Monday, May 19, 2014

Self-Editing for Non-Writers

I have the weird, alien characteristic of loving to work on research papers, fiction books, articles, biographies – not just write, mind you. Work on. I’ve helped many people reconstruct and edit essays and short stories for school projects. In general, they all hate me. “How can you possibly like this?” and “Why are you smiling? This isn’t fun!” are two very familiar comments in my world.

While I adore writing and editing, I am completely aware that this sets me apart from the general public. My non-writer friends hear the words “Did you edit it yet?” and give me a look normally reserved for snakes escaping from the zoo.

The problem with self-editing is that it is incredibly daunting if you don’t know how to do it. Many people hate it because there always seems to be something to tweak. You write and write and write and end up back where you started. And, frankly, sometimes it feels like you made it worse.

How can you learn to edit if you don’t even know where to start?

First, you need distance. I know all you procrastinators will probably hate this, but it’s true. In order to see if your writing really did what you want it to, you have to be able to see the big picture. Whether that’s letting it sit for a month or a day, try it. You’ll be amazed what problems you spot once you haven’t been peering at them up-close for six hours in a row.

Second, practice on other people. If you’re in college and have to write a lot of papers, pay attention to your classmate’s work and how they do things. Look especially for phrasing and formatting that turns your stomach; once you know what doesn’t work, it’s easier to write better from the get-go.

Third, don’t try too hard. I really can’t stress this enough. Of all essays and books and theses I’ve edited, the Number One Problem is usually this: people write for effect instead of meaning. Stop writing so you sound cool or to hit a word count. Maybe you’ve seen this meme floating around Facebook:

When a writer writes just to hear the sound of their own voice, they sound like Kronk. I love Kronk, but you really don’t want to sound like him when you’re writing about the technological advances of the laser beam, or introducing us to your epic fantasy world of dwarves and elves.

Make sure you read your work out loud and listen for awkward phrasing. If what you read doesn’t lead to your goal, delete it. If it sounds weird, re-word it. Self-editing can be a painful process, but once you get the hang of it, it can make a world of difference. 

What kinds of strategies do you use when you edit your writing? Let's talk about them!

Michelle's mom says that she started correcting people before she even went to kindergarten, but that timing is up for debate. She tries not to be a Grammar Nazi, but sometimes it just slips out.

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