How to Edit Your Own Copy
Updated: May 3, 2020
Some simple steps to make your writing sing
I missed my editors the most when I left my newspaper job to become a freelancer.
There was no one to read over my work with fresh eyes before I turned it in to an employer who was probably an editor. And I wanted to impress this particular editor enough to be hired again.
So without an editor on hand, I felt unmoored. An editor would spot and correct any grammar mistakes I unwittingly made. An editor would see any gaps in logic and suggest fixes to the structure and flow of my piece.
To solve this vexing problem I consulted with other freelancers and the editors I worked with at the paper and devised my own system of editing my copy before I turned it in.
Here are some tips to edit your own content without losing your mind.
Your first step in the editing process is to print out a hard copy of your piece and then step away from the computer for a bit. That’s right – move away from your creation. Go outside or to another room for a break. It does not have to be a long break. You just need some time to clear your mind.
What do I mean by editing? It's really just rewriting your copy. Nobody gets it right the first time and you should not think of rewriting or editing as punishment. I feel relieved when I am at the point where it is time to rewrite or edit. The hardest part of writing, getting it down on paper -- is done. Now I know where I have to go and can tinker with the words, tighten my sentences and hone my paragraphs to make the piece flow smoothly.
So take that hard copy and read it from beginning to end. You are reading for structure, flow, clarity, logic and conciseness. You are making sure the paragraphs are in the right order and you are not repeating yourself during this heavy lifting stage.
Your introduction should grab the reader into the piece. Now is the time for changing the top, moving paragraphs around the page, shoring up any transitions and adding any information you may have left out and of course deleting phrases, paragraphs that are not useful.
You can’t form a serious attachment to every word you write.
“You must kill all your darlings,” William Faulkner said.
Stephen King put it this way in his book on the writing craft: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
But you don’t have to bury your favorites forever. Just open up another file, cut and paste the material that you don’t need into it and hit save. This advice I got from a post at thewritepractice.com. It is comforting to know my descriptions, words and sentences are still around and my efforts did not go completely to waste!
Now back to editing your piece. Make some brief notes on the hard copy before going back to your computer where you will make the necessary changes.
Read through it again to make sure all your changes were good ones and the piece flows smoothly. If you are unsure, print it out again and read it aloud. If it sounds awkward and you are halting too much than you need to go back and tighten it up. Put yourself in the reader’s place. He or she wants smooth writing.
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
--- Stephen King
Now that you are sure you have everything in the correct order you can start reading your sentences correcting any typos, grammar or style errors. Check out your word choices – are you using the best possible descriptive words? Use a dictionary or thesaurus to punch up boring verbs or nouns. I have apps for both on my phone.
Hopefully you already have been using a style manual like The Associated Press Stylebook that is favored for most non-fiction or maybe the publication or website you are writing for prefers The Chicago Manual of Style. Either one will work – you need to adhere to some consistent rules of capitalization, punctuation and other style issues.
Look closely at your sentences. Below is a checklist of the missteps and errors writers typically make in their first draft.
1. Use the active voice – There are two voices in the English language – the active when the subject performs the action and the passive when the subject is or was acted upon.
Think of it this way – when you write in the active voice, your subject is doing all the work. The subject of the sentence is followed by a juicy verb and maybe a direct object.
‘Julia delighted Anna’ is the active voice.
‘Anna was delighted by Julia’ is the passive voice.
‘Sean is driving the car’ is in the active voice.
‘The car was driven by Sean’ is in the passive voice.
Keep in mind that not all passive voice sentences are bad. I have written a few in this post and decided to leave them as is because they read smoothly.
2. “Omit needless words” – This sage advice from William Struck’s Elements of Style. Read this slim volume on writing and keep it handy for inspiration and advice.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell,” he writes.
I have found that I can usually delete the word ‘that’, ‘who’ and ‘which’. Replace the word ‘thing’ with the name of the exact object you are writing about. Delete any adverbs that repeat what the verb has already stated. Some examples are ‘circle around’, ‘expedite quickly’, ‘merge together’, and ‘plan ahead’. You get the idea.
3. Get rid of adverbs and most adjectives – Nix the words ‘very’ and ‘really’ and any other ‘ly’ word and replace it with a powerful verb that will move the story along.
4. That/which – Make sure you are using these two often-confused words correctly in your clauses and sentences. When I am unsure, I flip to an entry in the AP Stylebook that says ‘that’ is used for essential clauses important to the meaning of the sentence and without commas. ‘Which’ is used with commas in non-essential clauses.
5. Repeat words – Do not use the same words twice to name or describe something. Keep a thesaurus handy.
6. Hyphens – A common error comes up in when and how to use hyphens. The rule is if there are two words modifying something the two words should be hyphenated. Without hyphens, ' a man-eating shark’ could literally mean ‘a man eating a shark’!
7. Lose the jargon and stuffy, complex words – Write in everyday language for the reader who is human. Don’t think that using business or industry-specific jargon makes you look smarter. It doesn’t. It just distracts the reader and discourages him from continuing to read your piece.
I want to end with a few comments about fear and how it can keep you in a permanent state to re-writing or editing.
Fear of writing and the fear that what we have written is not good enough is instilled in us at an early stage in life – usually as we sat at our desks in brightly decorated elementary school classrooms. The only way to overcome the fear is to write and then to finish it.
Fear invites chaos into the writing process. As you are re-writing or editing don’t second guess yourself too much or let the voices in your head tell you that what you have written is not good enough. If you listen to those voices and keep making changes you will be stuck in an endless cycle.
I know this because it happened to me when I was working on a long profile of a teen-age mother. I kept making changes. I was never satisfied and I was always frustrated. Nothing seemed good enough.
Thankfully my editor pulled me out that rut by giving me a firm deadline. Do the same for yourself. Give yourself a deadline and meet it no matter what.
And don’t forget to congratulate yourself on finishing your piece!