The essential guide for anyone who has to edit their own business writing.
Writing and editing are not separate processes. To some degree, good writing IS good editing. But you can’t write and edit at the same time, and you need to do both to produce good writing.
As William Zinsser, American writer, editor and critic, argues: “the essence of writing is rewriting. Very few writers say on their first try exactly what they want to say… A piece of writing must be viewed as a constantly evolving organism… If the process is sound, the product will take care of itself.”
Increasingly, writing is part of what most people do for a living. But unless you’re a novelist or journalist you’re unlikely to have the benefit of a professional editor, so here are three tips for editing your own writing.
1. Get some distance from your writing
If you’re editing your own work, the best tool at your disposal is distance. You’ll get more distance if you print it out and see the document as your reader will. So, print it out, step away, put it in a drawer, leave it for as long as you can, then look at it again. And when you edit use critical eyes. Getting distance by using someone else’s eyes is even better.
As an editor the first read through is the most important. Do it properly and work out what needs to change. In your later reads you’ll be sensitised to the style of the writing (and the mistakes) and less attuned as reader.
2. Break it down
Editing is a multi-stage process, so you should view editing and proofreading as separate steps.
Consider doing two separate edits for longer documents: a structural edit in which you pay attention to the bigger picture and a more detailed line by line copy edit later. Then finish off with a final proofread where you dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
Always ask yourself what the document is meant to be doing: who, what, when, where, how and why? Make sure the text answers these points clearly and logically.
Don’t forget to check facts and spellings, and edit headings, lists, numbers, figures, tables, charts, illustrations and captions. And always double-check any maths.
3. Hold yourself to account
If you’re editing your own work it’s easy to let yourself off the hook. So, create an editing checklist of things you want to look for. Devise a style sheet for longer documents or refer to an in house style guide if one exists.
Invite criticism of your own work from others. Your audience needs to understand what you’re saying. It’s not their fault if they can’t. It’s probably yours.
Most importantly, be critical of your own work. Let go and don’t get attached to the words you’ve written just for the sake of it.
Editing can be painful, awkward and confronting. But it shouldn’t be. A good writer should be open to the benefits – and there are many – of editing. As Gardner Botsford, editor at The New Yorker for 40 years, said: “The less competent a writer, the louder his protests over editing will be.”
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