One part creation, one part deletion…
The quality of good writing is most often in the editing.
We know what it is to create something, that first draft that helps us get our ideas down on paper. But the sharpness and the clarity of our work comes from the editing — refining what you want to say, and removing the flab and the excess so that the reader can understand your ideas.
Nothing more, and nothing less than you need to get across your point of view.
Clarity comes with editing
The easiest way to write well is to edit well; and the easiest way to edit well is to know exactly where you’re going wrong.
No-one puts the perfect combination of words to paper the first time around.
Don’t be put off by that — you have to get to the first draft in order to improve and get to a final draft.
But if you have the vision to see that what you’ve written isn’t quite good enough – plus you know how to make it better – then you’re one step ahead of most of the writers around you.
We all need an external eye on our work but, before that stage, you need to do a first (or more) round of editing yourself before you bring in an editor or proof-reader.
The better the quality of your work, the more efficient the process becomes when you do hand over to the professionals. Not only will it save you money, but it will also save you time, and potential misunderstanding or to-ing and fro-ing with your editor.
And a round or two of self-editing can help you uncover weak spots in your writing. What you learn by critiquing your own work will help you improve your writing the next time around.
But how do we know what to do in that self-editing process?
Well, sometimes it’s easier to look at what not to do: mistakes that you might make (and that we want you to avoid).
And, to help you become better at editing your own work, we’ve identified the top ten self-editing mistakes that many writers make, as well as giving you solutions to help you avoid them.
If you’d like a hard copy checklist to print out and keep by your computer, you can do that by clicking the image below.
1. Ignoring the spell check
It seems pretty redundant to tell you to run a spell check after you’ve reached the end of a draft.
Use the spell checker,
sounds like advice you might give to your teenager when they write their first school project. But it’s amazing how many basic mistakes you’ll see in final manuscripts that could have been picked up by a simple run through the spell checker.
I understand why: you’ve learned not to edit as you go — sound advice.
And maybe your whole manuscript is covered with highlighting and squiggles, or on-screen notes that don’t make sense to a spell check. Perhaps your style or colloquialisms fall outside the commonly used words and you’ve learned to ignore it. Don’t.
SOLUTION: Although it can be frustrating to have a great sentence ruined by that pesky red or green line, it comes up for a reason. At the very least, take a look and decide whether to ignore, change, or ‘add to dictionary’.
2. Reading as a writer
When you read your manuscript, on the search for those tricky bits that just aren’t flowing, you’re probably reading in your head.
You’re reading your work as a writer, looking for repetition, or gaps, or grammatical errors. That’s how you’ve been re-reading the whole way through the writing process, and it’s not enough when it comes to editing.
The problem is that you’re not listening for flow. You need at least one round of editing that just allows you to settle into how your work sounds. Not the grammar or the spell-check. Do that separately. This is different. And there’s a very simple way to do this one.
SOLUTION: Read your work out-loud. And read it slowly, with the same inflection that a reader would give the text.
If you can, it’s great to have someone else read it out loud to you. If this feels like too much of an imposition on a friend or partner, then try our fail-proof method of using a text to speech software, like Natural Readers. (or just Google ‘text to speech’.)
When someone reads to you, your brain has more room for listening. Hearing your own words out loud can clue you in on clunky sentences, missing words and misplaced phrases that you miss when you read, even when you read slowly and thoroughly, in your head.
3. Depending on overused phrases
We all have our own style of writing, and that’s great. What’s not great is when writers confuse their ‘style’ with overused crutch words or phrases — things we all say with too much regularity. We
particularly notice them in other people’s speech — but we don’t always spot them in our own written work. They could be the particular way you explain your concepts, or repetitive use of a metaphor, or even just a word that you favour, over and over again. (really??) Whatever your personal ‘crutch’ phrase, you have to stop using them.
Repeatedly using the same kind of phrase, or word, or metaphor, bores your reader, switches their focus to your repetition and makes your writing lose its flavour.
