I’ve put together thirteen pieces of self-editing advice for you. It may seem counterproductive for me to offer you advice on how to edit yourself. After all, I’m a professional editor. I want you to hire me to edit your work for you. So why would I tell you how to edit yourself? Won’t this put me out of a job? Isn’t it in my best interest to give you bad advice, so you need me more?
Here’s the thing about working as a professional editor: it’s not about making ourselves look like good editors. It’s about making you look like a good writer.
Professional editing is about helping writers be understood by their readers. It’s about being that unbiased, external perspective. It’s about catching the details that you—the writer—are too close to the material to see. The cleaner, more polished the writing you give us to edit, the better we can work together to make that writing truly shine.
Which is why self-editing is so important. The more you understand how to edit your own work, the closer we can get to a perfect final draft. If your writing is so stilted and confusing that we’re translating your ideas into sentences for you, then there’s no way for us to make sure that those sentences flow together, are formatted correctly, and make you sound as intelligent as you truly are.
If you can’t self-edit, a professional editor can’t make your writing perfect. The author needs to have a hand in the editing process.
And that’s why good professional editors include running commentary on what we’ve changed and why. We don’t just want to transform the writing you give us; we want to transform the way you think about your writing. We want you to learn from the editing process and improve your writing with each submission. We want you to become a better self-editor.
So here are some tips on what to look for as you’re self-editing. If you can catch these things before you submit your essay to me, you’ll start out that much closer to a perfect final draft.
13 Tips For Self-Editing:
- Use literary present tense. This can be hard to remember, since when you write about a book you’ve read you’re writing about something that you’ve already experienced. But works of fiction are living things, their meanings dependent on their continued exposure to readers. Their events are taking place even after you stop reading them. They don’t end when you stop reading them any more than the internet stops existing just because you’ve navigated to a new page.
- Triple-check your referents. Every “it” “and “this” needs to refer to something. And that something needs to be clear. Like, stupidly clear. If there’s even a possibility that somebody could misunderstand what your “it” or “this” refers to, clarify. Your readers are not telepathic. They read words, not minds.
- Utilize “use.”: Hahahah see what I did there? I used the word “utilize” in my advice for you to use a word other than “utilize.” It’s ironic, get it? But seriously, use unpretentious jargon and straightforward diction. Big words can come off as an attempt to camouflage small ideas.
- Delete those extra spaces. Use only one space between sentences. This is one of my pet peeves, a relic from the pre-word-processor era that has no place in modern writing. But there are other formatting bugaboos you should watch for. Like punctuation inside of or outside of punctuation. Do a quick google of whatever style guide your going to follow for whatever you’re writing. Chicago style tends to be used for literature. APA style for social sciences. MLA style for literary criticism. AP style for newspapers. All of them are relatively straightforward and have their own rules for commas, hyphens, citations, and other details. If you make an attempt to follow their rules before you submit it to a professional editing service, then we don’t have to spend too much time fixing these formatting errors. We can spend our time really getting into the content.
- Ask yourself “so what?” – I’ve already written a little rant about this. Everything you write needs to answer a “so what” question. Otherwise, why should anyone read it?
- Chop up long sentences. More than three lines of your text? Even if it’s grammatically correct, your reader is probably getting tired of holding that sentence’s ideas in her head. Try to stick to a 1:1 ratio of sentence to idea.
- Check for sentence variety. I’ve already given a bit of advice on how to do this. But I think it’s worth repeating. Make sure that your sentences are varied. As with the run-on problem, it’s about keeping your reader engaged with your ideas. Keep an eye on first few words of each sentence and try to make sure they vary; if you have a hard time keeping track, copy and paste or write them out on a separate document.
- Cite your sources. Not citing your sources is called plagiarism.
- Write cleaner. Minimize adverb use. Don’t use adjectives in academic writing. Use strong verbs and specific nouns rather than piling on the modifying words.
- 10. Kill your darlings. Yes, I’m quoting Stephen King. His advice “On Writing” is very widely-referenced, and for good reason. You might also want to refer to Strunk & White, Garner’s Usage Tips, and any other authorial advice that resonates with you. Reading is important.
- Relax. It’s okay to use “I.” And to start sentences with conjunctions. And to use contractions. (Usually. Readers’ preferences can vary.)
- 12. Take a break. You need to finish a draft, put it aside for a day or two, and then come back to it and see how it holds up to a more objective, non-immersed reading. You can’t go through several rounds of self-editing all at once without driving yourself crazy. You need to set it aside and come back to it later.
- Stop. Your writing will never be perfect. Even if you come up with something that feels perfect in the moment, going back and re-reading it years later may embarrass you when you see your past self’s naiveté or otherwise underdeveloped writing. That’s okay. That’s normal, in fact. You have to stop eventually and just let your readers have it.