Sometimes, I think about my undergraduate dissertation and feel a shudder run through my entire body. It’s probably somewhere in my parents’ house, riddled with terrifying typos and the kind of convoluted sentences you use to hit the random word count that universities demand as tribute.
I only read through the full thing once before submitting.
Before you judge, I was young. A poor student, furiously trying to finish a dissertation about Chaucer and feminism in time, caffeine’d up to my eyeballs preparing for soul-destroying exams. Good times.
Anyway, I’ve prepared this handy checklist to help you avoid becoming the protagonist in that kind of horror story.
Here are 11 tried-and-tested tips to help you edit your own work and improve your writing.
1. Proofing comes last
It goes like this: write, then edit, then proofread. Proofreading—looking for typos, grammar and syntax issues, and so on—is that final polish you give to an already-great piece of work.
Focusing on that any earlier would be a waste of time as you chop and change during the editing stage.
Whether you’re working in marketing, proofing a set of social media posts, or working on the first draft of your debut novel, proofreading should be the very last step of the process. Editing comes just before it, and covers the bigger changes you make to a text.
2. Read it out loud
When you look at a body of text for too long, it’s easy to become blind to mistakes, poor sentence structure, and awkward phrasing.
Using a text-to-speech program or reading your work aloud will help you pick up on things like repetition of certain words, run-on sentences, typos, and downright pointless sentences that need to be ripped out without mercy. And your writing will be clearer and more impactful for it.
3. Print it out, grab a pen
There’s something about the printed page that helps you spot spelling mistakes and pick up on other editorial issues more easily. Maybe it’s something about the brightness of a screen (or online distractions) that throws us off.
Print your pages, grab a red pen (or any other vivid colour) and go to town on that text. You might even get a bit of stress relief out of it—I definitely do.
4. Walk away (but come back)
It’s normal to hit a wall, especially if you’re working on a hefty bit of copy like a dissertation or manuscript. So get up.
Walk away from your desk, grab a coffee, play with your dog. Have a nap. You’ll come back with fresh eyes and a better perspective on the text in front of you.
Creating that physical distance will give you the emotional distance you need to treat your work with a greater level of editorial objectivity. This isn’t the place to get sentimental; every word on the page should be earning its keep—remember that.
“This isn’t the place to get sentimental; every word on the page should be earning its keep—remember that.”Tweet
5. Use the active voice
The active voice means that the subject of the sentence is performing an action. With the passive voice, an action is ‘happening to’ the subject. Here’s an example:
Passive voice: The ball was chased by my dog.
Active voice: My dog chased the ball.
The second version sounds better, doesn’t it? While it’s not wrong to use the passive voice in your writing, the active voice makes the text feel much more immediate, energised. It keeps readers engaged and keep things moving along at a good pace.
“While it’s not wrong to use the passive voice, the active voice makes the text feel much more immediate and energised. It keeps readers engaged and keep things moving along at a good pace.”Tweet
6. Take it one line at a time
Organised types that we are, editors will systematically comb through a piece of writing line by line, so that’s what you should do too.
It might seem like a monumental task, and you might be sick of looking at your work already, but it’s worth it. To make things easier, consider taking regular breaks to take the ‘ugh’ out of it.
I mean, I love this part, so I can’t actually relate to the ‘ugh’ bit. Sorry.
7. Get friendly with style guides
Professional editors use style guides—basically an editing bible—when working on a text. The edits we make follow the rules in that guide, and editors working for agencies or businesses might need to reference a house style created specifically by and for that company.
If you’re writing an academic piece, or submitting to a journal, then they will more than likely ask you to make sure you follow their preferred style guide. Popular style guides include:
- Chicago Manual
If you’re not explicitly asked to use any of these style guides, I recommend The Times Style Guide. It’s practical and accessible, and I love how it’s laid out, ready to answer any question I might have in seconds.
With your trusty style guide in hand, ask yourself:
- Are all your commas where they should be? Beware of too many pauses.
- Are you using italics and quotation marks properly?
- Are you referencing and third-party quotes or stats correctly? Plagiarism is a sin, you know.
8. Cut the clichés
The only acceptable use of a cliché is if you’re flipping it on its head somehow, or using it in an unexpected way. Otherwise, it’s boring. Just imagine your reader yawning every time you use one.
Personally, I avoid them completely because they have a way of weighing text down.
9. Read and re-read
Editing is a layered process. On your first read, you might make bigger structural changes to your work. Cut a paragraph there, tweak a line for flow there. You might completely re-shape your opening paragraph.
The next time you read it, you might go line-by-line. Check grammar, punctuation, spelling. And the next time, you might have a great idea that might add impact to what you’re saying.
Anyway, you get my point. The bottom line is that you’ll need several read-throughs to spot all your flimsy sentences, grammar whoopsies, punctuation problems, and spelling errors.
10. Watch that syntax
Grammar and word choice can make or break your writing. One or two words can totally change the mood or impact of a paragraph, of a chapter.
Equally, choosing the right words can change minds, alter moods, and generally make you feel like a total badass.
No matter what words you choose, make sure they make your writing feel concise, clear, and strong. Use that online thesaurus sparingly, and if there’s a simpler word for it, use that one. Similarly, if you don’t know what a word means or you wouldn’t use it in a conversation, don’t use it.
11. Cut down long sentences
If you’re reading your work out loud, and it starts to get tiring—or worse, boring—there’s a good chance your sentences are too long.
Prune your sentences to up the impact of what you’re saying, make things clearer to the reader, and make it easier to continue reading your words in the first place. This is especially true if you’re explaining something complex. Keep it simple.
If you found these 11 tips useful, share them with your friends! It’s one way to make your friendly neighbourhood editor happy.
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