It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fix apparent mistakes if you see them – just don’t focus on searching for them just yet.
Read it out loud
When the flow of your writing is just right, it’s going to sound smooth as well. Therefore, listening to your text is an excellent test of its clarity. Ask someone to read it for you, run the file through a text-to-speech program, or read it yourself. The rule of thumb – if you run out of breath before your sentence ends, it’s too long. Think of splitting it into several shorter sentences or cutting out unnecessary clauses. If it’s too long to utter in one breath, it probably has too much to process in one go anyway. It’s difficult to follow or has superfluous details that weaken your message and distract your readers from the central thought.
Reading your text aloud is also a chance to evaluate how accessible it is. Do you stumble over long words? Are there any expressions that are difficult to pronounce? Rephrase them for clarity and prosody.
Slash, cut, prune
When it comes to writing, less is more. However, brevity doesn’t happen on its own. More often than not, writers have to trim down their drafts to let their ideas shine – supported, but not overshadowed by words. In his book On Writing, Stephen King offers what he calls the “ten percent rule.” He advises shortening your initial draft by 10% at least. For example, if your essay is 1,500 words, then you should delete 150.
Nick Hornby, an English writer and lyricist, explains it colorfully: “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress…”
Be mindful of passive voice
I give this advice in a mild form for a reason. Many guides slam passive voice as a faux pas and a thing to avoid at all costs, which makes sense for creative and persuasive pieces. However, while passive voice can sound impersonal and detached, sometimes this is precisely what academic style demands.
Devoid of passive expressions, some texts sound awkward and lose focus. For example, “The study was conducted in January” is perfectly fine if your message is primarily about the timing of the study. You don’t have to get out of your way to introduce an active subject. “My colleagues and I conducted the study in January” doesn’t necessarily add strength. It just adds unnecessary words that steal the limelight from what you actually intended to say. Be mindful of it.
Avoid weak phrasing
The greater enemy of powerful, assertive messages is wishy-washy language, filled with hesitant phrases like “in my humble opinion,” “some might argue with me, but,” “it appears,” “it seems,” etc. Don’t undermine your arguments with false modesty. State your opinion with authority. If you aren’t sure about your point, how can you persuade anyone?
Another weak point of your writing is negation. Try to replace negative statements with positive, where it makes sense. Compare “You don’t want your text to be weak” with “You want your text to be powerful.”
Also, examine all the instances you use “really” and “very” – search the document for them if you need. Usually, you can come up with a more concise and impactful word, for example, “critical” instead of “really important” or “imminent” instead of “very probable.”
Repetitiveness also weakens your text. Don’t use the same word too often. Change it to synonyms or paraphrase. For example, “things” can be replaced with “implements,” “issues,” “possessions,” or “objects,” depending on the context. Use a thesaurus to find just the right one.
Consult the style guide
Even professional editors do not know every little detail of every style guide by heart. When you are mostly happy with your draft, compare it against an appropriate style manual. It can be an AP style guide, Chicago Manual, APA, MLA, or whichever is recommended in your assignment details.
At this stage, you can focus on formatting. Make sure you’ve checked the guidelines for commas, title case, italics, quotation marks, and citation style.
Proofread when everything else is done
Only when you have tackled all the issues discussed above can you finally proofread your draft for grammar, spelling, and typos. At this stage, it will be difficult to disengage yourself from the text’s content and only focus on separate words. This is a painstaking task, but you can make it easier editing line by line or reading your text in reverse to concentrate on outstanding issues rather than the meaning.
At this point, you are very welcome to use free automated editing tools, such as Grammarly or Hemingway Editor. They are great at spotting typos, misspelled words, and expressions used out of context. A friend or family member can also bring the much-needed fresh perspective and help you with proofreading.
Practice makes perfect. Still, large and important projects call for a professional editor after you’ve done what you could to polish your draft. Even if you excel at self-editing, you can always count on experts at PaperHelp to make your writing even better!