It seems to be a basic law of human nature that we have difficulty seeing the flaws in our own writing. We put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and we think that what comes out is perfectly coherent and anyone with half a brain should be able to understand it.
Then someone else reads it.
All of a sudden, we recognize that we aren't as brilliant, insightful, and clear as we thought we were. In this post, I want to offer some tips on how to be more clear when we are writing, as well as how to be better editors of our own writing. While I am for the most talking about academic writing, I think many of the principles apply to more casual writing as well.
- Get Some Distance. The absolute worst time to edit your own writing is right after you've written it. You will think everything makes perfect sense because you just wrote it! You need to get some distance from your written work. In my book Surviving and Thriving in Seminary I suggest that students complete smaller assignments a day or two before submission, and try and finish major essays a week before submission. This gives you time to get some distance from the work. When you come back to edit it, you want to have had your mind on other things for awhile. This enables you to come with a fresh set of eyes.
- Change Your Setting. I just finished (and by just I mean just hours ago) submitted my dissertation for defense. Yesterday I spent most of my day doing a proof-read. I initially thought that I wouldn't need to do it, as I've been working for so long on it, and have advisors that have read and commented and suggested corrections already. Boy am I glad I decided to spend one more day on it. In the picture above, you see my red pen, highlighter, and post-its. I went through 1.5 little post-it booklets. What really helped this process was changing my setting. I work almost exclusively on my screen—but for this final edit, I printed all 248 pages out. I do almost all of my work in my office—but for this read-through I took my iPhone for some Focus@Will mood music, and sat in an empty room in the building. This small change of setting abled me to view my writing in a different light, and the result is a much better, cleaner, and easier to read end-product.
- Be a Jerk to Yourself. Be as hyper-critical as you can muster yourself to be. Read with an eye to details and clarity. Especially in the introductions and conclusions, ask yourself "does this make sense?" Imagine someone you don't know saying "tell me about that section of your essay." Then try and state the explanation as clearly and concisely as possible. Avoid being cute, coy, or round-about. State directly what you are saying as simply as possible.
- Assume the Reader Knows Nothing. When writing for other academics, or for your professor, we often assume that they know about everything. While it may be true that they know more about your topic than you do, this is bad way to write. As you read through and edit yourself, keep in mind that you should assume no knowledge on the part of the reader. If you are assuming too much, write it better.
- Find Someone Else. There's no better way to edit an essay than to have someone else read it and point out its flaws. This is how you will become a better writer, by learning from your mistakes. Get a friend, a colleague, a more mature student, or a writing tutor, to edit essays for you.
- Spell Check. You have zero excuse in misspelling something, especially with modern word processors. If you're a student submitting assignments and don't run spell check, you deserve to lose marks.
Have any more tips for editing yourself? Let me know in the comments!