So you’re writing something important. Like cover letter for your dream job important, not replying to a J.K. Rowling tweet important. You’ve finished your first draft, and you reckon it’s pretty good. But you know from experience that your writing isn’t bullet-proof (honestly, whose is?). There are probably a couple of typos, spelling mistakes and confused homophones hanging out in there like uninvited errors at a raging word party.
What are you gonna do?
- Mum’s overseas.
- Your colleagues aren’t paid to proofread your personal documents.
- And your friends are too busy, unintelligent or imaginary to help you.
Yep, it’s down to you. You’re in charge of proofreading this piece of writing that could change your life, or whatever.
The issue is that self-editing is so much harder than editing someone else’s work. Your mind is already familiar with what you’ve written, your eyes see the words you remember writing, and you subconsciously ignore all those nitty gritty typos that anyone else would notice straight up.
What you need is a way to bypass your brain and actually read your writing like a real editor. With a couple of these self-editing techniques under your belt, you’re going to find those mistakes and amaze the world with your flawless writing.
(I don’t guarantee it. Use these techniques at your own risk.)
Take Some Time Apart
If you have the luxury of a day between now and when you need to submit/send your piece of writing, do yourself a big self-editing favour: sleep on it. Print that bad boy out, spread the pages over your mattress, and have a good ol’ snooze.
But, actually, spending a day – or at least a couple of hours – away from your work will help you see it with fresh eyes when you dive into the proofreading. So take a nap and self-edit tomorrow.
Read it. Read it. Read it OUT LOUD.
“If it seems stupid but it works, it’s not stupid.” – The internet.
Seriously, though, reading your work aloud will help you identify words that are absent or unnecessarily repeated. Hearing it all spoken can also reveal sentences or phrases that break the flow or are just plain awkward. Trust your intuition on this – if a sentence doesn’t sound right when you say it out loud, look for a way to make it better.
For the best results, read your work slowly – even dynamically. Adding a little OTT drama to your writing will force you to focus on one word at a time, so mistakes are less likely to slip through the cracks… of your eyes. The cracks of your eyes. That’s a thing now.
(Btw, that subheading is a KISS reference, you uncultured swine.)
- You may like to try using a digital reading program rather than listening to your own voice. The creepily subhuman cadence of a recorded robot could be just what you need to hear what’s wrong with your writing.
- If you actually do have a friend, but you don’t think they’re clever enough to proofread your work for you, read it to them instead. The extra pressure of a second opinion will force you to focus. Just be prepared for this kind of response:
Seek and Destroy
The biggest mistake you can make when self-editing is to assume there won’t be any mistakes. Approach your writing as if you expect to find errors. Treat every word with suspicion until you’ve confirmed it’s correct. Assume every punctuation mark is guilty until you’ve proven it innocent.
When hunting for mistakes, pay special attention to those weaselly words that commonly appear where they’re not needed. You know the ones.
Yeah, that unruly gang.
Everyone has their own common offenders as well, the words they know they should cut back on. If you write a lot, you might like to build a list of words you lazily fall back on. This way, when you’re self-editing, you can do a cheeky ctrl+f to seek and destroy these words. Then all those baddies will be toast and you can strut away like so:
(Not an accurate depiction. Your experience may differ.)
Funky Fresh Formats
Switching up the format of your document can trick your mind into thinking it’s not the same thing you just wrote. This unfamiliarity can make it easier to spot those sneaky typos. For example, if you write in Calibri, change the document to Century Gothic before you proof. Some people also find it helpful to increase the font size while self-editing. Just don’t get distracted by any weird page breaks that emerge as a result!
If your project is like super duper important, you should print it out and edit the paper version. You may be surprised by the extra clarity you get when you take your work off-screen.
The 3-Take Self-Editing Technique
This technique entails exactly what it sounds like. You’re going to read your work 3 times, each time with a different approach:
- Be a reader. Does the content make sense? Do you understand the message? Is it easy and engaging to read?
- Then, be a writer. Do sentences flow nicely? Are paragraphs structured well? Does it meet your objective?
- Finally, be an editor. Look only for typos, mistakes and inconsistencies (e.g. in the formatting).
If your life depends on this project and you want to be even more thorough, you can break the 3rd step into several parts. With your editor hat on, read your work multiple times, each time only looking for one particular kind of error. For example, do a read-through where you only check for:
- Punctuation problems
- Spelling mistakes
- Tense inconsistencies
- Incorrect verb/subject agreements.
This enables you to zone in on potential technical mistakes without getting carried away by the meaning of the words. Plus, you’re less likely to miss a mistake because you were busy fixing an error nearby. With this strategy, you’ll be a self-editing superhero in no time (if you have enough patience to pull it off).
And that’s really all I’ve got for you.
While you’re at it though, check out these 4 tips you can implement now for better writing. Because self-editing is easier when your first draft isn’t so goddamn awful.