How to Edit Yourself

How to Edit Yourself: Four Steps to Better Writing

by Barbara Nordin

Even the best writers need editors. That doesn’t mean you have to hire one; even if you’ve never edited anything, you can easily improve your writing by using the approach outlined here.

Editing is like sanding wood till it’s smooth and the grain is revealed: You begin with coarse sandpaper and progress to fine. A good substitute for sandpaper is Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words by Bruce Ross-Larson. The author covers all the basics, and offers a wide variety of other pointers as well. I especially value Part II, “What Editors Cut, Change, and Compare,” because it has an extensive list of words and phrases that are frequently misused or, in many cases, superfluous.

A word about working on paper versus working on the computer: Do whatever feels easier. If you’ll be sharing successive drafts with others, you’ll probably want to use Word’s Track Changes tool—but remember that you can make your changes on a hard copy and later insert them electronically. In any case, the more relaxed you are as you edit, the more likely you’ll be to catch mistakes and rough spots.

First Revision: Grab the 40-grit Sandpaper

1.         Delete every word that doesn’t strengthen the text; you might even set a measurable goal, such as aiming to reduce your word count by 5 to 10 percent.

2.         Read your edited text aloud and note any spots where you stumbled or had to pause to check your meaning, then go back and rework those passages.

Second Revision: Switch to the 80-grit

1.         Delete every instance of inflated language or sloppy writing; for instance, “utilize” can be replaced by the humbler but more straightforward “use,” and “the role of the principal” is a roundabout way of saying “the principal’s role.” Say what you want to say as simply and clearly as possible.

2.         Check to see that there’s agreement between all prepositional phrases and the verbs attached to them—for instance, “A list of this year’s classes is [not “are”] on our website.”

3.         Check for parallel construction. “We personally interviewed principals, teachers, and gave the students written questionnaires” is incorrect; “We personally interviewed principals and teachers, and gave students written questionnaires” is correct. This is easy to miss—but by correcting nonparallel construction, you make it easier for your reader to comprehend your meaning.

Third Revision: Graduate to 100-grit

1.         Scour the text for apostrophe errors. I don’t know whether anyone’s studied this, but the most common punctuation mistakes in English have got to be (1) confusing “it’s” (the contraction for “it is”) and “its” (possessive case) and (2) the use of apostrophes to form plurals (e.g., “The school’s were underfunded”).

2.         Check for improper placement of quotation marks relative to other punctuation. Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, colons and semicolons always go outside, and question marks and dashes go inside if they’re part of the quoted material and outside if they’re not.

3.         Correct inconsistent capitalization. This is a common mistake and distracts your reader, who has to wonder why you’re drawing attention to a capitalized word that seems to have no special distinction—for instance, “This year’s Meeting will be a long one.”

4.         Finally, check your spelling. If you’re using spell check, remember that it won’t correct “form” when you meant to type “from”—which means that you can’t skip doing it the old-fashioned way, even if you begin by catching as much as you can with spell check.

Fourth Revision: Break out the 120-grit

1.         Enlist a reader—preferably someone who’s coming to your text cold—and ask him or her to highlight anything that isn’t clear.

2.         Polish any rough spots.

3.         Put your text aside for at least a few hours, then do a final read-through to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

If the process I’ve outlined seems overly thorough, think of it as an investment: Readers appreciate effective writing—and, as a result, are more likely to publish your manuscript, visit your website, or support your organization’s cause.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the newsletter of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence.