How to Edit Your Own Writing

Three Parts:Analyzing the Overall StructureChecking for Clarity and StyleProofreading Your Writing

In the words of Louis Brandeis, "There is no great writing, only great re-writing."[1] Editing skills are an essential part of being a good writer. First drafts are almost never perfect, so it's important to take the time to revise your writing and create a better second, third, or even tenth draft.

Part 1
Analyzing the Overall Structure

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    Put the writing away for a few days. It can be difficult to edit your own writing. You’ve worked hard on it for weeks, months, or even years. When editing, you need to try to view your work objectively, as a reader would. So step away from the computer and give yourself a break from the manuscript. Focus on a different writing project or another activity and then return to the piece of writing with fresh eyes in several days.[2]
    • If you have waited until the last minute or were given a short deadline, you may not have time to do this. Getting a little distance and time from your work will help you read it more objectively and focus on what's actually on the page rather than what you think should be on the page.
    • You don't have to take day-long breaks. Even something as simple as moving to another task temporarily, going outside for a walk and a break, or calling a friend for a few minutes can help you "reset."
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    Print out your work. While some writers find it easy to edit their work on a computer screen, others find it much easier to spot mistakes on paper. Put the writing in a different format than the one you wrote it with. This will help you approach your own work critically and give you an outsider perspective.[3]
    • Usually, this will mean printing out writing that you've done on the computer, but you can also retype a first draft you wrote by hand.
    • Using a paper copy will also allow you to mark up the manuscript with editing notes and revisions.
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    Read the manuscript straight through without any revisions. Try to read through the entire piece of writing without changing anything or making notes about any major fixes. This will help you shift from your writer mode to your reader mode. Keep a mental note of any sections that felt confusing, unfinished, or weakly supported.
    • You can also try reading your work aloud. The best writing sounds smooth and natural — almost like you're speaking. Listening to your written syntax is one of the best ways you can catch areas with awkward phrasing. Make a mental note of any sentences or sections that do not make sense or that you stumble over while reading.[4]
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    Pretend you're the audience. After you've written and revised your work, put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Try to imagine that you have the knowledge and perspective of the person who will read your work. Keep in mind that your reader may have a very different attitude toward your writing than you do. Jot down your thoughts and make any necessary changes. Below are a few things to consider:[5]
    • Is the writing so confusing that you're getting bored by page two?
    • Is there any language you might not understand?
    • Are new, foreign concepts well-explained?
    • Is it written with a tone that seems appealing or attention grabbing?
    • What stands out to you most?
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    Revise sections, paragraphs, and/or chapters first. Often, writers focus on editing individual sentences and neglect the larger structure of a piece of writing. Do a big picture edit first, before you tackle words and phrases.[6]
    • Look at any chapters or sections that need to be tightened or fleshed out. Ask yourself: have I covered every possible angle of the topic or subject in this section? If you are editing an essay, you should check that there is an introduction, body, and conclusion. If you are editing a creative piece of writing, like a short story or a novel, look for any long winded passages or paragraphs that could be revised or shortened, especially in dialogue.
    • Note missing chapters or sections. Maybe you forgot to include a few lines clarifying an earlier point in the section. Or perhaps you realize you neglected to include a new section. Look at any gaps in the structure of your piece of writing.
    • There may also be scenes or sections that need to be reworked or revised. If you’re working on a long piece of writing, mark these with a post it note or a highlighted mark so you can remember that they need to be reworked more closely.
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    Check the tone and the voice. Think about the form you are writing for, and if the tone and voice of your writing fits this form. For example, if you are writing an online how-to article, your tone might be conversational and accessible with sentences that are no longer than one to two lines. But if you are writing period fiction, your tone and voice may be more formal and have anachronisms that were commonly used in the time period. An essay on a scientific topic will use scientific terms and a serious or professional tone, while an essay on a literary topic may use more casual language.[7]
    • One way to check that your tone and voice match your subject is to do a reading level writing check. Use an online tool, like the Hemingway App[8], that checks the reading level of a piece of writing. Most pieces of writing made for the general public, such as a how-to article or a blog post, should be written no higher than a grade 6-7 level. A scientific essay for a university class may fall in a higher reading level.
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    Note the sentence tense in your writing. Though there are several different variations of tense, the most basic tenses used in writing are past, present, and future.[9] Most pieces of writing use the past or the present tense. Whichever tense you decide to use in your manuscript, it should be consistent and remain the same tense throughout.[10]
    • Once you choose a point of view in your writing, the piece of writing should stick to the same point of view (first person, second person, third person). For example, an essay that begins in the third person should not then switch to the first person, with “I feel” or “I think” sentences.

Part 2
Checking for Clarity and Style

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    Look for any factual mistakes and correct them. Editing isn't just about looking for spelling and grammar mistakes. It's also about checking your statements for accuracy.[11]
    • For example, maybe you realize you misquoted someone or cited an incorrect set of data. This can then cast doubt on your entire piece of writing. If you don't have the facts right, readers will find it hard to take your main points seriously. Be sure to double-check all of your major claims and citations to ensure that your arguments have the firmest factual foundation possible.
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    Rephrase awkward sentences. Read paragraphs or sections out loud and mark any sentences that sound awkward or wordy. Make sure each sentence is clear and concise. Avoid long, meandering sentences and sentences that don't add anything to the paragraph that contains them.[12]
    • One common mistake is using too many subordinate clauses. A subordinate clause (also known as a dependent clause) has a subject and verb but can't stand alone as a sentence. For instance, this sentence has a subordinate clause before the comma:
      When staff fatigue was high during the fourth quarter because of lower earnings than projected, I led an initiative to improve morale.
    • The sentence can be edited so there is no subordinate clause:
      I led an initiative to tackle staff fatigue and improve morale in the wake of disappointing fourth-quarter earnings.
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    Ensure each paragraph has a point. This may seem like obvious advice, but it's something that's often forgotten when trying to reach a word limit. Every paragraph should have a clear, easily-stated point or focus. If you can't figure out why you included a certain paragraph in your writing, this is a sign that it needs to be changed or left out. When this point is well-developed or the focus of your writing changes, start a new paragraph with its own point.[13]
    • A useful way of determining when to start a new paragraph is to use the mnemonic "TiP ToP." This stands for Time, Place, Topic, Person. In other words, start a new paragraph whenever the time, place, topic, or person being discussed changes.
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    Organize sentences and paragraphs so that your writing has a logical order. Sometimes, simple rearrangement can make the difference between a good piece of writing and a great one. Order your writing so that it has a clear progression. The beginning should put forth the main point, while the pieces that come after should support it (or, in other words, show why it's correct). This general structure is good both for the entire piece of writing and for each paragraph.[14]
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    Remove any words, sentences or paragraphs that are not relevant. Good writing proves a point as quickly and directly as possible. Unnecessary content will only make it more likely that your readers will never make it to the end. Get rid of anything that doesn't play a clear, logical role in supporting your writing. Below are a few things you may want to look out for:[15]
    • Paragraphs with sentences that do nothing to advance the main point.
    • Sentences that make claims or statements with no support in the rest of the writing.
    • Content that isn't directly related to the main points of the writing.
    • Long or flowery descriptive passages.
    • Passages where you repeat yourself, or repeat a point that was made earlier.
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    Don't overuse adverbs and adjectives. Using the hard copy of your manuscript, highlight all the adverbs and adjectives in your manuscript. Then, consider if each one is essential to a sentence or phrase. You don’t need to get rid of all of them, but you should check that they aren’t making a sentence more convoluted or confusing. Adverbs also tend to be wordy and can act as a crutch for writers, as there may be more descriptive language that might work better in a sentence.[16]
    • For example, instead of referring to the sky as hazy and cloudy, you may describe it as “overcast”. Or, if you are writing a more creative piece, you may note how it reminds a character of when she used to play in her house as a child wearing a veil. A slowly flowing river could be described instead as a river that doesn’t seem in a particular hurry to get anywhere.
    • When using adjectives, ensure you know the precise meaning of every adjective used in your paper. Go for simple adjectives, instead of more complex or obscure ones. For example, describing the afternoon sky as cerulean may not be as effective as describing the afternoon sky as bright blue.
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    Give your language authority and purpose. This is especially important when you’re writing an opinion based essay. When you make a point in your essay or paper, throw yourself fully behind it and be clear and assertive. Don’t give your reader the impression that you don’t fully support your own argument.[17]
    • Remove any language like “It seems to be”, “It appears”, or “One could argue”. Avoid wishy-washy sentences like “I believe” “In my opinion” or “I guess”. Remove these phrases and don’t quantify your opinion or your beliefs in your paper.

