The Oxbridge Editing Blog 9th April 2021

Self-editing techniques: 7 tips to improve your writing

9th April 2021
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So, you’ve written your magnum opus and your ideas are all coherently, entertainingly and engagingly placed on the page. Job done, right?

Wrong. Every publisher knows that the key to readable writing is editing. Most readers will know this, too. In most cases, you’ll have to adopt rigorous self-editing techniques – and these don’t come naturally to even the best.

You’ll need a critical eye and a cold commitment to structure, grammar, and form. On the plus side, it’s free. On the minus, you have to work hard to develop this essential knowledge of how to self-edit your writing.

Self-editing: the satisfaction guarantee

The skills you need can be boiled down to seven major points. Follow these magnificent tips to consistently produce exciting writing that’s ready to read immediately.

It might be a blog post, a magazine feature or even the first chapter of your novel. Every part needs to be painstakingly read and re-read – and then read again. There’s no shortcut to ensure perfect, appealing, informative writing gets to the reader every time.   

These are the major tips only an editor would know. Set them firmly in your mind and your self-editing won’t go wrong.

1. Write like you want to be read

If you’ve got to the stage where you’re seriously considering using self-editing techniques, you must want other people to read it. For this to happen, your prose needs to be presentable, correct and easy to follow. In other words, write like you want to be read.

The following tips will get you to that golden position.

  • Start strongly with a well-chosen hook, scene-setting summary or statement of intent. Mention the point of the piece straight away.
  • Introduce the main thrust of your story or topic in the first couple of sentences; you can always expound on them later. It’s better to come in with a bang, then lead the reader through the text after you’ve piqued their interest.
  • Give your piece a logical structure, whether it’s fact or fiction.
  • Make it easy on the eye. Most writers have a favourite font and size; choose the one which seems to get your creative juices and ideas flowing – and stick to it. Act like your Word document is a real publication already. Give it page numbers, headings and subheadings, double spacing (unless told otherwise), a one-inch margin and a no-nonsense font such as Arial or Calibri in 12-point size.
  • Keep in mind the idea that your reasons for writing a piece must be obvious on the page. You won’t be there to explain it to the reader in person. Your writing has to do this for you.
  • Don’t try too hard. A wise and popular piece of journalistic advice back in the day was to ‘kill your darlings’. This doesn’t mean you should embark on a career as a serial murderer – it means that, if your writing can be seen as too florid or pleased with itself by the elegance of its language, then remove it. With extreme prejudice.

Dead-end plotlines, unnecessary twists, pointless characters, overly poetic turns of phrase and sentences – slaughter them with impunity, as if you were Arnie and they were invading aliens. Of course, please use alternatives to avoid repeating more commonplace words and phrases. However, steer clear of overdoing flamboyant, baroque, rococo, ostentatious, curlicued … sorry, over-elaborate phrases – like they were assassins coming to kill your writing.

Always try to think of a simpler way of saying things; one that doesn’t lose the intention and meaning. Think about dropping words that are too academic or could seem like ‘insider’ jargon. Even if that’s the intended audience, they’ll still appreciate clarity.

Remember: A first-rate writer gets to the point, and so should you.

2. Print it out and read it out loud

Mistakes are much easier to spot on a printed page than on a back-lit, half-page view on a computer screen.

Use all of these simple methods, if possible – they work!

  • Highlight the mistakes on your page up with a red pen or luminous Sharpie.
  • Tick off the howlers with a different coloured pen as you take them out.
  • Print the piece on paper again after you’ve corrected it.
  • Read it aloud to yourself. Clumsy sentence structure and awkward phrasing will be exposed instantly and only you need know they were ever there.
  • Even better, read it aloud to a partner, friend or family member. This is a great way of getting over your self-consciousness at public speaking. It’s also an even more ruthless way of revealing bad writing. If you’re embarrassed to say it, the reader will be embarrassed to read it.
  • Print it off again and read it out loud to yourself.
  • If possible, do the final proofread on the printed page, too

While it’s a shame to waste paper, this is a small cost if it makes your writing publishably perfect. Plus, the blushes from reading in public won’t be anywhere near as humiliating as suddenly having a cringe-worthy error loom out at you in the final printed document.

Remember: if it sounds awkward said, it’ll be awkward read.

3. Use the active voice

This doesn’t mean acting out your prose as you read it aloud – unless you’re writing a play or film script, in which case, emote away!
For most forms of writing, this means keeping your composition dynamic. Make the subject do something rather than have something done to the subject.

For example: “Fido the dog was stroked by Damien” is clunky but “Damien stroked Fido the dog” isn’t.

Using the active voice is another important way of keeping your writing simple and to the point rather than making it confusing, complex and rambling. It keeps the action moving along.

Remember: do rather than be done to.

