Tips for Better Self-Editing

July 11, 2017

There are not a lot of people who enjoy editing their own work. And, because so often, as writers, we are writing against a deadline, we don’t give ourselves enough time to do a complete edit.

A complete edit needs time. The longer you can be away from your writing, the more people you can get involved in helping you, and the more time you can commit to the rewriting process, the better your final product is. But you know that and, frankly, you don’t always have that kind of time.

But since some editing is better than no editing, this is a guide to editing when you can’t gather an editing team the way you’d like.

  1. You’ll need a hard copy: It may seem old-fashioned, but you need to print up the document. You need to look at this in a different place from where you wrote it, which means printing it and leaving your writing space.
  2. Grab a highlighter and take the document somewhere private: Read the document out loud and highlight any sections that do not flow easily. I tend to just bracket the margins. Do not fix anything until after you have read the entire document.
  3. Fix those sections: Go through and clean those sections up. Be ruthless. If the phrase doesn’t flow well when you say it out loud, it won’t read well either. And if you confused yourself while you were reading your own work, just imagine what you might do to a reader who is not sharing your familiarity with your project.
  4. Read it again, this time as your intended audience: This time, go back to your workspace with access to all the normal distractions and read the document. Mark any place you found your mind wandering or any section you thought was particularly powerful.
  5. Starting cutting: Take a look at the sections you like and the sections you didn’t like. Can you spot the differences? The sections you like probably got to the point and you feel like your research goals shone and the points were made. The sections where you mind wandered, you need to cut words, sentences, perhaps even paragraphs to get the sections you didn’t like to look a little more like the sections you did like. You are going to have to get a little mean with your work. For example:
    1. Keep your paragraphs to three or four sentences
    2. Keep your sentences simple: usually a well-defined subject, a strong verb and a clear object can get the job done faster and better than a large number of clauses.
    3. Whenever you can, get rid of the adverbs and adjectives. Usually you can do better by substituting for a better verb.
    4. Use authoritative language. Limit “probably,” “could,” “appears,” and “suggest.” Reviewers are aware you are talking about work that hasn’t been done yet so you aren’t sure what is going to happen, but make sure you make it clear to your reviewers that you are committed to the validity your hypothesis.

Self-editing is hard, especially learning how to distance yourself from your work. When you have the time, I recommend you take advantage of editing services and ask your peers to review your content. But that sometimes requires more time than you have. Taking a step back and going through your work methodically is a must for making it readable and increasing your chances of getting funded.

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