How to effectively self-edit your writing

Today, I spent the morning and afternoon editing two pieces I’ve been working on for weeks. One is a personal experience/travel essay and the other is the first two-ish chapters of a memoir.

After weeks of writing and re-writing, I finally got both pieces to a place I felt good about, so I knew this weekend it was time to sit down and honestly examine them paragraph by paragraph, line by line and word by word. This painstaking process is what is known as self-editing.

Self-editing is a highly valuable skill for writers to develop.

It’s more than just going over your work with a fine-toothed comb, searching for typos, misspellings and incorrect noun-pronoun agreements — anyone can do that.

Self-editing is about the ability to hear your voice and know when it’s been lost halfway through a story. It’s about being brutally honest with yourself and acknowledging that something is missing, or that something needs to be clearer or tighter. Sometimes its about knowing when to cut part of a story you spent hours writing altogether.

While cutting, adding and tweaking certainly can sound more enjoyable than the daunting process of putting words on a blank page, it can be just as — if not more — challenging.

If you ask friends and family members to edit your work and give you feedback, more than likely they will all say that it’s so well written. Maybe they’ll have a few comments here and there, but chances are there won’t be many.  That’s because non-writers tend to think that those of us who can write always write well. And we writers know that’s not the case.

Before I started on my most-recent travel essay, I wrote another one. I thought it was great, and my loved ones confirmed this. However, when I went back and read it again a few months later, I realized how little effort I had actually put in to the piece — I definitely didn’t self-edit it like I just did my current travel piece.

Self-editing can transform an okay or good enough piece of writing into something extraordinary. After working through your writing process and finalizing your work, take the time to self-edit what you’ve written and remember these tips as you do:

Be brutally honest with yourself. You’re a writer, and hopefully a voracious reader, so you know how to differentiate between good and bad writing. Be willing to admit when your writing is bad. Look for sentences that are too long, as well as ones that are too short and fail to match the feel of your writing. Does your sentence structure flow with your story, voice and theme? Pay close attention to your descriptions. Are you showing or telling? Do you need more dialogue or factual data to make your story come alive? Be nit-picky about your adjectives to ensure they are conveying exactly what you want them to — keep a thesaurus and dictionary on hand to help. Above all, don’t marry yourself to anything that you’ve written. If a thought or idea doesn’t sound as good as it once did, force yourself to find another way to convey the meaning. And if the idea no longer fits, highlight it and hit delete — I promise you’re better off without it.

Pro tip: Google “self-editing checklist for TYPE OF WORK” to get a comprehensive list of what to look for as you self-edit.

Get away from the screen. I do my best self-editing on paper. I will usually start out on a computer, but when I print out my work and read it off-screen, I can perceive nuances I couldn’t before. Though my husband gets frustrated with how much ink and paper I use along the way, it’s worth the cost when my final piece is one I’m eager to share with others.

Read your work aloud. Go somewhere private and read your entire piece aloud. Hear the cadence of your words and punctuation marks as you hope your readers will, and edit accordingly. I often do this several times, until every comma has been carefully placed.

Self-edit, and then self-edit again. I’d recommend one final self-edit after you think you’re done. A few days or weeks from now, your work may not sound the same. You may be in a different headspace and able to discern things you couldn’t before. While you shouldn’t obsess over a piece you’ve put in the appropriate amount time to self-edit, one final session can help you know for sure that everything is where you want it to be. At work, when I have limited time to do this, I put down what I’ve written for an hour and then come back to it. Even a short reprieve can make a difference in what you read, see and hear.

Once you’ve taken these steps, allow yourself to feel the accomplishment that comes from knowing you did all you could to produce your best writing!


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