Recently, in a post about editing professional
writing, I broke down the revision process into 3 general
stages, which I’ll repeat below. In that post, I gave my best tips for
people who are editing someone else’s writing: find out where in the
process the author is, and give feedback that’s appropriate for that
stage. Here, I want to give a few tips for people who are editing their
own writing, again broken down by revision stages. Not all of these
methods will fit everybody’s style, but these are some of the ones I
One general piece of advice before starting: print it out. Forgive me,
trees, but a change of context is crucial to getting a new perspective
on something you’ve been laboring over on a screen.
Editing: Make a reverse outline
this stage you’ve got a draft or part of a draft. There’s still
big-picture work to be done: ideas, structure, and audience focus can
all be refined further.)
For looking more closely at a piece’s
structure, one good strategy is creating a reverse outline. Standard
outlining is probably familiar from school assignments: you plan out
your structure with copious roman numerals, and you stick to those numerals loyally. Reverse
outlining is less a planning strategy than a way of stopping to see
what you’ve already got. Here’s what you do:
Go through your draft. Next to each paragraph, write a phrase or brief
sentence saying what the main point(s) of that paragraph is.
- When you’ve done that for every paragraph, take all of your phrases and put them in order, like a list.
Look over your reverse outline, keeping an eye out for these things:
-Were you able to find a main point for each paragraph? There aren’t
any hard and fast rules about how long paragraphs should be (in news
writing, for example, it’s perfectly valid for them to be just one
sentence) or what internal structure they should follow (there are
paragraphs that start off with a main point at the beginning, and
paragraphs that build toward a main point at their end, and
combinations in between). But in whatever size or format, a paragraph
should be a coherent unit of thought. If you had trouble summarizing,
there may be some drift going on.
-What kind of order do the points follow? What is the connection
between one point and the next? Is there a general trend to the list?
Do equally important ideas get a similar amount of attention?
Are there chunks that seem out of place once you’ve got them boiled
Copyediting: Read aloud
(At this stage you’ve
worked through the big picture stuff. You have a good sense of what
you’re saying; now you can work more on how to say it.)
one is simple. It’s best if you can work with a partner–give them one
copy of your draft, and keep another for yourself. Have your partner
read aloud, listening carefully for places where they hesitate or
stumble. Sometimes when reading through your own writing, your mind
will smooth over an awkward patch because it knows what to expect.
Hearing someone else try to parse your sentences can give a different
sense of which ones work and which ones need work. If you don’t have
someone to read to you, then reading aloud yourself can still be
helpful–again, a change in perspective is crucial to helping you catch
things that could be overlooked.
this point, you’re done making changes to your structure and, for the
most part, your wording. Now it’s time to clean it up: get rid of typos
and grammar/punctuation errors.)
me, proofreading is the stage where it’s easiest to overlook something.
By the time I’m wrapping things up, I’ll have considered my phrasing
several times, but I might be so used to a sentence that I don’t see
the extra “the” or missing “a” in there. At this point, the big picture
that’s been the focus so far becomes a distraction–it needs to be
backgrounded so the details can stand out. One way to do this is to
start at the end; read your draft backward, one sentence at a time, all
the way through. Getting rid of the context helps break up the flow
that makes it easy to skip over a typo. Choosing any reading path other
than the natural start-to-finish one should help with this.
General tips and tools
- Print it out. It’s worth repeating, because it’s surprising how much that simple change can make an error jump off the page.
at it in context. A lot of times, the spaces we write in (a word
processor, the back end of a CMS, a blogging tool) are not the same as
the ones people will be reading in (a PDF, the front end of the site, a
projection where every letter is blown up to several times its usual
size). Seeing what you’ve written in its new form is the only sure way
to work on things like formatting–it’s also one more chance to
proofread, aided by another change in perspective. It might sound
obvious, but don’t forget to look at your writing in the context where
it will actually appear.
- Spell check is generally not a great
tool–it’s a blunt instrument that highlights problems that aren’t
really problems while missing contextual errors. In response to my last
post on editing, Nolan, our lead software
engineer, pointed me to a tool that he uses for his own
writing: http://www.polishmywriting.com/. Unlike a normal spellcheck,
this tool is contextually smart–so it can tell if you’ve used ‘hear’
when you meant ‘here’–and it also provides style suggestions to
simplify overly complex phrasing. As with any tool, you should think
critically about its suggestions rather than taking them at face value;
for instance, it will highlight anything that’s in passive voice, which
isn’t actually always wrong. But even if you don’t use every
suggestion, this seems like a good tool to point out places where you
might want to stop and think about why you’ve chosen the words you’re