Have you met a writer who can bang out their best copy on the first draft? Me neither. Writing several drafts—one, two, maybe even three—is necessary to refine ideas and strengthen a piece before publication.
While it would be ideal to hand off our articles/blog posts/white papers to a professional editor for review, most of us don’t have the time or the budget to do so. By default, it falls on us to be our own editors. By following these tips, you’ll be able to tighten your copy, keep your readers engaged and avoid the pitfalls of self-editing.
Take A Break
So you’ve finished writing your piece. You should dive straight into editing while the iron is hot, right? Wrong.
It’s difficult to be analytical when you’ve just finished the creative process. Your brain won’t be able to pick up on all the mistakes you’ve made while writing. You need to hit the reset button and gain some distance. So step back from your first draft and return to it later with fresh eyes. How long you leave it will depend on your deadlines but the longer you set aside your piece, the more clarity you will bring to it once you start editing. For shorter pieces, you may be able to get away with setting them aside for an hour. For longer ones, try two days.
Speak Your Words
When you’re ready to edit, start by reading your text out loud. You might be surprised by how many problems you catch with this technique. You might discover that you have run-on sentences, missing information, awkward word placement, or repetitive words. Part of the goal of self-editing is to get better flow—reading aloud can help a lot with that process.
Long sentences will lose your reader. When there is more than one idea in a sentence, you give your reader an opportunity to lose focus. Sentences with many commas, or em-dashes, or parentheses definitely have their place but use them sparingly. Articles with short sentences are easier to read. When you can, cut long sentences in two.
You can also simplify your piece by eliminating redundancy and wordiness. Look for unnecessary words and phrases that creep into your first draft, for example “the fact that” and “in order to”. And try to flag sentences that use words that mean the same thing as in, “My work is straightforward and to-the-point.”
It’s jarring to read writing that uses both the first, second, and third person all in the same piece. There’s a time or place for each voice:
- First-person pronouns include“I”, “we”, “us, and “our”. When you talk about yourself, your opinions, or things that happened to you, you use the first person.
- Second person pronouns include “you”, “your”, “yours”, “yourself”, and “yourselves”. This second person point-of-view belong to the person or persons being addressed.
- Third person pronouns include “he”, “him”, himself”, “she”, “her”, “hers”, “they”, “them”, “their”, and so on. This POV belongs to the person being talked about.
You’ll create confusion if you move back and forth between all three voices so stick to one point-of-view (POV). If you must use two, start with the first person, then finish with the second or third.
Fluctuating verb tenses can also frustrate readers. Avoid writing in the past tense in one sentence, then switching to the present or future. For example, consider this sentence: “She performed surgery then heads to the cafeteria.” Instead, it should read: “She performed surgery then headed to the cafeteria” so that the verb tenses match up.
In general, you shouldn’t switch from one tense to another unless the timing of an action requires it. Ideally, you’ll keep your verb tense consistent in sentences, paragraphs, and articles.
Don’t Be Stuffy
There’s nothing more off-putting than jargon. Some people—not you, of course—think using big words make them sound smart. While it may prop up their ego, it will annoy your reader. To get your point across most effectively, default to common words. Instead of “utilize”, “endeavour”, or “communicate”, why not opt for “use”, “try”, or “chat”.
As Orwell said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”
Keep It Active
Consider this sentence:
“The tracheotomy was performed by the surgeon.”
“The surgeon performed a tracheotomy.”
See the difference? The first example uses the passive voice. It is wordy and harder to read. The active voice in the second example has the subject performing the action. It’s a straightforward approach and the meaning feels more clear.
Using the passive voice feels more distant and diluted. As a general rule, use the active voice for clarity.
Use Your Resources
There’s no shame in relying on existing apps or online tools to help you polish your piece. You might consider trying Grammarly or Hemingway Editor. Both can help you refine the readability of your piece as well as flag common writing, spelling, and grammatical errors.
Finally, don’t overlook help from friends and family who might be more than happy to act as a second pair of eyes!