SOLUTION: This is where a good self-edit can help — learn to recognise them and strip them out of your final draft.
This article on Wise Ink suggests that you use tools or beta-readers to help you with this. I think, if you pay attention when you read through your work, you’ll recognise any overused words or phrases.
Make a note of them in the editing checklist you can download at the bottom of this article (because you’ll no doubt use them again!), and then you can enter them into an online tool like the phrase counter on Write Words. This allows you to paste in long sections of your manuscript and check how many times your common phrases come up. You have to identify those phrases before you put them into the Write Words tool but, if you listen to your work as we recommended in #2, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Then, unless you’re using repetition as a rhetorical device, you can re-word that part of your book or article.
4. Confusing your words
We all have some words (or phrases) that confuse us, and that we may misuse. The problem is, these are often the words that the spell check doesn’t pick up because the spelling is correct, it’s just the use that is incorrect. Words like advice and advise, effect and affect, enquiry and inquiry. (hopefully you’re not making there and their kind of errors!)
Sometimes there’s a language barrier between, say, US and British English, but even allowing for that, these words get more writers into trouble than you would think.
SOLUTION: Make (and keep) a list of words that you know you occasionally misuse and then running a search through your manuscript for those words. This is simple enough to do and hopefully you’ll learn the correct meaning as you do it.
If you’d like an online (automated) solution, then have a look at Grammarly. Although a paid product, it’s pretty good at checking and solving these common word confusions (and much more).
5. Missing commas
I already ate Grandma.
Often shared on Facebook with some hilarity, phrases that change their meaning completely as the comma is dropped can get every writer into trouble.
While we might laugh and think it doesn’t apply to us, do stop to consider whether you could be falling fowl (just joking!) of this one. In this (overused, my apologies) example, unless you’re writing a zombie novel or an anthropological research paper on the cannibalistic tribes of Borneo, a well-placed comma would result in a sentence that actually made sense.
SOLUTION: Hopefully a careful read-through of your own work will help you sort this mistake.
Or, if you’re using beta-readers, it’s something they might be able to pick up on. Make sure you ask them to be on the lookout if you know your writing is light on punctuation. We included, in our selection of inspirational Facebook pages, a link to Captain Grammar Pants who regularly updates her page with these kind of grammar anomalies.
Or turn to a trusty online tool like Grammarly to help correct this kind of mistake.
6. Overusing punctuation
Writers are scared of short sentences. Really scared. For some reason, short sentences are synonymous with simplicity. And simplicity can be synonymous with ‘dumbing down’.
But, allow me to explain why simplicity is a good thing. Normally at least. And particularly for non-fiction writing.
In non-fiction writing, you are usually trying to change someone’s way of thinking or behaviour. If you can keep the language you use straightforward as possible, you are allowing the meaning or instruction to shine through clearly.
Average sentences are shorter than you might think — under 20 words typically in standard English writing — so why do yours need to continue over two or more lines? If we want a lengthy description, or an unusual use of words we might look to literature or poetry.
SOLUTION: If you find your writing filled with excessive semi-colon use, or sentences that have more commas than words, then turn those sentences into two. Or even three.
If you’re a blogger, you might know this already. Short sentences — and indeed short paragraphs — are one tool in your arsenal of encouraging readers to consume your writing.
Embrace the line break,
as Pamela Wilson calls it, writing on Copyblogger.
If you’re writing particularly technical work, and you can feel yourself resisting this advice, then look at the examples that Ben Mudrak presents on Expert Edge. He doesn’t quite get them all under 20 but he gets close.
I remind my clients to write for all readers. There will be those who start at the beginning and read to the end.
And there will be those (like me, sadly) who will skim your chapters and pick something in the middle that entices them. If having more white space on a page helps someone read the words that you do write, then why not use it?
7. Protecting your darlings
You may have heard, even if you don’t know the attribution of the saying,
Kill your darlings.
