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Help for Writers, Authors and Students - How to edit your own work

Updated on September 6, 2011
Something as simple as a spelling error can prevent people from respecting your writing
Something as simple as a spelling error can prevent people from respecting your writing
Read things out loud and pay attention to every last letter.
Read things out loud and pay attention to every last letter.
I think they meant "conscientious." Don't rely on spell-check
I think they meant "conscientious." Don't rely on spell-check
Again, spell-check could get you into trouble. The correct word is "paid."
Again, spell-check could get you into trouble. The correct word is "paid."

High schools rarely teach composition or creative writing as stand-alone subjects. Universities do offer these classes, but often have low-level instructors or even graduate student instructors in charge. Without proper experience, these teachers can make writing as difficult as if you hadn't taken the class.

The problems with writing become overwhelmingly apparent for anyone who wishes to continue writing after leaving school. While only a few people write for fun, most people find some compelling reason to organize words on a page at some point in their lives.

This can be a frightening prospect. After all, scan through some of the pictures on the side. Do they make you laugh? Of course they do. We live in a culture that doesn't necessarily praise good writing, but definitely casts judgment on authors who make mistakes.

No matter what purpose, what setting, or what you're writing, the most important process of composition is editing, and it surpasses all other aspects in difficulty by far. To make it harder, most university courses stress peer-reviewing and workshopping. This may leave some people with the impression that someone may actually want to read your writing in the real world.

They don't.

I can't get my friends to read what I write, and I write science-fiction and fantasy adventure stories. One of the highest hurdles for any writer is learning how to edit their own work without the input of others. I had no clue how to start. The first novel I wrote doesn't deserve to display itself on my computer screen--it's that bad. But I learned--and so can you--a few simple tricks to make editing your own work much easier.

Accept that you don't write as well as you think you do.

I said this in my hub on publishing as well ( ). We love our writing. We labor over it, often for months or years (more for longer-length pieces). To us, we planted a seed and nurtured it into a mighty oak.

Other people, if you're lucky, will see it as a bright yellow dandelion. The best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is accept that you made mistakes, even if you haven't found any yet. I've read through my novel (the good one) at least four times, and each time I keep a set of highlighters on-hand to point out the mistakes I never noticed before.

Give it time

Since writing takes so long, once we finish the impulse hits us to print it off and send it to whoever we want to read it. Even if you approach writing humbly, as advised above, you probably will rush through revising and editing if you try it now. Print off your work, stick it in a drawer, and don't come back for two or three weeks. If you wrote a book, don't even think about it for three months.

You need an emotional cool-down period to separate yourself from your writing. Spend some time apart and you'll see things more objectively. Then you can give it a fair treatment.

Yes, Print it off

Ever hear someone say they prefer books to computer screens? There's a reason for that. Your eye moves significantly faster when reading on a back-lit screen. Trying to edit like this will cause you to zoom over goofs and clumsy sentences, and you'll probably miss something important.

Watch out for clumsy sentences

I make my students tell entire stories in haiku. Here's one I wrote today:

The students are back.

A drunken rampage destroyed

my rear-view mirror.

Brevity will help more than anything. Try to take as many words out of your sentences as you can. Chop long sentences into two smaller ones. People find shorter sentences far easier to read. Try this for example:

1. It was the alligator in the city sewer that came up to the surface, which caused my pet poodle to be devoured.

2. The sewer alligator came up and devoured my poodle.

Clearly exaggerated, but I can't count how many overly-clumsy sentences I had to trim.

Read it out loud!!

Easily the most helpful tool for editing, vocalizing the words lets your ear in on the process, and unless you're stone-deaf, your ears have more experience with language than your eyes. It's far easier to catch repetitive words, redundancies, clumsy sentences (anything you have to pause while reading to think about) and other nasty organizational problems that mess with a clearly communicated message.

Reading out loud also slows you down, which should let you focus on each word and phrase longer than if your eyes did all the work alone.

Look for redundancies and repetitions

A repetition is when you repeat a word--usually a name--way too often. You'll notice when you read out loud. Even using the same word twice within three or four lines of text can sound awkward, unless you have a pointed reason to do so.

Redundancy is when you write multiple things that have the same meaning. A good example comes from "Twilight."

"Aro started to laugh. "Ha, ha, ha," he chuckled"

Two sentences. One line. And within this short clip, how many times does Stephanie Meyer tell us what Aro is doing? "Aro started to laugh." He's laughing. There's one. "Ha, ha, ha." That makes two (By the one actually says "ha ha ha." Creative writers, try to avoid this). "He chuckled." Okay. Three times.

No one smart enough to pick up a book needs to be reminded that fiercely that a character is laughing. Read this out loud and it'll probably sound funny. That's when you know when to fix something.

Never read your own work without a set of highlighters

Well, you don't need to use highlighters, but use something. I like to color-code my goofs so I don't have to make complex notes about my errors. I just see green and I think, "I need to cut this sentence down," and if I see red I think, "I've repeated this word too much. I have to get rid of a few of them," and orange might tell me, "this doesn't make sense. I have to re-order my thoughts."

Your own methods may differ, but you always want to note your mistakes as soon as you make them. Flipping through even as little as eight pages for one mistake you think you remember will waste time. Make a note. Make it obvious. Make it immediately.

This, of course, can't encompass the entire arsenal of editing tricks. I'll admit that I still have more to learn. These are, however, the basics, and when you need your writing to sparkle, employ these tactics and you won't have to rely on friends and/or co-workers again. If you do hear from them, you'll probably hear very polite statements. Nothing useful. It may stroke your ego, but it'll harm your writing. In the end, you should just do it yourself and be brutal.


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