We can't all afford to pay an editor to review our work. And sometimes our kind friend who's great at picking up typos just doesn't have the time (when you write as much as I do those favours wear out quickly).
So what can you do if you need to edit your own work? Just wanting to improve your work doesn't give you the tools you need to do so.
I'm going to give you specific ways to approach the editing stage of your work so you know exactly what to look for and you can attack your work with confidence.
But before we go on, let's talk briefly about reading. You've probably heard the advice before that you should read a lot if you want to be a better writer (I've even suggested this myself). Although this advice is repeated often, it's worth mentioning again because it really does help. Reading and writing use similar cognitive processes, and therefore tend to affect each other.
Unlike talking to someone or listening to an audiobook, reading a writer's work whom you admire puts the words in front of you. You can visually explore the way the writer shapes sentences and the words they choose. Visualising is a huge part of making memories (after all, over half our brain power is used up by our vision) so you can't beat reading for taking in and remembering interesting ways of writing.
And the more you read, the more you'll keep coming across the same new words until they become familiar and you can use them yourself. The more options you have—vocabulary, rhythm, style, and tone—in your arsenal, the less often you'll get stuck and the more confident you'll be in your writing.
One last note before we move on:
Since I want this piece to be relatable and actionable for you, let's address a couple of words I just used that can often be hard to pin down and understand practically: rhythm, style, and tone.
Rhythm is the beat, or the cadence that underpins your writing. If you use long, flowing sentences full of soft words and lots of adjectives, you'll have a particular rhythm to your writing—probably a slow, gentle one. If you use lots of short, staccato sentences and harsh punctuation like full stops and exclamation points, you'll get a faster, more forceful rhythm in your work.
As author Jack Hamann points out, one of the best ways to discover the rhythm of your writing is to read it aloud. Although not all writing is created to be read aloud, this approach can help you find dull or awkward sections in your work. It can also make it obvious where you need to slow down or speed up your rhythm by changing the length of your sentences.
We all know what tone is, but it's hard to describe exactly. It's a bit like learning your native language—you learn to understand tone innately, and then it's hard to ever understand how to actively focus on tone or change it. Tone comes through in word choice—for instance, if I use "we" and "us" and "our" I can achieve a more inclusive tone. Using "I" and "me" and "in my experience" will give my work a more personal tone. I could use "you" and "them" with other gentle words to point something out, or with harsh words like "should" and "absolutely" and "unbearable" to produce a more dictatory tone.
It helps to think about your audience and what you want them to get from your writing when you're choosing your tone.
Mine tends to appear naturally, so if I want to adjust it I need to consciously focus on it. For instance, I write with a very personable tone naturally—using lots of personal stories, and mentioning myself often. Many times as I'm editing I'll adjust my writing to focus more on "us" and "we" to achieve a more inclusive tone in order to make my writing more friendly and approachable.
Style comes from a mixture of all of the above: vocabulary, rhythm, and tone. It can also be influenced by the type of writing (an academic paper or a blog post), the context (written for children or adults), and the timing (written today or 100 years ago).
The best advice I've ever read about style is to not force it, and to not look for it.
You already have a style. You only have to let it out. And the more you write, the more it will evolve naturally. (If you don't believe me, read something you wrote two years ago—I expect you'll notice a big difference.)
If you do want to affect your style, my advice would be to focus on the pieces that make it up: improve your vocabulary, adjust your tone by changing your word choices, and try different rhythms by shortening or lengthening your sentences and using different punctuation.
If you come across an author whose work you love, read as much of it as you can. It's quite amazing how much you can imbue from another writer's style if you spend long enough with it.
Have you ever binge-watched a TV show where everyone has a different accent to you, and then noticed you're talking or thinking in that accent? The same thing happens with reading. The more different a style is from yours, the more obvious the effect seems to be (for me, at least).
Aim for succinctness
There's a general custom for writers when it comes to grammar rules: first adhere to them, then you can break them.
Many writers "break" grammatical rules, but most do so with a knowledge of those rules. They do this on purpose, for stylistic effect. This is what separates their work from writers that are simply ignorant or forgetful of rules, whose work generally suffers. These maverick writers are communicating effectively by working around the rules. Writers who don't know the rules communicate ineffectively because their intentions are to write within the rules but they're not doing so.
Succinctness is a classic example. If you've ever read a Cormac McCarthy book you'll know what I mean about writers who break the rules. If you haven't, The New Yorker's James Wood sums up the experience like this:
To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration... His sentences are comma-less convoys, articulated only by the Biblical "and": "They’d had their hair cut with sheepshears by an esquilador at the ranch and the backs of their necks above their collars were white as scars and they wore their hats cocked forward on their heads and they looked from side to side as they jogged along as if to challenge the countryside or anything it might hold."
(Though James also says "McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer".)
Succinctness isn't the only way to improve your writing or communicate effectively with your reader. But if you're unsure where to start when editing your work, cutting extraneous words and sentences is an easy way to start improving.
