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3 Tips for Editing Your Own Writing

When I was in high school, I worked on the newspaper staff. We weren’t just any high school newspaper, though. Not to brag, but we were among the best in Ohio.

Every three weeks, we prided ourselves on delivering all the news that was fit to print at Theodore Roosevelt High School (and maybe even some that wasn’t) in a beautifully published, immaculately designed news magazine. At the helm of our success was Mrs. Danks, an English teacher extraordinaire who never stopped pushing us toward nothing short of excellence. Being true ‘90s kids, we called her Tenacious D.

True to this moniker, she set a high standard for anyone who worked on the paper. It wasn’t just an extracurricular activity and it was definitely wasn’t just another notch on a college application. It demanded creativity, exceptionalism, and most of all, attention to detail.

Everyone, of course, makes mistakes. But no careless errors were tolerated. Which is what made the following incident so egregious. One month, we did a special issue focusing on alcohol and marijuana use among high school students. The cover featured a cartoon of a beer bottle and a joint duking it out in a boxing ring, with “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” printed across the top in a font that looked like marquee lights.

The headline for the cover was supposed to read, “Alcohol vs. Marijuana: The Fight is On in High Schools.” Except that’s not what it said. After we got the issue back from the printer, we discovered that we’d spelled “alcohol” wrong. The headline for our controversial expose on high school drug use now read, “ACOHOL VS MARIJUANA.” Tenacious D. was NOT happy.

We didn’t understand what went wrong. The designer of the cover missed it. The students giving feedback on the cover missed it. Worst of all, on days when we mailed the issue, all hands were on deck to review the final product for errors… …which meant an entire staff of twenty students missed it. As a result, on the day the issue was released, we did a collective walk of shame.

In my experience, the more revision is required on something, the more likely you are to overlook things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and reread things I wrote in the past, only to find some stupid error that I completely missed. And I’m not alone.

Last week on Instagram, I posted a story asking people to submit their most embarrassing typos. One person wrote that the back cover of her published book had a misspelled word in it. I have no doubt that the error was caused not by sheer carelessness, but by just being too familiar with the project. It works like this. When you try to edit something you wrote, your brain plays tricks on you. It fills in missing words, self-corrects spelling errors, and generally makes you overlook small mistakes because it just knows the work too well. As a result, you labor under the notion that everything is a-okay, when really, there are typos and errors lurking that you never saw. So what do you do? An obvious solution is to have someone else read the thing, but what about situations where nobody qualified to do the job is available? Here are some of my most effective tips for editing your own writing.

Tip #1: Read your work out loud.

I know, I know. This one probably makes you feel a little uncomfortable. When I taught freshman composition and shared this tip, my students universally recoiled at the thought of hearing their writing read aloud in their own voices. And I get why. Reading my work out loud is an integral part of my process, but I still feel like an idiot doing it sometimes.

But here’s the thing: it really does work. By reading your writing out loud, you engage not just your vision, but your voice and hearing as well. This lets you experience your writing in a multisensory way that is more active than reading silently. Because of this, you’re able to notice more things that need to be changed. Just do it, okay? If you really feel uncomfortable reading out loud to yourself, call a friend and ask if you can read it to them. They might even be able to make some suggestions.

Tip #2: Change the font and text size.

Changing how the text physically looks on the page can help you to read it differently, making the errors jump out at you more easily. Put the piece in a different font, increase the size, and even change the color to eliminate the familiarity you already have with the text. If reading your work in Comic Sans offends your sensibilities, don’t worry. You can change it back when you’re done.

Tip #3: Take a break from it.

Trying to edit something too soon after you’ve written it is a kiss of death. Getting away from what you’ve written is of the utmost necessity, as distance from it will give you a fresher look when you go back to revise. I typically set something I’ve written aside for at least a day before I start the editing process, unless I’m on a deadline. If that’s the case, I work on something else for a few hours, go for a bike ride, grab a cup of coffee, or walk my dog, then come back to it (I took a break after I finished my first draft of this blog to make soup).

At this point, I usually read it out loud or change the type style in addition to reading through it silently. The key with all of these strategies is not to overwhelm your brain. The problem with using a computer, tablet, or phone to write is that typing increases the chances for mistakes. Dyslexia and a lack of spelling talent set aside, people don’t make typos writing by hand.

It also doesn’t help that autocorrect and spellcheck applications have a habit of causing more problems than they do solutions. Just in case you had any doubts, never rely on autocorrect or spellcheck for anything, or else you might end up in an article like this one.

Combine stimulus overload with familiarity in your own writing and poor self-editing practices and you end up with a recipe for mistakes. That’s why it’s so important to adapt your editing technique to the way your brain processes information. This makes you more likely to catch mistakes, and it also improves your writing style in general (more on this in a future post). Do you have questions about editing or are you struggling with a particular area of the writing process?

If so, I want to give you answers face to face, in real time, with a complimentary Zoom meetup.

Click here to grab 30 minutes on my calendar to talk about your current project, how to become a better self-editor, and any other concerns you’re dealing with. No obligation to sign up for anything—I’m just here to connect. In the meantime, start reading your work out loud. It’s a small step to take, but a necessary one.

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