How to edit your own writing

No matter whether you’re a professional web copywriter (like me) or a professional something-else (maybe that’s you), we all have to edit our own work from time-to-time.

We do it when we read through an email before sending it, when we put the finishing touches to a new business proposal or when we dash off a press release. (You probably don’t do it when writing the weekly shopping list, but that’s ok.)

Editing isn’t easy

It’s not easy to edit your own text. Because you wrote it, you’re less likely to spot mistakes. Trust me – I once wrote a blog post promoting an event which got a the date of the event totally wrong. I wrote “14 November” instead of “14 January”. And I didn’t realise until a reader pointed it out.

That happened because I was in a rush. I wanted to get the information out there as soon as possible. Want to avoid this sort of embarrassing mistake? I’ve put together a few tips for you:

  • Find peace and quiet. I can write in a busy café just fine. I often find listening to music helps me get words onto the page. Yet when it comes to editing, only silence will do. Get to a quiet place. It really helps.
  • Give yourself some time. If you bowl straight in to edit a piece the moment you finish writing it, you’re asking for trouble. You’re likely to read what you think you wrote rather than what’s actually on the page. If you have the luxury, give it a day or two. Even an hour will help.
  • Use a checklist. If I’m editing a batch of articles, I put together a list of things to check in each one. This helps me focus on the things that matter and forces me to approach the edits in a structured way. My checklists tend to concentrate on what the client needs rather than things I’d look for anyway. For instance, I might include making sure I’ve kept inside a strict word count and only used US English.
  • Do it (at least) twice. One check is never enough to catch everything. I read through my pieces twice – first to check everything makes sense, I haven’t used extra words and the tone is right, and then to actually proofread, check for bad grammar, spelling and so on.
  • Read it out loud. Yes, you’ll look silly. And yes, it really does work. This forces you to articulate every syllable of your writing. You’ll pick up on missing words straight away and be able to immediately tell whether the piece flows. Best to find an empty room though, lest your colleagues think you’ve finally lost it.
  • Print it out. It’s harder to edit stuff on screen. I’m not sure exactly why – I think it’s something to do with looking at a backlit display – but printing work out makes it easier to find mistakes. I print what I’ve written (double-sided, at the lowest quality), use a red pen to make changes, then input them into my computer. It can help to learn some proofreading symbols (PDF link).
  • Know your weaknesses. We all have our own writing weaknesses. For some unknown reason, my fingers automatically type “customer” whenever I write a word starting “cus…”. Tune in to the kind of mistakes you make and you’ll be more likely to spot them.

To sum up: if you want to do a really professional editing job, find a quiet place, then start talking to yourself while ticking items off a checklist and printing out reams of paper. Ok?

One response to “How to edit your own writing”

  1. Lousie says:

    Very useful advice John! Someone once told me to start reading from the last paragraph and work backwards – it’s good for checking spelling errors and typos but not great if you want to check the meaning of something. Anyway, just thought Id pass it on…

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