Rarely do words come out in writing the way you want them to sound. And, of course, they never come out perfectly correct. Editing is one of the most important steps in writing, yet editing our own work is pretty difficult. Professional, published writers usually have their work edited by professional editors, though with the increasing use of instant-gratification publishing (like this post, like Twitter, etc), editing often goes by the wayside.
Editing is really a number of steps in the writing process that includes drafting, revising, and multiple levels of editing. For this post, let’s focus on the type of writing that you usually have to edit yourself. These are posts like this one, business letters, and the like. Here are some strategies that might help ensure your writing gets read–and not picked apart for errors:
1. Ask: What is the minimum I need to say without losing my reader(s)? Remember, readers can’t read your mind. Your message has to be clearly stated. Explain when necessary–but not more than necessary.
2. Cut, cut, cut. Go on a merciless hunt for unnecessary words– what writer William Zinsser calls “clutter.” [Here’s a fairly recent article by Zinsser (may he rest in peace).]
3. Read your writing aloud. You’d be surprised how many issues you will pick up on just by hearing your work.
4. Use spell-checkers and grammar-checkers, but don’t give these programs the final word. These are good for flagging issues–not so good for correcting them. I don’t know how many times in students’ papers that I’ve seen “defiantly” used when “definitely” was meant. Make sure that, when choosing from the list of correctly spelled words, you click the right word. Spell-checkers don’t check meaning. Ditto for grammar-checks. Use a dictionary and a good grammar reference to help you figure it out. Don’t get hung up on fussy stuff with grammar. The most important thing is that your message is clear.
5. Don’t press send! Give yourself a cooling off, even if it’s only 5 minutes to walk away, take a look around, get a snack. Read your writing again just one more time before you send it.
More than likely, your writing will not be perfect. There will be an error sooner or later. Someone will object to your comma usage. I think of those final editing stages as putting on the right clothes and accessories to impress. It shows you’ve made an effort and you care. And if you want to be read, you need to show that you take your writing seriously. Editing your work is nothing less than courtesy for your readers as well as showing integrity for your own ideas. How will you be taken seriously if your work is always riddled with errors? If you are weak in some areas, work on those. The more you write, edit and pay attention, the better you’ll get. Like anything else, all it takes is some practice. *