Start by drafting without any editing in mind. Write as quickly as you can, and don't worry about how much you're writing.
I don't think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. — Stephen King
Remember that word count does not affect the quality of your work. Getting your point across and helping your reader in some way is the most important goal for your content.
So when it comes time for editing, cut, cut, cut. Be as ruthless as you can muster (that probably won't be very ruthless initially, but you'll get better at it). You want to look first for any unnecessary words. Adverbs are a common culprit—those are the "ly" words like "completely", "quietly", and "mostly". A lot of the time you don't need them, but we tend to put them in anyway.
Another common culprit for me is the word "that". Often I take "that" out of my sentences and they read more clearly and get to the point more quickly.
Next, try looking for whole sentences you don't need. If you're repeating yourself with different words, pick one sentence and remove the other. Sometimes it feels like you need to really ram home your point (I know, believe me) but repeating yourself is just boring.
Finally, look for any long sentences. See if you can split these up into two (or more) shorter sentences. For me, this is still really hard. I tend to write medium-long sentences naturally and I feel awkward writing short ones. But the more you make yourself do it, the easier it becomes.
Shorter sentences can make your point more clear and direct. I tend to write long sentences because I fill them up with phrases like "I think" and "in my experience". I fluff up my sentences to avoid coming across as too arrogant, and to back up everything I say with examples (or just more adjectives).
Writing short, direct sentences takes guts.
See? I could have written that sentence like this:
*In my experience, it can take a lot of guts to write sentences that are short and direct.
Yuck! I definitely need more practice, but hopefully you can see in that one example how big a difference it can make when you pare back your writing to just what's necessary.
This is a more high-level technique for ensuring your writing makes sense overall, the paragraphs flow into each other, and your points are clear.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Work through your draft from top to bottom, and for each paragraph write a one-line summary on the paper.
When you're done you'll be able to see a birds-eye-view of your draft and how it all fits together.
Cut your piece of paper into strips—one for each one-line summary—so you can move them around. This is an easy way to work out the best flow for your piece and discover sections you might not need.
If you don't want to cut up your paper, number each of the summaries. Then you can play with different arrangements without rewriting each summary over and over.
When you're happy with the structure of your piece, read your introduction and your conclusion. Don't read anything in-between these. Now think about whether reading those makes you want to find out what happened in-between. Are you curious enough to read more? Do you get the point without needing to read the rest of the piece? And do your intro and conclusion tie-in together to make a cohesive wrapper around your writing?
Taking these two parts out of context can help you see ways to improve them that aren't obvious when they're supported by the rest of your content.
Improve your first line
The first line is your chance to grab the reader and draw them in. As Brian Clark says in a Copyblogger post, the job of each sentence is to get the reader to read the next sentence. This starts with your first line and continues through the entire piece.
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. — Stephen King
Like any part of your writing, introductions get easier (and better) with practice. But there are a few tips you can rely on to help you improve your first line:
Don't start your piece with a question.
According to editor Kas Thomas, this approach is overdone. You don't want your readers to think the rest of your writing is lacking originality, so don't start this way.
Cut your first paragraph.
Writer James Altucher suggests writing whatever you like in your introduction, before cutting the first paragraph entirely. I've relied too heavily on this approach in the past, which can lead to each piece abruptly jumping into the action. If used occasionally, however, (or if to-the-point is the style you're going for) skipping the normal "niceties" of an intro can be a powerful way to drawn a reader in.
Orient the reader.
Although it's a fiction technique, this tip from Stephen King can be used to create a powerful first sentence for a blog post or article, too. King points out that great first sentences in fiction often help the reader understand the time and place of the story, and give them information about the main character.
For instance, this sentence from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
"Nobody's riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket", King says.
He's a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who's going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
As this post by Joe Bunting shows, well-written first lines are memorable. Joe uses examples like "Call me Ishmael." from Moby Dick, and "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." from Pride and Prejudice.
They can be incredibly hard to get right, but with a job as important as hooking your reader before they bounce to another page, it's worth spending time to perfect your first line.
Review with a beginner's eye
According to cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, a phenomenon called "the curse of knowledge" could be hurting your writing. This curse is a problem we all have: we can't unlearn things we've learned.
Once you know something, you can't help but assume other people know it too.
To get around this, Pinker says the best option is to ask someone else to read your work. Although you can try reading with a beginner's eye, "we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us."
So you might think you know how your readers will respond to your writing, but you'll probably be surprised by the truth.
If you don't have someone else nearby to read through your work, write yourself a note to keep nearby as a reminder of this curse. Ask yourself what your audience knows or doesn't know as you read each piece of writing you work on. You might not get it spot on, but asking yourself these questions might help you avoid some of the assumptions you'd make otherwise.
Another good way to test how much the curse has got hold of your work is to take notice of comments. If your readers are responding to your work with questions you didn't expect, take note of what they don't know. This can give you a better idea of what you need to explain more that might have seemed obvious to you.
