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I'm looking to improve my ability to edit and correct my own writing. What are some techniques I can use to help me with this?

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11 Answers 11

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Here are a few editing tips that I use when going through manuscript for publishers:

  1. Do a search for the word “that.” Read the sentence aloud. If the sentence makes sense without the word “that,” please delete this word.
  2. Do a search for the word “it.” If at all possible, replace the word “it” with a more concrete noun or phrase. Example: It didn’t matter. = The crappy weather didn’t matter.
  3. Read through your manuscript and look for overused words or phrases. If your character is rolling his eyes three times on one page, change two of them to something else. If you use the word “hand” six times in 2 paragraphs, find another way to describe what’s happening using other words.
  4. Read through your manuscript and look for redundancy – He shrugged his shoulders. He nodded his head. A person ONLY shrugs their shoulders or nods their head, so “his shoulders” and “his head” are not needed. He shrugged. He nodded.

Using these four tips should really help tighten up your manuscript.

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+1 for mentioning overused phrases. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 23 '11 at 13:27

From my experience, the first thing you need to consider is WHEN to edit your own work. I find it more productive to write until I'm done, always going forward in my writing, instead of stopping every now and then to edit.

Why? because editing takes you back. You edit, revise, add, edit, revise again, and after a week you find that you are still writing the first chapter...

So, my advice is: edit when you're done writing. Shelving your work for a couple of days before editing it also helps to get a "fresh" look on things.

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Time.

Finish your draft. File it away. Walk away. Do something else for at least three months. The less time you leave the manuscript the more important it is that you do something else that's different.

When you have thoroughly re-programmed that part of your brain (HINT: Writing a sequel to the novel you're hoping to edit is not different enough.) you have some chance of re-reading the manuscript at one remove.

I am currently editing something I wrote in 2006/2007 in between I have written three more novels and three role playing systems. It's not a perfect system but I have no other editor to rely on.

One thing that's good, but probably only down to my own temperament, is that I am a very mean editor but I always take my own notes (heh).

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Agreed. Rewriting has a bigger impact when I've been away from the material for at least a few weeks. –  gmoore Feb 23 '11 at 16:57
    
Depending on what you're writing, a couple of months might not be feasible, but it is always a good idea to put some kind of distance between when you finish writing and when you start editing. If you've got a week to writer something, make sure you have time to finish writing you article, set it aside, and start editing the next day. –  InkAndPixelClub Feb 23 '11 at 21:54
    
Good point. I tend to think of novels and similar as that's what I write... –  One Monkey Feb 24 '11 at 10:21
    
After some practice you can force yourself to edit without the time gap. –  Ralph Gallagher Feb 24 '11 at 21:42
    
@Ralph: I don't know... there's nothing that substitutes for the moment when you have more or less forgotten part of the novel so that when you read it you either think: "Damn, this guy shows some promise" or, more commonly: "Who the hell wrote this?" I can do some good editing right off the bat but time reveals all dreck in the end. –  One Monkey Feb 25 '11 at 9:51

Don't overuse adverbs. They're often unnecessary. Mark Twain has a famous quote about the use of the adverb very:

Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

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  1. Make a list of your grammatical mistakes and how often you make them. Familiarise yourself with how to correct them.

  2. Make a list of your writing problems, such as beginning with long dependent phrases, check every sentence for this.

  3. Check sentences that have a series of nouns, adverbs etc., for parallel construction.

  4. Watch for redundancy and repetition. Many writers have a habit of using two, sometimes three, descriptive words together that are very close in meaning. They like the rhythm, but fail to see the redundancy.

  5. Watch out for poor word choices.

  6. Use the find/replace function to look for other problematic constructions.

There are many more pointers, hope these help in your quest to become a better writer.

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A terrific approach is to practice one key element of writing at a time.

Here are some exercises for focusing on one element at a time:

  • Draft a scene or section of about 500 words. Rewrite, focusing intently on improving the narrative flow--that is, the way one clause, sentence, or paragraph leads to the next.
  • Draft a scene or section of about 700 words. Delete 1/10 of the paragraphs. Then delete 1/10 of the remaining sentences. Then delete 1/10 of the remaining words. However many words you have left, that's your word limit. (If you still have more than 500 words, keep deleting words until you hit 500, and that's your limit.) Revise to replace anything important that was lost by cutting, but do not exceed the word limit.
  • Draft a scene or section of about 500 words. Rewrite using sentences no longer than 10 words each. If this is too easy, try sentences no longer than 7 words. Rewrite again using sentences of at least 20 words. If this is too easy, try sentences of at least 35 words. Rewrite again using everything you have learned about sentence length.