Most commonly credited to William Faulkner, this advice isn’t just for fiction writers. Every writer has one or more pieces of work that they themselves love but, that somewhere along the way, became redundant to the message or the story of the book. Or that are just not resonating with our reader.
SOLUTION: You probably know in your heart of hearts which those sections are. If not, then using beta-readers can give you some inkling.
And then you have to slash them, which can be the hardest part. Marcie Colleen, from The Write Routine, explains how she does this, without necessarily getting rid of the words: she uses strikethrough, which looks
like this, or puts the sections into a footnote to come back to later.
The solution I prefer is to create a new version of my work in another document, and I am then free to delete as much as I want without feeling that I’ve lost something that can’t be regained. In my mind I imagine that,
It’ll come in useful someday.
But in practice, of course, I never go back to those original drafts. A kind of literary “We’ll see.”
If you’re drafting with writing software like Scrivener, you can also just drop those deleted segments into the research folder.
8. Dangling your modifiers
Misplaced and dangling modifiers appear everywhere in writers’ manuscripts. While I don’t want you to feel that it’s a rule that cannot be broken (and definitely don’t be a slave to the grammar books!), it can be the reason some of your sentences sound a little clumsy.
A modifier is simply something that describes, or expands on the term being modified. It can be as simple as an adjective, right through to a short phrase, and when they appear at the end of sentences, they are generally considered ‘a bad thing’.
SOLUTION: Read up a little on what a modifier is and what is (supposed to be) correct and incorrect. (that’s incorrect by the way; I should perhaps have said “Learn the correct use of your modifier“.)
A quick rule of thumb here is to always make sure your modifiers are close to the word they describe, and that they are shorter in relation to the important part of your sentence.
9. Not formatting your drafts
If you’re submitting to an editor at a publishing house, or to an agent, there are common formatting standards that they’ll expect you to meet.
On one level, you’re right to ask, ‘why should it matter?’ On the other, why not just put in the extra effort to do it properly? If it helps your work get attention, you want every advantage going.
Even an editor you recruit directly may have requirements. I know some who prefer to work in word so that they can track changes, and others who prefer a pdf so they can annotate the text.
And, however you submit, there’s no excuse to hand over a manuscript that is completely unformatted — that just looks unprofessional.
SOLUTION: Just go along with whatever guidance you’ve been given; it makes everyone’s life easier. Find out if your contact has particular guidance. Ask them for a template (how easy is that?!) and if they don’t have one, then create one you can use again and again.
If you’re completely in the dark and sending off unsolicited manuscripts (which I don’t recommend), at least look at the general guidance set out here on Writer’s Digest. Conforming to industry standards is easy to do, saves your editor a lot of time, and also makes it easier for any beta-readers you involve.
Ah, have you ever had that experience when you’re close to completion but you just can’t finish? It’s very common and many of us like to tinker. And then tinker a little bit more.
You might agree that the editing is never done, but what can happen is that you edit the life and the meaning out of your work. While the grammar may be improving each time, you risk suppressing that original enthusiasm and energy.
SOLUTION: Resist the urge to over-edit. It will suck the life out of your book.
Remember that the work you’re doing now isn’t your last line of defence. Send an almost final version of your work off to your copy-editor or beta-readers. It’s OK to have a few mistakes or those clunky sentences, and even if they don’t pick them up, it’s better to let a few mistakes slide than losing the meaning behind your writing.
Which mistakes are you making?
We all make mistakes, and they’re not necessarily all bad.
I believe that anyone can write and, with some tuition and the right kind of practice, we will all get better.
Whether we have something interesting to say is often a more challenging barrier to good writing than how we say it. (in my opinion)
The best approach is to enjoy your writing in the knowledge your editing can be done later.
If, however, you think you’re susceptible to one or more of these very common mistakes, then you can print out a handy self-editing checklist to help you correct your work as you edit. Just click the image below, enter your email address, and it will pop right over.
And you can wave goodbye to these common self-editing mistakes.
What have you learned from editing your own work? And what have you learned not to do? Let us know on social media.