You're not alone when it comes to improving your writing. These tools can help you pick up things you might have missed otherwise and get an idea of how your editing is improving your work.
Hemingway App is a web and desktop app that points out options for simplifying your writing and making it easier to read. It cover four main areas for improvement:
- Readability (categorised into "hard to read" and "very hard to read" sentences)
- Words with simpler alternatives available
- Adverbs that can be removed (for instance, "helpfully")
- Uses of passive voice that can be coverted to active voice
Remember how I said great writers learn the rules before ignoring them? Hemingway is useful for that first step. I tend to ignore a lot of what it suggests to me for stylistic reasons (eg: passive voice might be "technically" bad but sometimes I choose to use it anyway). But I still find it useful for pointing out my long sentences.
If you're still developing your style, or you know you need to improve in one of the areas Hemingway focuses on, give it a try with your next draft.
How readable is your writing
Have you ever wished there was a score to tell you exactly how good your writing is? Well there isn't, really, but there is a score for readability. That is, how easy to read your work is.
There are actually a few tests around to score the readability of a piece of writing. These three are used often:
- Gunning fog index estimates number of years of formal schooling needed to read and understand a piece of writing.
- Flesch–Kincaid grade level estimates the minimum US grade level required to read and understand the writing.
- Flesch reading ease produces a score out of 100 for how easy a piece of writing is to read. 100 is the easiest reading.
According to Wikipedia, the scores of the Flesch reading ease test work out like this:
90–100: easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
60–70: easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
0–30: best understood by university graduates
Of course an objective score can only go so far in determining true readability. As Gabe Habash points out in this post for Publishers Weekly, a book like Finnegans Wake, which includes many made up words, can score as more readable than something full of longer English words.
But as a starting point, a readability score can be helpful. It can give you an idea of whether you're going overboard with too many long sentences, and makes a good reminder to simplify your word usage.
There are plenty of free online tools to help you test your readability score.
Readability-score.com lets you paste in your text to test for a variety of scores including all three mentioned above. It also gives you stats like word count, words per sentence, and syllables per word.
Readability-score.com also offers a bookmarklet, so you can easily run the tests on any webpage. Or you can paste in any URL instead of copying the full text. Premium members can get extra features for $10/year, including uploading files and setting up readability monitoring on your site, with automatic alerts if your readability levels gets too high.
Readability Test Tool
The Readability Test Tool also explains the formulas used by each test it runs so you can see how to improve your scores.
The Writer's Readability test tool
The Writer's Readability test tool is a very simple option. It only lets you paste in text, and runs only three tests on your writing.
The results are also very simple, but that can be helpful if you're looking for a quick way to get a rough idea of your work's readability.
Here are my results from The Writer for my draft of this blog post:
Your score is 67
Well done. We reckon most business writing should aim for a score of 65. And your grade is about eight, which is at the same reading level as transcripts of many of Obama's speeches.
If you're curious about how your work compares, you can also explore this Readability Catalog of Project Gutenberg eBooks to see what ratings classic books get.
Which words are you overusing
Something I definitely need help with is not using the same words too often. I find my writing tends to feel repetitive when I use the same words throughout a blog post over and over.
These tools can help you figure out which words you're using the most.
WordCounter lets you paste in some text and pulls out a list of the most frequent words used. You can choose to omit small words like "it" and "the", and you can decide how many words you want it to list—from 25 to 200.
These are the top ten most-used words for my draft of this blog post, according to the WordCounter tool:
- write: 35 uses
- word: 24
- work: 22
- read: 20
- sentence: 16
- how: 14
- use: 14
- tone: 14
- test: 12
- writer: 12
The word frequency counter
The word frequency counter from WriteWords is very similar to WordCounter, without the options of list length and excluding small words. However, WriteWords also has a phrase frequency counter that lets you choose how many words to count as a phrase (from 2 to 10) and gives you a list of the most common phrases you've used.
Here are my top ten three-word phrases from this draft, all used three times:
- you paste in
- to read and
- to improve your
- to be a
- that can be
- so you can
- can help you
- be a better
- as you can
- and you can
Looks like I'm really overusing the word "can"!
Editing can be really tough. I often find it even harder than drafting a new piece. But I try to keep in mind this great quote from fantasy writer Patricia Fuller when I'm struggle to get through some editing:
Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.
Not having a professional editor doesn't have to relegate you to waltzing around in your literary underwear. Keep these techniques and tools handy during your editing process, and don't forget to read a lot.
One last thing: if you need some editing practice, try this 10-minute editing exercise. It helps you spot ways to improve by editing someone else's work so your emotional attachment doesn't get in the way.
Freelance writer Jeremey Duvall said this after trying the exercise:
When I’m reading someone else’s writing, I can be a bit more critical, which trains my eyes to find these same mistakes the next time I’m proofing my own post.
If you have any other handy tips for editing your own writing, share them in the comments. It never hurts to have more techniques than you need!
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