What?? You mean you don’t want to hire me to edit every single piece of writing that leaves your fingertips? Emails, quick notes, stuff on tight deadlines??? I am SHOCKED.
Sometimes you just don’t have the time, budget, or inclination to hire a professional editor (no whatever it’s fine I’m fine I don’t care I’m fine it’s cool I’m totally cool). Beyond simply running the spellchecker, how can you effectively edit your own writing? Here are my three biggest tips.
1. Give it some time
This is my most important tip. Hands down, the best way to edit your own writing is to step away from it for a bit and then come back with fresh eyes and a clear mind. This is because, simply put, you’re too close to it. Because you already know what you’re trying to say, your brain starts to predict words and skip over typos. You’re also too caught up in your thought process to notice, say, awkward pacing or confusing organization. It’s just how the mind works. It also explains why it’s much easier to edit someone else’s writing than your own—because you don’t yet know what they’re going to say.
And don’t feel bad, I frequently miss my own typos! Diehard Crispers (a fan group I just made up) might notice (they definitely do not notice because they don’t exist) that little tweaks start to pop up a few days after I publish a blog post. Should I build in this self-editing time before hitting publish? Yes, obviously. Do I have that patience? No, annoyingly. So I wait a couple days and then go back to read my post, at which point I inevitably find more than a few errors and messy spots.
Try to give yourself at least one day before self-editing. Put the piece down, stop thinking about it, and come back to it tomorrow. Of course, this is not always possible; especially in a professional context, time is often a luxury. Ideally, we could all take a week or even a month to let our minds completely forget all our little writing dilemmas and decisions—I wish! If taking a day is not an option for you, at least try to wait until your mind has cleared a little bit. Do another task first or take a quick “mindless fun” break—anything to give your brain the chance to focus on something else or be blank for a little while—then come back to your writing with fresher eyes.
2. Strive for consistency over correctness
Here’s the big editing secret: a lot of so-called grammar “rules” are completely subjective. Even the major style authorities, like the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, don’t agree on everything—hence why these differing guides exist in the first place! Sure there are indisputable errors, like misspellings or mispunctuations, but many style decisions are up to the writer.
Take the word “spellchecker” that I used in the introduction. Should it be separated into two words? Is it a proprietary program that warrants a capitalized letter? Arguably, you could style it as spellchecker, spell checker, spell-checker, Spellchecker, Spell checker, Spell-checker, Spell Checker, or Spell-Checker. YOWZA, that’s a lot of options. If you want a little guidance in your decision but don’t want to shell out for a subscription to the AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style, you can look up whether the term appears in a trusted online dictionary (I prefer Merriam-Webster) as well as how major publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal treat it. This usually doesn’t produce a clear-cut answer (you’d be surprised how often a major publication isn’t consistent across its own articles!), but it can give you a little more context in making your decision.
Anyway, all that to say that many of the writing questions you have are actually up to you. Rather than stressing out too much about whether this word is capitalized or that word is hyphenated, make a note of all the iffy terms as you write, and then go back to check that you’ve treated them the same way in each appearance.
This goes for formatting, too. For example, if you have a bulleted list with periods at the end of some lines but nothing at the end of others, decide which style you like better and punctuate all bullet points the same. And if you capitalize every word in some headings but put others in sentence case (wherein only the first word is capitalized), pick one style and enforce it across all headings. As long as you’re consistent throughout, no one call fault you! (And let’s be honest, most people likely won’t even notice. …Sigh. What purposeful work I do.)
3. Try to avoid jargon
Ah, jargon. The sworn enemy of approachable, accessible reading. I especially dislike business jargon (popular bandwagon, I know) for its unparalleled ability to obfuscate and self-aggrandize. I think my least favorite biz word is “operationalize.” Ooo boy. Just the thought of this unnecessary verb makes my brain wince.
Okay, that’s a little harsh. Every industry has its unique materials, roles, problems, processes, and so on, so of course terminology must be developed to describe these things. And if the audience for your writing is fellow industry folks, it is perfectly acceptable—and often necessary—for you to use the agreed-upon vocabulary of your profession. You’re all on the same page.
But what if you’re writing for a wider audience? Will readers of your law practice’s website understand the legal processes you’re describing? Will subscribers to your financial services newsletter comprehend the investment options you’re offering? Will customers of your handcrafted products get the intricate methods you’re explaining? Or will it all just go in one ear and out the other, leaving them no more informed (and possibly a little more turned off) than when they started?
Jargon is language’s way of signaling exclusivity—“if you don’t know what this word means, you’re not in the club.” And when your writing is going to be disseminated to people outside your industry, you probably don’t want to make any of your readers feel excluded. Text filled with shoptalk and buzzwords can often tire, confuse, and even annoy the reader. Instead, imagine explaining your topic to someone on the street; an oft-quoted anecdote of a physicist says your scientific discovery is useless if you can’t explain it to your waiter. Insult to the service industry aside (speaking of condescending, jeez), taking the time to explain your ideas beyond just plopping in some jargon will help your reader understand your message better, in turn making it more engaging and memorable.
So before hitting send, take a minute to consider your audience, and then scan your piece for insider language and potentially unfamiliar terms. Revise jargon with clear, accessible wording, which will convey your message more effectively than exclusive, obscure, look-at-me language.
We don’t all have the luxury of hiring an editor or getting someone else to look over our writing. By giving yourself some time between edits, aiming for consistency over correctness, and avoiding jargon, you can edit your own writing more effectively than just hitting spellcheck and hoping for the best. (Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely run spellcheck, too! Just don’t rely on it, because computers can flag some things as errors that are totally fine, while missing other blatant mistakes. Not today, robots!)
And, you know, if you DO want to hire me to edit every single piece of writing that leaves your fingertips, I’d love to work together. 😊