Be Your Own Editor

In an ideal world, every writer would have a top-notch editor who understands the needs of her project and the idiosyncrasies of her writing process. There’s no substitute for a trained editorial eye when it comes to realizing the full potential of a piece of writing—even (or maybe especially) those of us who are editors by trade value another editor’s insight on our own writing.

But we live in the real world. And the reality of tight budgets and tight timelines means that you can’t always get what you want. What you can always get, however, is yourself. It’s absolutely possible to be your own (cheap!) editor, if you know how to shift gears. Self-editing is not always easy—there’s a reason it’s called “killing your babies”—but it’s among the most useful skill sets for anyone who writes.
Try these tricks for wrangling your writing into top form.

  1. Step away from the manuscript. Yes, you have been staring at it for too long. To successfully edit your own work, you need to see it from a different perspective, and nothing facilitates this more effectively than time. So go take a long walk or watch some cat videos before you try to edit.
  2. Give yourself fresh eyes with a fresh format. As with stepping away, printing out a hard copy of the document in question is an important way to see it differently. While it may seem terribly twentieth-century, working from a print copy forces your brain to engage more deeply. Similarly, you’ll also notice things you wouldn’t otherwise by reading your work aloud—one of the oldest tricks in the editor’s book.
  3. Think big-picture first. Fight the temptation to start rewording sentences or adding commas, at least for now. Start with a holistic review—that means looking at the organization of the entire piece to make sure it’s logical and complete. Creating a reverse outline is a great technique to this end.
  4. Get to know your bad habits. We all lean on certain writerly crutches, and it’s important to recognize your own. Perhaps you overuse the passive voice, repeat the same transitional phrases, or write overly long sentences. Once you’ve identified your problem tendencies, it’s easy to spot and fix them. (We’ve got a post in the pipeline that focuses on this topic, so stay tuned for more!)
  5. If you can say it in fewer words, DO. While the utility of academic jargon has long been a contentious topic, it’s always the case that more direct communication equals more clear (and therefore more effective) communication—even if you’re writing for an audience of specialists. Examine every sentence with an eye toward simplification. Your readers will thank you.