For fiction, some additional "one element at a time" exercises are:

  • Draft a scene of about 500 words. Rewrite with only dialogue and no narrative. Rewrite with only narrative and no dialogue. Rewrite again, using everything you have learned about dialogue and narrative.
  • Draft a scene of about 500 words in first person POV. Rewrite in close third person POV. Rewrite in third person limited, but with a greater narrative distance. (At this point, if you haven't beaten your forehead to a bloody mess against the keys of your Olivetti, feel free to rewrite one or two more times from different characters' POV.) Rewrite one more time, using everything you have learned about POV.

Here are a few "tie one hand behind your back" exercises. Draft a scene or section of about 500 words. Then do one of these:

  • Rewrite, eliminating every adjective and adverb.
  • Rewrite, eliminating every use of the verb "to be."

The idea here isn't that modifiers and "to be" verbs are evil. The idea is to:

  1. Notice the situations in which you habitually use modifiers and "to be."
  2. Identify the effects you are trying to create with modifiers and "to be."
  3. Identify other ways to achieve those effects.
  4. Weigh the effectiveness of the available choices.
  5. Choose mindfully among the available choices.

My writing group did one of these exercises per month for a year. We found the experience far more difficult than we expected, and worth every moment of the struggle. Everyone's writing improved markedly and immediately.

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An old trick is to read it out loud, and I have found having the computer read it for you works just as well and doesn't wear out your voice. Just make sure to pay attention and not get distracted by something else.

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I edit on paper, rather than in the word processor. I print it out. Then I make my edits with the classic blue pen, using proofreader's marks. Then I go back and make the changes in the word processor. I can't really explain why, but it helps me take off the Writer hat and put on the Editor hat, and I find the edits come more quickly and more effectively when I use this technique.

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Here are the four steps I follow when reviewing my work:

1. Read it backwards. Start at the last sentence in your piece and continue by reading the preceding sentences all the way back up to the beginning of your piece. You'll notice errors more easily because reading it out of order prevents your brain from filling in the gaps.

2. Read it out loud. This one speaks for itself. You'll be able to quickly spot issues with word choice and faulty sentence structures.

3. Read it in print. Most of us write and edit on our computers, and we get used to what our copy looks like on screen. Reading it printed on paper will give you a fresh look at your work.

4. Read it later. Put it aside and let your thoughts shift to something else. When you come back, you'll look at it with fresh eyes. The length of time depends on the size and deadline of your project. For magazine articles, I try to give myself a day's break.

These tips are based off of an article I read years ago, probably in Copyediting newsletter.

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I really like #1. I have never heard that before, but it sounds like a good idea. –  sjohnston Mar 3 '11 at 23:01
    
Reading it backwards does help. another is to use a different medium or device, reading on my iPod touch is different enough to catch things. –  Stephan F- Jul 7 '11 at 4:10

Automattic wrote a great tool called After the Deadline that helps style, grammar, and spelling. It's not a silver bullet, but it will definitely catch things that are easy to miss, like clichés, passive voice, and redundant phrases. It won't replace a good editor or any of the techniques mentioned here, but it helps.

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A weird technique that I use is to change the font that I write in when I edit.

I started doing this because I was always finding that I'd catch annoying issues with my work when it was at the galley proof stage (when it's really too late to change anything that isn't a total, clear ERROR). I tried to figure out why I saw the problems then rather than at any of the many times I'd read my work through the rest of the process, and I decided that part of it was the time gap, but part of it was the appearance. Once it looked like a real book, I read it differently.

So now I try to do a read-through of my MS at a larger font, and a different one than the font I write in. It sounds stupid, but it somehow makes my brain see the words differently, and I catch things that I didn't catch at the old font.

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If you can change the background color, that helps too. Red is good for spelling type errors. –  Stephan F- Jul 7 '11 at 4:12

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