4. Check it line by line

A writer’s best friends are good grammar, coherent structure, and intended meaning. Keep them close to your heart and hang out with them – often.  Slowly reading through your work will reveal mistakes. We all make them, and they will be there.
Try reading the whole piece or section forwards and then backwards, line by line – this is a common editorial trick that can expose surprising numbers of hidden ‘slips of the pen’. Try reading the text from right to left, too – this is another great way of ensuring that mistakes leap out of the page to their doom.

No one is immune from even the most obvious errors. Common examples that will hopefully make you shudder with recognition include using: 

  • ‘from’ instead of ‘form’ (impossible to find using spellchecking methods, as both words exist)
  • ‘won’ and ‘own’
  • ‘teh’ instead of ‘the’
  • ‘fo’ instead of ‘of’

Look for commonly misused or misplaced words such as ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ – remember, you don’t ‘grin and bare it’, you ‘grin and bear it’. Bear that in mind.

You may think these are rookie errors but type out a single A4 page. You’ll be shocked at how many mistakes can sneak through – even if you think you’re fully aware of all of them.

Make sure you know when to use:

  • ‘they’re’, ‘there’ and ‘their’
  • ‘its’ and ‘it’s’

Other basic but useful tips include:

  • Know what an Oxford comma is
  • Have your writing plan worked out before you start
  • Don’t wander too far from your subject or storyline
  • Remember that organisations are a single entity – McDonald’s sells ‘its’ hamburgers, not ‘their’ hamburgers
  • Know the difference in usage of ‘which’ and ‘that’

Every time you find a common error, write it down on a pad, in an Excel document, or on a Post-It note. This will make you more aware of your habitual errors. You’ll soon get these slips under control.

Remember: always check for what you think you know.

5. Keep it stylish

If you’ve been given a style guide – a document detailing the grammatical ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of a publication or organisation – then follow it.
That’s one kind of style, but there’s also the finesse that comes from honing your very own style of writing.

Make your prose flow with purpose by writing what you mean with minimal frills. It’s always best to call a bus ‘a bus’ rather than ‘a rectangular, red, people-transporting vehicle’. If someone says something, then tell the reader they said it. They certainly didn’t sigh, ejaculate or yawn it (though people can still mumble or announce things in the right context, of course).

Curb your adverbs; that is, avoid those annoying ‘-ly’ words – religiously.

You will develop your own style of writing much more easily and effectively if you follow these suggestions.

Remember: style is the law when you’re writing.

6. There’s nothing more clunky than a cliché

Nothing makes a piece of writing more banal than the inclusion of too many hackneyed phrases.

A reader will like someone’s writing a lot more if it’s the author’s personal take on a subject. Platitudes are, by definition, banal, commonplace views that you could have read anywhere. Even everyday adverbs and phrases such as “basically” and “when all’s said and done” can sound pat, no matter how appropriate they seem at the time.

Also: keep it simple. Clichés aren’t necessarily well-worn words and turns of phrase that everyone uses lazily and without thought. They’re also words that misguided people think signify knowledge and a wide vocabulary – sometimes referred to as ‘$10-dollar words’. Would you really use words such as myriad (lots), terminate (end), facilitate (help), plethora (large amount) or utilise (use) in day-to-day speech? Unironically?
Don’t get me wrong, these words exist and certainly have their place – just be sure you’re using them for a good reason. Don’t just shoehorn them into the text to impress the reader with your superior erudition … sorry … to show them how clever you are.

Avoid your own clichés, too. Do you rely on personal tropes in your writing? Do these phrases and words become repetitive? Do you have pet phrases you always use? Do you over-use questions, particularly in introductions or key moments in a piece?

These are your crutches. You lean on them continually – to the detriment of your writing.

A way of ridding yourself of these pernicious parasites is to dig out and re-read an old piece of writing and highlight phrases or words you still use – or, rather, overuse.

Constant self-evaluation and self-criticism are the essential mental tools of good self-editing techniques.

Remember: out, clichés, out!

7. Proofread carefully

Proofreading needs to be the last thing you do after you’re sure that you’re completely satisfied with a finished piece of writing. In paper-based publishing, even the very last proofs are carefully pored over (not poured over) for mistakes before they are sent to the printers; you certainly shouldn’t dodge this stage for a web article or blog post.

The essential task in proofreading is to double-check for spelling and grammar mistakes, as well as missing or extra words. You will have finished the actual writing long before – proofing is a technical stage that makes sure the finished product is as perfectly presented as possible.

Remember: proofing makes perfection.

Hopefully, after this showdown with The Magnificent Seven, you’ll be ruling the OK Corral with a new confidence.

Even if you’re writing online, the internet should be treated as if it was as permanent as print. You’ll need the best self-editing website content possible to stand out from the thousands of blogs and posts that appear daily. And you don’t want someone searching for your name to find a poorly edited piece, archived on Google. Don’t let it come back to haunt you!

To use one of the clichés you should be using only very rarely from now on: practice makes perfect.

Sharpen these self-editing techniques to ensure your beloved words are read right through to the end – exactly as you intended!