When you’re writing your first draft, it’s important you do all the things that help you be creative. Make your ginger-lemon tea, burn your incense, put on your writing socks. Play music, drink wine, and let your mind get into the flow.
But when it comes to draft number two, it’s time to kick the writer out of the room. Send her to lunch or to the movies, and let your editor-self play bad cop.
Whether you are about to turn in your work to an editor or acting as your own editor, there are techniques that can help you be more effective when re-reading your pieces. If you’ve read your article or story a hundred times, it can be hard to read it again and notice the mistakes. Your brain literally won’t let you.
So, here are four tools that will improve your self-editing skills.
1. Read backward.
At the paragraph level, start by reading the last paragraph in your piece. Then read the second to last paragraph, etc. Or, you can start by reading the very last sentence, then the sentence before, and then the sentence before that.
Either method works because both are based on the same principle—you are taking your words out of context so you can look at the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This is not a great technique if you’re self-editing for flow and logic.
2. Read out loud.
If you like to write in a coffee shop and this one has you thinking, “No way,” then just try moving your lips instead of voicing the words. But speaking (or mouthing) as we read has the effect of slowing us down. It makes us present to each word, which makes us see when a word is wrong or extraneous.
This technique works well for copy-editing type issues as well as logic and flow issues. If something feels awkward or redundant to say, then it will probably feel that way to read, too.
3. Take a break between writing and editing.
This is my favorite editing technique. Not doing anything. Just setting your work down, walking away, and thinking about something else. It’s best if you can take a whole day between the “completion” of your first draft and when you return to it. This means, of course, that you must start writing your piece well ahead of deadline. (This is often the hardest part of this technique.)
If you can make it happen, creating that gap between writing and editing will allow you distance from your work. That distance will help you to see not only the grammar and punctuation issues, but also where you could have been a little more creative or where you could have built your argument more.
In that time between when you stop working and when you come back, you may find your mind wanders and provides you with new inspiration. Ever wonder why you always get ideas while in the shower or on a walk? Because you’ve let your mind free from what “has to be done right now.” Try to do that in your writing as well so your ideas can flow and you can see your work objectively when you sit back down.
4. Hire a free editor.
What? They have those? I thought all editors cost five dollars a page, right? Nope, you can use free online services to point out some issues you might have in your piece. My favorite is the Hemingway App.
This app will pick out the hard-to-read sentences, the passive structure, and any adverbs (because we all know how Hemingway felt about adverbs). It also shows your word count and the grade level of readability. If you’re writing a novel or a highly creative personal essay, this app may not work for you. For most online writing it’s a great place to start. I send some of my staff writers to it simply so they can see how many adverbs they use!
This app’s ability to point out the abuse of words becomes especially obviously when the writer has a go-to word—like “very,” “really,” or “ultimately” —and the app highlights the word fifteen times. I call these go-to words “crutches.” Because that’s what they are—you rely on them to convey meaning instead of taking the time to pick better nouns and verbs that can stand on their own.
The online version of the Hemingway App is free, but you can also download a desktop version for $19.99. I’ve never bothered with the paid version, but I do know people who prefer the paid version as functions as a word processor, allows them to write when WIFI is unavailable, exports to Microsoft Word, and can even publish straight to Medium and WordPress.
Switch Personalities for Successful Self-Editing
Remember, your inner-writer and your inner-editor are two different people. Once your first draft is done, thank your writer-self for her lovely work and then usher her out the door. As your editor-self, it’s time to put away the wine, tea, and smelly candles.
Instead, load up on caffeine, turn off the music, and go find an empty room to lock yourself in so you can read out loud backward—and so no one can see you cry when you start deleting all those beloved adverbs.
Do your best to leave space between draft one and draft two, because as you can see, it’s quite a character shift. You might be able to pull it off, but it will be easier with a little breathing room.