Learning how to DIY (do it yourself) when it comes to editing your own writing isn’t just difficult, it’s downright painful. How do you edit the words you so carefully crafted? Lucky for you, I found five DIY editing tips that will elevate your writing and fool readers into believing you hired a professional editor.
Successful writers – whether they want to freelance or write books for a living – have to know how to think like an editor. Even better, they need to convince copy editors that they learned how to edit their own writing without wanting to drink gin out of the cat dish (as bestselling author Anne Lamott would say).
First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life,” said Lawrence Kasdan, an American screenwriter who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi. Second, the good news: If you love writing, every night will be the best night of your life! Especially if you’re one of those writers who knows how to edit her own writing.
The following DIY editing tips are from a professional writer. Jessica Page Morrell wrote Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected as well as several other books on writing both fiction and nonfiction.
I’m a professional writer, but I write wrong. My DIY editing tip is to edit as you write — with is the worst way to write! Writing coaches and published authors say that the first draft should not be edited, revised or polished in any way. Rather, you should write your first draft without pausing to wipe your nose or scratch your leg, much less edit a single word.
That’s why these DIY editing tips are from a professional writer who edits the right way.
5 DIY Editing Tips From a Professional Writer
Here’s the most important do-it-yourself how-to-edit-your-writing without-weeping tip: After you put your writing away for some time (Stephen King tells writers not to read or edit their writing for at least six weeks), focus on one thing at a time when you’re revising.
Here are the four general things to focus on – one at a time – when you’re editing your work. First, find and fix the major mistakes. Second, fine-tune the individual scenes, pacing, and minor mistakes. Third, edit your grammar, sentence, structure, and mechanical mistakes. Fourth, focus on your overall style and readability.
If you can focus on each aspect of copy editing at one time, you’re more likely to catch all the errors. This is how professional writers edit their own work. They also know how to be objective and ruthless about cutting unnecessary words, images, and chapters.
1. Sprinkle questions through your writing
Asking questions and refusing to answer them (or delaying the answer) will keep your readers hooked. An important aspect of this DIY editing tip is to answer those questions before the reader forgets about them or gets frustrated.
2. Edit for smooth transitions
This is an editing tip that requires a professional writer’s eye. If you write something, you already know the connections between the paragraphs, chapters, characters, etc. But your readers don’t know. That’s why you need to edit with a reader’s perspective – especially if you’re a new writer without a lot of DIY editing experience. If you don’t transition your thoughts and ideas, your reader will be lost. A transition is like a thread that runs from the beginning to the end of your article and holds the while thing together.
3. Print your writing in a different font (my favorite DIY editing tip)
After I wrote the first draft of Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back, I printed the whole book and took it for a walk in the forest. That’s where I edited it. I didn’t hire a professional editor, and didn’t need to because the publisher edited it twice. I had no idea a book went through at least two different editors at a publishing house! Back to this do-it-yourself editing tip: not only should you print out your writing on paper, you should use a different font, font size, and spacing than you did on screen.
4. Edit in a different location
I edited my book while reading it aloud and walking through the forest. Editing your writing in a different place gives writers “editorial distance”, says Morrell. Getting out of your writing space will help you edit like a professional writer – even if you don’t have a formal writing space yet.
5. Don’t edit your voice out of your writing
“…too much rewriting can drain the life right out of a piece,” writes Morrell. “Don’t strive for perfection; it doesn’t exist.” Try to retain the spark or spice that makes the piece yours. Don’t revise your work so much that you can’t hear your writer’s voice.
One final DIY editing tip: professional writers save all previous drafts of their work. Not me (even though I’m a successful writer and published author!). I edit in the same document I originally wrote, which means I have no record of how my books, chapters, blog posts and magazine articles were written. That’s dumb.
Morrell recommends saving previous unedited versions of your work in case you need to reinstate them (which I haven’t had to do. Yet). She even recommends numbering and/or dating all your prior drafts.
If you’d rather write perfectly from the beginning without having to learn how to edit your own writing, read 4 Examples of Good Writing From Professional Writers.