Self-Editing: Advice for Lovers and Deadline Pushers

Self-editing can be emotional. When writers don’t hate everything they’ve written so much that they throw it in the trash and swear to never write again, they usually love it enough to be completely blind to its flaws. Like lovers newly struck by Cupid's arrow, they know what their work is thinking without it having to say so. They giggle loudly at jokes that aren’t there, and they praise virtues that no one else seems to see. Meanwhile the rest of us observe awkwardly, wondering what they’re thinking.

In writing as in love, the best solution is long time and honest friends. But in writing as in love, sometimes neither is available. Deadlines often come shortly after the actual writing is completed. It’s “ring by Spring” and “book report by 3 p.m.” You may not have time to put your writing project or your engagement ring into the drawer until you and a friend can look at it with a fresh set of eyes. So, whether your lover is a potential soul mate or a midterm paper, here are some tips for you. 

 

 

1) Look more than once.

Most people already know this. Sometimes it just takes a little extra motivation to actually do it when you’ve spent hours chasing a high word count. Look for different things on each reading. Fix bigger problems (bad arguments, misplaced paragraphs, useless sentences) before smaller ones.

 

 

2) Sleep on it.

Few people make good decisions late at night. If you can wake up early enough to do revisions in the morning, do it. You will almost certainly be able to do more objective work after you’ve rested and been away from your writing. Alternatively, a bit of leisure time on Facebook might help a little, but in writing (as in love) it is considered best practice to delete your Facebook account and get some sleep.

 

 

3) See if you feel the same way without dressing up.

It's a cheap but mildly useful trick: change the font and other formatting can make the work less familiar and easier to judge. But don’t use comic sans. Just don’t do that to yourself.

 

 

4) Check for a sturdy skeleton.

Can you highlight a thesis statement? Can you highlight a few sentences that summarize your evidence? What about a conclusion? If your writing project requires a clear structure, make sure all of the elements are there. Use different colors if it will help.

There are times when it's okay to spurn convention. Writing is a creative enterprise. But if you are beginning a writing project the night before a deadline, it is not one of those times.

 

 

5) Say it out loud to see how it sounds.

Enunciate and pay attention to every word. Audibly hearing the writing in your own voice will cue you to things that you won’t notice visually on paper. Structures that make sense in your head will sound awkward coming from your mouth. You'll have a better sense of what others see when they read your writing.

A good variation on this is to use the text-to-speech software on your computer to read your paper aloud to you. Text-to-speech has recently graduated to the level of not awful, and hearing your work in someone else’s robot voice (with plenty of sultry accent variations—don’t get too distracted!) can give you new perspective and rob you of the harmful conceit that you are a poet.

 

 

6) Check from behind.

This is a sentence-level trick. Start with the last sentence and read it out loud. Then move to the second to last. When you follow the flow of your own thought from the beginning, it’s easy to fill in gaps or read over grammatical gaffs. Reading your sentences in reverse disrupts that flow and makes you pay attention to whether or not your actual sentences and their subordinate elements are good.

 

 

7) Watch out for common problems.

Putting an apostrophe in the find tool on your word processor can help you track down rogue contractions. It’s and its are hard to keep track of if you are in a hurry, and if you know that you make this mistake (or other simple ones) often, it doesn’t hurt to do a quick run-through. Of course, this requires that you know yourself and your most frequent blunders.

 

 

8) Just be careful.

Because failing to be careful with words—in writing as in love—can make your life more difficult than it needs to be.