How To Self-Edit

How to edit your own writing.
How to edit your own writing. Chad Baker/Ryan McVay / Getty Images

Some of us are writers AND editors (both), and some of us are not. Some of us can edit just about anything, except for our own words.

Editing can be much more difficult when it comes to your own writing, your own work that you’ve slaved over, and spent loads of time with. They're your babies! Whether you simply can’t see your mistakes, or you’re being “protectionist” of your work, you can use the following list to help you polish those words to perfection.

An important thing to remember about editing is that it’s not just a one-and-done process. Most work can stand one or two (or even more) polishes. Another thing to keep in mind is that these edits may be done in whatever order you’re most comfortable with. Some of these items can be done twice (with a great benefit, even), and some can be skipped entirely. A lot of this depends on you- your tone, style and voice, and your most common mistakes. Let’s get started!

Read Aloud To Edit Your Work

This is always my first and foremost process. Reading your work aloud forces you to slow down, to hear rhythms, and to notice repetition (this is a big one for me, I can repeat my favorite words over and over and never notice it until the read-aloud stage). If you don’t like to read aloud on your own, have someone else read to you, or read to them. Another alternative is a software that reads your work to you, such as ReadPlease.

I love this particular piece of software, even if the computer voice is a bit creepy!

Check Synonyms and Repetitions in Your Edit

If you’re finding a lot of that repetition, consider purchasing a thesaurus or using an online thesaurus. At the same time, I’ve noticed that Microsoft Word’s own thesaurus is not too bad.

Don’t get too caught up with the thesaurus though. The two most important things to consider when choosing alternative words or phrases is 1) Your voice and 2) Your target audience’s preferred reading level. Don’t choose completely silly synonyms for no good reason. These can be quite distracting! Along with synonyms, I want to address flashy or over-construed writing- the so-called purple prose that all writers should watch out for. One hint that you may find that indicates your writing is a wee bit flashy is that you secretly pat yourself on the back when it comes to “clever” ideas or “interesting” turns of phrase. Be careful! The message is in your message, not in individual words or phrases.

You’re Not a Dictionary- Use One In Your Edit

Please, please take my advice on this. Not only have I personally used some crazy words by complete mistake, but I’ve done enough reading to see it in other writers, too. I think we tend to embed the meaning of a word based on where we first hear it, and surprise!- that can be completely and totally wrong. Don’t do that, and I won’t either. Pinky swear?

Actives and Passives in Your Edit

Ah yes, another place wherein Word has stuck its nose. I’ve noticed the program now automatically green lines passive voice.

Yes, most of the time passive voices are over-construed, and so they are weak. However, (take heed Word), this isn’t true 100% of the time at all! Ok, maybe 99% of the time. When you find a passive construction, see if it can fit and work (and still flow) as an active construction. Then trust your gut and go for it.

Gendered Language in Your Edit

Here, I’m not only talking about language that is inappropriately “he” or “she” (avoid these if possible), but I’m also talking about weak language. This is language that says “I think” or “maybe.” So why am I including it under “gendered language”? Studies show that us women like to move toward collaboration, and so our speech and writing is littered with this kind of vocabulary. Look, sometimes it’s appropriate- but is it possible to get rid of it and instead present a strong statement or idea?

I think so.

Word Count in Your Edit

Start chopping. No, really. I’ve found that nothing improves my writing like a maximum word count. If you have trouble keeping it simple, you can always Tweet for practice. Get it down to the bare minimum, unless you’re writing in a creative genre.

Other Tools in Your Edit

Last, and maybe even least, go ahead and use the tools you have to finish off your edit. Grammar suggestions, spelling suggestions and other software tools do indeed have a place and can be useful. Go to it.