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3 Tips for Self-Editing

by Mistina Picciano  ||   2 Comments

Even professional writers – from Margaret Atwood to Kurt Vonnegut – benefit from the expert guidance of an editor. The same holds true for anyone who puts pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – and represents either himself or his organization to the world.

But what if you don’t have an editor handy? Or the budget to subject every memo and email to scrutiny?

Try these three tips, and see how your writing improves:

  • Set the writing aside. If possible, put down what you’ve written, and look at it with a fresh set of eyes. Ideally, let the work sit overnight. What seemed brilliant at the time may read less so the second time around. Stephen King recommends putting a novel draft in a drawer for three months before starting the revision process. That newsletter article or ten-minute speech probably doesn’t need to marinate for quite as long, but you get the point.
  • Lose the jargon. Virtually every sector has its own insider language. And yes, we recognize the need to speak our clients’ lingo and show that we understand them. Too often, however, experts get so caught up in the technical terms that they fail to communicate to readers, who either click away or discard the document. When reviewing your writing, ask yourself, would Mom know what I’m trying to say? If the answer is “no,” rewrite.
  • Read your writing aloud. Okay, this tip may sound a little silly, but it’s critical. Until you read your writing out loud, you don’t appreciate the rhythm and flow of the words. Are you gasping for breath in the middle of a sentence? Try breaking it up. Do your points sound short and choppy? The effect might jar your reader. Circle any sections that don’t sound right, and edit those on your next pass.

If you’re interested in a bonus tip, circle any semicolons you find. Replace them. Use periods, commas, even em dashes. Unless you know which grammatical rule justifies that semicolon’s existence in that place and time, you’re better off leaving it out. (We’ll give semicolons an entire blog post or two, but this misunderstood punctuation mark is misused far more often than not.)

Put these self-editing tips to practice, and please share with us how they work out for you. Or let us know your best advice for improving your own writing.

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2 Responses

  1. All great tips Mistina. When I am reviewing my writing. I try to picture the person reading it and ask if he or she would understand what I am trying to communicate. Goes along with your idea of avoiding jargon, but also addresses other assumptions I may have made about their knowledge level, culture perspective, etc., as well.

  2. Thanks, Howard. Your tip is one of the tried-and-true practices when writing sales (or any other form of persuasive) copy. Your words are much more authentic when you know exactly whom you’re speaking to, or writing for, and can craft your message for that individual.

    A variation of that approach is the “barstool technique,” where you picture yourself sitting down next to your audience member and write as if you’re chatting over a couple of beverages, adult or otherwise. This technique is especially helpful in establishing voice.

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