Imagine this familiar scenario: you’ve written your last line and throw your hands in the air. You’re done! A moment of euphoria and relief washes over you – for a very brief moment.
Because as every writer knows, what comes next may prove to be more difficult than the writing itself.
Skillful editing is essential in publication-quality writing (whether that’s a novel, thesis or something else entirely), which includes reviewing your writing for errors in content, spelling, punctuation, or poor word use. If hiring a professional editor is not in your budget, you’ll have to take on the job yourself. But this doesn’t mean that the editing process cannot be done well.
Editing in South Africa
These seven sensational tips for editing your own writing can go along way towards helping any writer master it:
1. Make editing a priority
Whether you write faster than a speeding bullet or slower than a snail, it’s essential that you give editing the time it deserves. Make an effort to complete your work well ahead of the deadline.
Publishing or submitting a piece of work that is riddled with mistakes or awkwardly expressed not only detracts from the reading experience, but also from the valuable time you spent writing it. Mistake-free writing that uses consistent language may ultimately be the difference between the success or failure of your work (however it’s defined).
Just how important is the editing process? Well, as author Patricia Fuller said, “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.”
2. Editing: the last thing you do
We all fall into the habit of trying to edit our work as we write, convincing ourselves that we might be saving time. But nothing could be further from the truth. Writing and editing are two very separate processes that should be performed separately: writers should focus on content first.
It’s OK to want to backtrack and make minor spelling or punctuation corrections, but focusing on creating original, engaging and persuasive ideas will yield far better results than obsessing over the finer details of the English language.
Neither writing nor editing are easy to do, and in combination almost impossible, so leave the editing to last.
Shannon Hale, author of The Goose Girl, made this clever distinction between writing and editing: “Writing a first draft is like shovelling sand in a box – so you can build your castle later.”
3. Big changes done first, grammar second
There are different types of editing: structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Always begin with structural editing first. What is structural editing? It’s editing the underlying body of your draft – the content, flow, clarity, style and consistency of your writing.
If your writing is confusing or not compelling, there is no point in wasting time on correcting grammatical errors – especially if the passage or paragraph is hitting the chopping block when you do your structural edit.
Start by making sure your ideas connect and your writing is accessible. Once you’ve done that, hit the grammar!
4. Ruthlessly eliminate words
Editors agree that at least 10% of words should be eliminated during the editing and revising process. Why? Because writers overuse words. We’re all guilty of falling in love with our writing. Don’t. Students and academics are especially guilty of this.
There is usually a better way to express an idea, usually with less words.
Writing should have a rhythm, and often wordiness interrupts it. Choosing concise language is more effective in getting your thoughts across, and will be a welcome relief for the reader.
Take it from Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Indeed.
5. Don’t rely on spell check
Using spell check to scan your draft for spelling errors is a good idea. But don’t rely on it. Use your eyes. The spell check on our devices can sometimes mistake words that sound similar for something else, such as “which” and “witch.”
And spell check certainly doesn’t recognise when a word(s) is missing from your draft or used in the wrong context.
6. Google can be a VERY good friend
The English language is a bizarre proposition and few writers, or even editors, know all the seemingly random and often contradictory rules. For example, did you know that there are roughly 900 exceptions to the famous “i” before “e” except after “c” rule?
Before the internet, you might have needed access to an expensive and bulky writing manual, but today we have the largest database of human knowledge ever assembled and Google organises it quite beautifully.
Enter your language conundrum in plain English, and Google will invariably return a result with resources that will solve it.
7. Clear your head
When we write, we spend HOURS at our desks attempting to craft beautiful language. We become so familiar with our work we begin to lose sight of writing mistakes. That’s why it’s important to do whatever you can to clear your head.
One way is leave your desk and go for a run, or head out to the beach. If you have access to a printer, print the document with a different font and layout and edit it that way – whatever you can do to have a fresh look and see what is really on the page.
If possible, set your document aside for a few days. Coming back to your draft with fresh eyes (and maybe even better ideas) is good for you and even better for your work.
You may find mistakes that you hadn’t noticed before, such as a lack of clarity or consistency, and other big picture problems.