self-editing your writing

If you have a draft of your manuscript, congratulations! You have slain the “monster of blank pages,” the fearsome beast that intimidates even the most capable of writers. I know you are tired, perhaps even exhausted. Rest, for now, but do not stop here. Your hero’s journey is not complete, you are merely at the beginning of the next stage of your saga. 

You must now turn your attention towards editing your draft–the gentle sanding process that makes your final paper smooth to the touch. 

One way of editing your final paper is to ask another reader for feedback. However, prematurely asking another person to look over your first draft is a sure-fire way to receive feedback about minor grammatical errors, misspellings, and trifles that you could have identified yourself had you put in the effort. Such readers get mired in muck and will be unable to fully provide the feedback you are seeking. Beyond inefficiency, this basic editing work is the responsibility of the author. Thus, sending your draft to a reader too soon is offloading the hard work of editing–your work–onto another person. 

Before sending your manuscript to another person, it is your duty to edit, edit, edit. Unfortunately, editing your own writing is hard. And doing it well is even harder.

Where do you begin? This is a difficult question to answer for novice writers. And sadly, I, a relatively more experienced writer, cannot fully give you an answer. What I can offer is a glimpse into my self-editing process. I sincerely hope this pulling back of the curtain allows you to benefit from my experiences and may give you ideas on how you can move forward. 

Here is my self-editing process. 

  1. Give it time. If possible, complete your draft and let it sit. Watch a movie. Go about your weekend. The longer the better. Then you can revisit your draft with fresh eyes. In your first rereading of your manuscript, focus on the “big picture”: Is the major organization of information logical? Does one section naturally lead to the other? Does each paragraph within those sections naturally lead to the next? Perhaps there are gaping holes that must be filled or tangents that must be cut. In your first pass, focus on the forest, not the trees. Do not get bogged down in the minutiae of editing sentences or phrases that may be axed. 

Once your sections are in order, and the paragraphs within those sections are also in order, I then read for flow. I look for long sentences that can be broken into shorter, punchier sentences. I add transition words such as “however,” “consequently,” “nevertheless,” “moreover,” “accordingly,” etc. These transition words let the reader know how the different parts of your manuscript are logically related to one another. It holds the reader by the hand and guides them through your manuscript.

This first stage is all about kneading your manuscript until it takes the shape you want. It is not uncommon to delete or cut-and-paste entire paragraphs (or sections!) during this stage. You may need to write, step away, and revisit your writing several times before moving on. Yes, this step takes time. 

Now set down your ax and grab a chisel, it is time to move in closer. For me, I tackle the mechanical parts of writing next. 

2. Separate editing tasks. Take several passes through your manuscript only focusing on one thing at a time. First, look for quick word swaps: Swap out “in order to” with “to”; “whether or not” with “whether”; and “due to the fact that” with “because.” Second, look for intensifiers such as “very” and “really.” Most of the time these intensifiers can merely be deleted. Other times, you need to find a stronger adjective to say what you really mean. Third, search for the word “that” and think about whether each one is necessary. They often are not. Fourth, search for implied words. For example, “the participants were in the process of completing” can be more concisely written as “the participants were completing.” Fifth, search for places where you have multiple adjectives and replace those with one better-suited adjective. 

This step is not about the flow of your paper, it is about clearing away the clutter. It is not uncommon to snip and shave off several lines, one word at a time, from a manuscript during this stage. Remember, take several passes through your manuscript while focusing on one thing at a time in each pass. Hence, this step also takes time. A lot of time. But the result is a well-groomed manuscript. 

3. Use a spelling and grammar checker. Find the squiggly lines in your manuscript. Think about what is being suggested. Understand why a word or phrase got flagged. But do NOT blindly accept the recommended changes because these programs are not always correct (computers are dumb). Address each place in your writing that has been flagged. 

Next, change it up. Try to look at your own writing as a reader would.

4. Read your paper aloud. Your ear will let you know when your writing sounds off. Really pay attention to places where your speaking stumbles because this is an indication your writing needs a tweak. Do this until your writing flows. 

5. Listen. Microsoft Word has a “read-aloud” function. Have the document read to you at least once. Seriously. Close your eyes and listen to your paper. Again, let your ear tell you when a phrase sounds off. 

6. Go Old School. Print the document and go through it with highlighters and colored pens. These are not anachronistic office supplies, these are the tools of successful writers. Holding your paper between your fingers allows you to really notice things that your mind ignores when you are staring at a screen. 

7. Plant a tree to repent for Step 6. 

8. Incorporate changes. Re-open your manuscript on a computer and incorporate all your changes from Step 6. 

9. Change the aesthetics of your manuscript. Make your font two sizes larger. Change the font. Change the color of the font. Go to a new environment. If you write in 12-point Times New Roman black font from your bedroom, try reading your manuscript in 14-point Garamond in navy blue font while you sit at Starbucks. Changing the aesthetics of a familiar manuscript will call attention to the mistakes that are hiding in plain sight. 

10. Reread. Change your manuscript back to the original formatting. Reread your manuscript. 

11. Repeat. Repeat steps 1-10 again. Seriously. 

Once you’ve completed these steps, you are ready to share your writing with others.

A PowerPoint presentation is available here. Feel free to use, share, or modify this presentation any way you want.

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