Edit Your Own Writing

By: Guest | March 15, 2011 | 

Erik HareErik Hare is a freelance writer and social media consultant for (very) small businesses in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Good writing, as a craft, starts with a rough piece that needs sanding, polishing, and a good coat of lacquer before it shines.  The skills you must learn to edit your own writing are not difficult, but they are critical.  Here are a few tips and ways of thinking that will help you hone your work into a useful and beautiful piece.

Changeup. The best way to read your own writing critically is to change the circumstances when you edit.  Start and end your editing process by reading your piece out loud. If you write on a computer in the quiet of your office, print it out and take it to a noisy coffee shop.  Pay close attention to the rhythm of language as much as the topic itself as that will help put you in your reader’s mind.

Audience. Verify that you are speaking directly to your audience before you do anything else.  Read your piece with a clear vision of who it speaks to and why the topic you have written is important to them.  The reporter’s five Ws – who, what, when, where, and why – should be clear and stated up front, usually in the first paragraph.

Reading is Writing. The reader of your piece must decode language into a clear image.  The process they use is very much like writing itself. When you edit your own writing take a step back and read it as if someone else wrote the piece.  Does it flow?  Does it engage the imagination?  Clarity, not cleverness, marks the strongest and most memorable work.

One Topic. The strongest pieces are going to be about one thing only.  Examples that inform that topic from a different perspective can work, but they have to be directly related to what the piece is about.  Before you edit with a detailed eye be sure that your subject is well covered and is not diluted by unrelated topics.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Active Voice. Once you are clear on the major issues, you can start paying attention to detail.  Conversational writing in blogs naturally tends toward passive voice, which can become a bland ramble.  The easiest way to shine up your language is to scan for the “ing” ending – if that ties back to a verb that is a form of “be” (is, are, were, et cetera) you have passive voice.  Replace it with an active verb whenever possible.

Tense and Perspective A clear setting and strong images have to be maintained by the language you use.  As you edit your own writing you will have to pay attention to the perspective you have established and be sure it is maintained.  The strongest writing will maintain the same tense (present, past, or future) and perspective (I, you, or they) throughout.  You can change between paragraphs if you are careful but it is best to be consistent throughout.

Consider Search Engines Pieces should be written for humans first because there is no search engine algorithm worth more than echoes through social media.  Once you are sure of your audience and imagery, however, you can edit to include a few key words and phrases that will goose google as needed.

Learning to edit your own writing may seem daunting, but with practice anyone can do it.  It is critical that you accept the philosophy of quality before you work down a checklist, however.  Start with a purpose and rough cut before polishing a fine shine of details.  Think of yourself as a craftsman, not an expert, and you’ll do well.

Erik Hare is a freelance writer and social media consultant for (very) small businesses in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Erik has further discussion and tips on writing in his own online Writing Guide.

  • bencurnett

    Hey, nice work here. Great list, succinct, helpful. A few points …

    Definitely add somewhere in the list a consideration for form. Underlining things online, like your subheads there, is something most people steer clear of because it makes the words look like links.

    Also (must … not … correct things … on the internet … ah, hell with it) your first subheads all have periods, but your last two don’t.

    The info is great, but it’s tough to edify folks on the importance of editing without leading by example.

  • harrietglynn

    I especially agree with your last point: Write for Humans!

  • @bencurnett And the worst part of underlining is that you don’t notice when MS Word inserts periods (a bit at random). OK, I won’t do *that* in the future. >blush!<

  • @harrietglynn Thanks! That’s not to say you can’t edit for SEO and make sure that your keywords are present as needed, but a piece that makes sense to people first will go further. The machines are just easier to fool than we are. 🙂

  • Erik, I really appreciate your thoughts here! I am currently in the process of doing some freelance writing and the process of being my own editor is at times tricky! The points on writing with an “active voice” and also “your tense and perspective” are two huge points for me!

    Thank you!

    Beth Landis

  • mylifestylemax

    Thanks for this, it was exactly was I needed. I tend to go off on a bit of a tangent sometimes whenI’m writing. Writing for myself I guess , without as much consideration as to what would be useful to my readers. I need to work on this. I also like you point about staying on Topic. When you are trying to put and interesting spin on something, or make a comparison that isn’t the obvious link, it can be easy to write your trail of thought, and loose your point in other irrelevant stuff. This post helped me better edit my work today, so thanks.

  • @BethLandis Thanks! Conversational styles often drift into passive voice, especially in the Midwest where the local dialect tends that way. One way to practice is by working on being a better storyteller or comic – the less dry the subject, the more you’ll be used to active speech verbally, and the more your conversational writing voice stays active!

  • @mylifestylemax Thanks! Rather than go down a bunch of “tips” or bullet points, I did want to stress the most important point of all – that reading is writing and writing is reading (could that be a song?). It’s a two-way street of conversation, even when it’s dull black & white letters on a page or screen. The more you can put yourself into the mind of the reader who has to decode what you are saying, the better! Staying on topic is more natural once you actually become frustrated with your own work (Advanced Topic: Overcoming Writer’s Block 🙂 ).

  • cgroenerku

    I think this is a great topic. I know I always prefer to have someone else edit my writing, but I don’t always have time for this before I need to turn it in. I think the idea of changing the environment between writing and editing is great. Not only does this change your state of mind, but going somewhere else can also be a much needed break. As for clarity verses cleverness, this is something I know I need to work on. It is so tempting to use exciting words, to use every interesting tidbit, even when they don’t add to the piece.

  • @cgroenerku This , to me, is the real struggle of our time. In the old daze when media was printed (and very expensive) nothing was sent out to the world that didn’t get several once-overs from a professional editor or two. Today, we simply do not have that. Everyone has to edit their own stuff – a skill that takes a tremendous amount of practice, patience, and dedication. It’s one of the many new adventures in learning (along with critical reading / thinking!) that will have to come along with the revolution in publishing that is the internet before it really lives up to its potential, IMHO. That will take a generation or two. Fasten your seatbelts.

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