Part 3
Proofreading Your Writing

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    Proofread for one kind of error at a time. A big part of editing is proofreading your work for grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. But if you try to identify and revise too many elements at once, you can lose focus and get overwhelmed by the proofreading process. Instead, focus on checking for one type of error first, like spelling errors, and then move one to another type of error, like punctuation errors.[18]
    • Try reading each sentence out loud when proofreading. This will force you to say each word and lets you hear how the words sound together. When you read silently to yourself, you may skip over errors, scan rather than read, or make unconscious corrections as you read that will cause you to miss these errors.
    • Another technique is to separate your text into individual sentences. Press the return key after each period so every line begins a new sentence. Then, read each sentence one at a time, looking for grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors. If you are working with a printed copy, use an opaque object like a ruler or a piece of paper, to isolate the line you are proofreading.
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    Check your spelling. A few spelling mistakes won't usually make it hard for readers to understand your writing, but they can easily distract from the points you're trying to make. Carefully read your entire work over again, checking for letters that are out of order or misplaced.[19]
    • Today, nearly all word processors will have a spell check feature that will point out spelling mistakes to you. Note, however, that these can't usually detect when you use the wrong word, spelled correctly. For example, a spell check may not tell you that you are mistakenly using "pair" instead of "pare." Avoid relying completely on the spell check tool and go through each sentence to check for spelling errors.[20]
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    Check your punctuation. Does each sentence start with a capital letter? Does each sentence end with a period (full stop), question mark, or exclamation point? Have you used commas, quotation marks, and asterisks appropriately? Like misspellings, these sorts of errors can be distracting for readers and may be seen as a lack of effort.[21]
    • One technique is to circle all punctuation on the hard copy of your manuscript, from commas to periods to em dashes. Then, look each one over to make sure they are being used correctly in a sentence or if they are unnecessary and can replaced or cut.[22]
    • See our main punctuation article for a thorough step-by-step guide on adjusting punctuation correctly.
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    Look for common word mistakes. Some words look or sound the same but have different meanings. Spell checkers often won't detect when you accidentally substitute one of these words for another, so careful re-reading is important for catching these mistakes. A few examples include:[23]
    • "Their," "they're," and "there."
    • "Too," "to," and "two."
    • "Lay" and "lie."
    • "Sit" and "set."
    • "Accept" and "except."
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    De-emphasize words, unless necessary. Do you use a lot of quotation marks around phrases or terms that appear awkward or unnecessary? Do you have big sections in italics, or capital letters? Too many emphasized words can be jarring to your reader and actually weaken the impact of your sentences. Try to reduce the number of emphasized words or phrases in your writing to avoid throwing off your reader.[24]
    • This rule also applies to exclamation points, as they should be used rarely in essays or academic papers.
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    Read your writing backwards. This technique is helpful for checking for spelling errors you may have missed or self corrected when reading your writing straight through. Start with the last word on the last page and work your way back to the beginning, reading each word one at a time. Content, punctuation and grammar won’t make sense backwards, so your focus will be only on the spelling of each word.[25]
    • You can also read backwards sentence by sentence to check for grammar issues, as this will help you avoid becoming distracted by the content.
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    Let others read your work. Most writers will admit critiquing someone else's work is much easier than deconstructing your own. Outside eyes bring a fresh perspective — the person you get to help you may think of things that never would have occurred to you. After you've self-edited, get a friend, family member, or teacher/professor to read over your work.[26]
    • Your editor doesn't have to be an expert writer. In fact, if you're writing for an everyday audience, s/he shouldn't be one. Ask a friend, family member, or peer to look over your writing for proofreading elements like spelling, grammar, and punctuation and provide notes or comments on these issues.

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