Good writing, as a craft, starts with a rough piece that needs sanding, polishing, and a good coat of lacquer before it shines. The skills you must learn to edit your own writing are not difficult, but they are critical. Here are a few tips and ways of thinking that will help you hone your work into a useful and beautiful piece.
Changeup – The best way to read your own writing critically is to change the circumstances when you edit. Start and end your editing process by reading your piece out loud. If you write on a computer in the quiet of your office, print it out and take it to a noisy coffee shop. Pay close attention to the rhythm of language as much as the topic itself as that will help put you in your reader’s mind.
Audience – Verify that you are speaking directly to your audience before you do anything else to edit your own writing. Read your piece with a clear vision of who it speaks to and why the topic you have written is important to them. The reporter’s five Ws – who, what, when, where, and why – should be clear and stated up front, usually in the first paragraph.
Reading is Writing – The reader of your piece must decode language into a clear image. The process they use is very much like writing itself. When you edit your own writing take a step back and read it as if someone else wrote the piece. Does it flow? Does it engage the imagination? Clarity, not cleverness, marks the strongest and most memorable work.
One Topic – The strongest pieces are going to be about one thing only. Examples that inform that topic from a different perspective can work, but they have to be directly related to what the piece is about. Before you edit with a detailed eye be sure that your subject is well covered and is not diluted by unrelated topics.
Brevity is the Soul of Wit
Active Voice – Once you are clear on the major issues, you can start paying attention to detail. Conversational writing in blogs naturally tends toward passive voice, which can become a bland ramble. The easiest way to shine up your language when you edit your own writing is to scan for the “ing” ending – if that ties back to a verb that is a form of “be” (is, are, were, et cetera) you have passive voice. Replace it with an active verb whenever possible.
Tense and Perspective – A clear setting and strong images have to be maintained by the language you use. As you edit your own writing you will have to pay attention to the perspective you have established and be sure it is maintained. The strongest writing will maintain the same tense (present, past, or future) and perspective (I, you, or they) throughout. You can change between paragraphs if you are careful but it is best to be consistent throughout.
Consider Search Engines Pieces should be written for humans first because there is no search engine algorithm worth more than echoes through social media. Once you are sure of your audience and imagery, however, you can edit your own writing to include a few key words and phrases that will goose google as needed.
Learning to edit your own writing may seem daunting, but with practice anyone can do it. It is critical that you accept the philosophy of quality writing before you work down a checklist, however. Start with a purpose and rough cut before polishing a fine shine of details. Think of yourself as a craftsman, not an expert, and you’ll do well.
This piece first appeared at SpinSucks.com in March, 2011