This is the first of a two part series; today, I’m going to talk about the process that I go through when editing any of my own work (and that extends to prose as well as essays), and tomorrow I’ll talk about what I do when I’m editing someone else’s work. This might also be a case of, “Do as I say, not as I do,” because there are more of the best practices that I’ve learned to follow, but if I’m in a particular hurry, I don’t always do everything.
In any case: You have written an essay/short story/novel chapter or whatever that you’re going to be presenting to other people–either in person as part of a workshop, for a grade, or posting online for a wider audience. Maybe you have an editor already, which is great, but you’re considerate and don’t want your editor to feel miserable. Here are a few guidelines that I like to follow.
1. Take a step back from the finished product for about an hour, then come back and read it aloud.
This might sound kind of silly, because if you’ve just finished something (especially an essay for school), you might want to just be done with it. Either you’ve rushed it and you know it’s bad and you never want to see it again, or you’re feeling really confident and don’t think there are any issues (or at least, no major ones). Here’s the thing though: Every single person in the world makes typos. Fact of life. Stepping away from something you’ve written and doing something else for a little while kind of gives you new eyes when you step back to it. Scanning what you’ve written isn’t going to be enough to catch every typo/error/wrong word/instance of bad syntax, though. Reading it aloud, however, does make you that much more likely to catch something that’s not quite right.
2. If possible, print a copy of the written thing out.
This isn’t viable for most people, which is understandable since ink and paper cost money, and even if you’re printing from the library, you still run the risk of having to pay 10 cents a page. That said, if you have easy access to a printer, just print the pages out. It’s okay to do double-sided for this purpose. We read things differently on a computer screen than we do on a computer screen. Additionally, having a printed copy means that you can mark it up with a pen. While Word and Google Docs both have an “add comment” option, and Word does mark changes, sometimes it feels better to be able to scratch out entire sentences once you realize they don’t make sense.
3. Know the conventions of whichever medium you’re writing in.
If you’re used to using MLA formatting, you might be thrown for a loop when you’re asked for APA. Luckily OWL @ Purdue does show how to format in just about every different academic style, but what if you’re trying to self-publish something? Most websites have style guides as well, including how the best way to format a Word doc if you’re putting it into a grinder for ePublications (spoiler alert: don’t double-space in that case). If you’re writing for an online publication, you’re probably going to be expected to us AP Style (and they have a Twitter where they share daily tips in case you’re stuck on something). Always make sure you’re formatting things the way professors/readers/bosses would like them to be formatted.
4. Figure out where you struggle and pay attention to those parts.
Some people are atrocious spellers. It doesn’t matter how many times you had to write “definitely” on a sixth grade spelling test–if you know that you always spell it, for whatever reason, as “defiantly,” make sure you’re going back to check it. We live in an age of spellcheck, and while it won’t be able to tell if you’ve used the wrong word in place of what you wanted, it can tell you if you’ve misspelled anything else. Make use of that. If you have an issue with commas, review what Strunk and White have to say about it in “The Elements of Style,” which you can find as a free .PDF file online through Bartleby. Once you know your own weaknesses, you’ll be a lot better at spotting them.
5. Phone a friend.
We all know at least one person who studied English and knows what good writing looks like. Reach out to them to see if they’re willing to take a look. If it’s something that’s important (like a paper you need a good grade on), make sure you’ve got another set of eyes on it at some point. For those, you might have workshop days during class, but if you don’t, you’re going to need someone you can trust. (Alternatively, I do offer editing and beta-reading services, and you could always contact me.)
Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing some tips that I’ve used while editing other folks’ work and writing. In the meantime, if you found these tips helpful, consider buying me a coffee from Ko-Fi.com.