If you were to ask me how you can edit your own writing, I’d say, don’t. Being your own content editor is one of the hardest things you can do. But sometimes you have to. This article will tell you a way of editing your own work that you can use if you just can’t find help. This is not a substitute for getting something properly edited. This is a substitute for not doing any editing at all.
Having a good editor is really important. Let me tell you a story explaining why.
Many years ago I wrote a book which was quite critical of some parts of the Sydney media. I was expecting some kickback. Journalists don’t like criticism at the best of times. But I thought they would bag me on the basis of my arguments. They didn’t.
The critics who did take me on found three typographical errors. Three of them. In an 80,000-word book. And that was all they wrote about.
And they decimated me. I tried to get the debate back onto my turf, talking about my ideas. But I couldn’t. Those three tiny mistakes loomed large as the cracks in its foundation.
Why does your brain ignore mistakes?
Why do we miss mistakes in our work? The phenomenon was explained well by Wired recently. Constructing an article is a complex task. Your brain uses more energy than any other organ. So when we’re reading something, our brain predicts the meaning we expect as a way of being energy efficient.
It’s like your brain is on a combination of ‘predictive text’ mode and autocorrect. So if you already know what you’re trying to say, your brain will ‘see’ that. Rather than the reality of what’s on the page.
I’ve noticed that I’m not just blind to big mistakes I make when I’m typing. I’m blind to spelling and grammar checks too. Even though the software underlines any words I’ve misspelled in red, I don’t notice them.
So how do you fight that?
The short answer is, you can’t. Your best bet is to trick your own brain into thinking you are reading your own writing for the first time. By following these steps, you have more of a chance of picking up on errors that will slip by at other times.
How to edit your own content
Prepare to read the final draft of everything you write four times. There is no way around doing four reads. Also, for this method to work, you have to do these steps one after another.
A professional editor trains their minds to pick up on details in text that are wrong. For most of us, there are too many details in any article to keep track of. This process helps you outsource those details, so you can compare them without being distracted by your own argument.
So to start, open the original article on your screen.
The first step – make a list
The first time you read it, you’ll be making a list of every name and proper noun and any specialist word that might be used in the article. The whole idea of this first read is actually to NOT read it. Because you won’t be able to spot many errors at this stage anyway. What you are doing is outsourcing your need to remember them.
Open an excel document beside the original article. Every time you come across a proper name of a person, place or thing, copy and paste it into the excel spreadsheet. Make a new column for each new name or word, and if you come across a name more than once, paste it under the first instance of that name.
When you’ve finished, go and check the first instance of each name against a trusted source. LinkedIn is good for this—most people spell their own name correctly on their LinkedIn account. Once you’ve checked the first name at the top of the column, run your eye down to see if any of the other instances have been misspelled. It’s a lot easier to see variation (and errors) this way.
If you do see an error, copy it from the excel sheet and paste it BACK into the ‘find’ function of your word processing program. The computer will find it much faster than you will.
Then correct any spelling errors in proper nouns. After you’ve done that, step away from your computer, have a cup of tea, and prepare for step two.
The second step – make it look different
The second time you read it, select all the text and change it to a completely different font and a larger size. Something that looks different to the font it was written in. So if you wrote it using Helvetica 12 point, select all, change it to Didot or Times New Roman 16 point. If you can print it in another colour, like blue or brown, that’s perfect—make that change too. Then print it out.
The idea of this second read is to look for obvious spelling errors, or sentences you’ve half-written then abandoned. That’s really hard to do if the page you are looking at looks exactly the same as the page you have written.
It’s not perfect, but by changing the font, size and colour, you will jolt your brain into treating the article as a new piece of text.
This is in some ways the hardest edit. You may pick up a few mistakes, but you will probably miss quite a few too. But correct the ones you do pick up, then change it all back to normal in preparation for the third step.
The third step – use technology!
The third time, open up the free online version of the Hemingway Editor. This may not be free forever, so don’t rely on it always being around. But you may as well make the most of it while it’s here.
Ignoring any title or headline you might have already written, just copy the body of your article or post and paste it into the web page. You’ll get something that looks like this:
It’s really the sentences highlighted yellow or red that are the ones you want to look at. What the app is doing is counting the number of syllables and words in each sentence. It is also noting the number of times you use the passive voice, or complex phrases or adverbs. Finally it gives you a readability grade. The lower your grade, the better (because the easier it is to understand).
What this app does is give you a good, quick visual guide as to how hard your writing is to read. If you’re seeing lots of red sentences, then you can rewrite them on the web page itself.
You don’t have to change all your red and yellow sentences. Some of them, after all, might be direct quotes from somewhere else. And sometimes a complex sentence is what you want to express a complex idea.
What I try to do is ensure my first few paragraphs have no red sentences, and just some yellow ones (if necessary). That way I’m making it as easy as possible to get into the article. Of course, you have to keep readers once they’re in. But if they have committed to the first few paragraphs, I reckon they’ll stick it out if the reading gets hard at times.
Once you’re happy with your Hemingway edit, copy all the text from the web page and paste it back into your word document, ready for the final edit.
The fourth step – tape it
The fourth time you read it, you’ll be looking for structural problems with your argument. By this stage in the process, you will have looked over it so many times that it will be virtually impossible to spot mistakes. So to trick your brain again, this time, record yourself reading it out loud.
Before you do it, give the article a title (doesn’t matter if it’s not the final title). The title should spell out what problem you are trying to solve for a reader by writing this article. Once you’ve given it a title, print it out again.
There are heaps of apps you can use to record yourself. It doesn’t really matter which one you use. You will feel silly while you do this. But you will also hear any sentences that are wrong, or any leaps of logic you’re making that a reader won’t follow. You will also hear if your article answers the question you’ve posed as the title.
Then get a highlighter pen and prepare to listen back to the recording. You will hate your voice, but force yourself to listen to it. Every time you hear yourself stumble over a word or a phrase, mark it with a highlighter pen on the printout. It doesn’t matter WHY you stumbled over that phrase—if you have a problem, highlight it. The logic is, if you find the article hard to read at this point, your readers will too.
How to take your next step
There’s a lot more to editing an article than just these steps, but I believe that this is the most you can do yourself. If you want to take your writing to the next level, you need the help of a professional editor.
A professional editor will also independently fact-check your facts. He or she will offer better ways of expressing your ideas. They’re also a great sense check on whether your article flows logically and makes sense.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “I reckon Jennie in accounts is a good speller and I’ll give her the job of editing stuff”, then you might be interested to learn in more details what an editor is meant to do, which is something I have written about before.
Or you may read this and think, “I’m a natural editor, but I don’t like this writing business, it’s too hard!” Maybe you should think of hiring a freelance writer—I’ve offered advice on that before too.
I dare you to disagree
If you disagree with anything I’ve said here, please feel free to leave a comment. We do read them and comment back, and I’m more than happy to discuss it with you.
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