Four tips for better self-editing

The life of a freelancer can be a lonely one, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until glowing. Hours, days, weeks spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct, and pruning too painful to contemplate. After all, these words came from a place deep within, we think to ourselves, and they are as much a part of us as our own skin and blood.

Which is why Thomas Wolfe said what he did: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”

But prune we must, for as Wolfe and other writers of his ilk knew it’s the editing that makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.

Trouble is, for freelancers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work so as to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. And when it’s just us writing and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, seeking that detachment can be difficult.

However, there are a few tricks available to put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done:

Walk away — That’s right, walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and go do something else — exercise, house chores, yard work, whatever — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting, and don’t even think about the story during that time, the notion being that separation helps the brain reorder its thinking regarding what it has digested repeatedly over a long period of time.

You see, our brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, so that many of us can read this …

It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.

… with little trouble, when in fact the corrected jumble says this …

It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.

Because of this trait, even seasoned editors misread once in a while. That’s why they pour over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. And that’s why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.

Change the background — After writing in a black-on-white writing environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue, and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new and organic. Altering the screen font and font size also has somewhat the same effect.

Read aloud — Eyes alone are not the tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over and subsume the other half of our collective perspective. Then, upon reviewing what’s written, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the sentence context deviates from what we thought we were typing. Reading a story aloud in the editing process helps the mind both see and hear the gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.

Read backward — In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meaning of sentences and whether they were constructed well enough to make sense in the first place. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there’s too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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  • Alice

    Brilliant!! Never thought changing screen font and font size would help. Thanks a lot!

  • Idi_Amen

    Aw come on. Sour grapes. Any journalist, any publication would have jumped at the opportunity had it come their way, approval condition attached or not. RS had the option of not publishing had Guzman Loera made any changes they did not like. The ethics in question also pale in comparison to the tons of crap passing as journalism on social media these days.

  • Sylv Taylor

    Even if it’s sour grapes, the point is valid.

  • Jeff Bowles

    “Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable.”

    Nope. Misrepresentation is always bad, in every way, and if there were edit/review offered to the subject and undisclosed to the reader, it would be awful.

    But a disclosure that tells you that it had this approval. Certainly it impugns the integrity of the content, but lets the reader decide what sort of piece they’re reading.

  • Jennifer Stewart

    The article in Rolling Stone struck me as a 2nd rate headline-grabber masquerading as important journalism. Penn’s disclaimer, that he just presented what he saw without judgment, leaving the reader to form his own conclusions, was fatuous. He didn’t do that at all.

    He did articulate everything that’s anti-social, criminal and repulsive about Guzman et al and followed that up with the same about the market for drugs. An unbiased assessment of everybody’s responsibility would have been excellent because it isn’t a simple issue but this wasn’t that. Penn pretty much shoved all responsibility onto the shoulders of the users and the destination countries’ inability/reluctance to deal head on with the problem.

    That’s tantamount to saying a rapist isn’t guilty because society doesn’t protect women effectively and because women let themselves be raped. The reality is that predators seek out the vulnerable and the unprotected.

    Which is what Guzman does with his global drug manufacture and sales industry. Penn should have made that point but he didn’t. Worse, his questions virtually solicited answers that could—and did—paint this sociopath as a simple, even kind-hearted family man who doesn’t mean any harm to anybody.

    A good journalist with real dedication to exposing truth would have asked far more penetrating questions. Why didn’t Penn do that? He’s very articulate and an outspoken activist who clearly does understand the role and accountability of the predator. He’s usually not scared of shoving truth in people’s faces. I’m not surprised that he didn’t blatantly tell the truth here. I am surprised that he [and Rolling Stone] settled for pretending to do so and expect us not to notice.

    The idea that the world’s most powerful drug lord is simple-minded is ludicrous and the notion that he wouldn’t control every word of an article about himself when he was on the run is equally so. If he didn’t edit his answers it was because he didn’t have to.

    I compare this variety of ‘exposing truth’ to that of the journalists fighting and exposing Michael Schroeder and Sheldon Adelson’s attempts (some successful; some fortunately not—see Steve Majerus-Collins’ Facebook page for that ongoing story) to pervert journalistic integrity. That’s real journalism. This is just a headline grabber with barely any substance to merit the huge attention it’s receiving.

  • rg

    Why haven’t we been hearing from you over the very same kind of collusion between all the establishment media whores and the establishment political whores who have been gutting the constitution all these recent years…where’s all your outrage for the truly bad actors in this world?

  • rg

    Mr. Seaman doth protest too much.

  • tomwest

    “if there were edit/review offered to the subject and undisclosed to the reader, it would be awful”.
    Really? So, you write a story about me. I see it before hand, and point out it contains some factual errors. You agree, fix the errors, and never mention this in the article. How does that impugn anything?

  • Jeff Bowles

    Checking veracity of quotes is sort of standard; allowing rewriting or copy-editing is something you’d disclose.

  • So how does this condemnation of Rolling Stone dovetail with SPJ previously arguing that PPR is okay?

    “It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that it’s more important to be accurate than to be independent.”

    As a journalist, I don’t favor PPR. I am merely pointing out that SPJ seems to think PPR is okay for the Washington Post but not Rolling Stone. And the more important issue here is the threat of government or law enforcement agencies using the critique of Penn and RS to ‘investigate’ them for doing the interview. That’s what should be condemned.

  • tomwest

    “We must solumnly decalre that the subject of this piece pointed out his birthday was 1/2/1970, not 2/1/1970. This fulfils our ethical obligations”.
    … I think not, somehow.

    You seem to be conflating “reviewing” and “rewriting”. There is generally no harm in letting a subject review a piece about them, and have a chance to comment – even (especially!) if the article alleges something particularly bad. That doesn’t mean the writer/editor is obliged to rewrite anything.

  • alinla55

    A question for Andrew Seaman: How do we know RS gave pre-approval to the subject?

    (Hint: They had the integrity to disclose it. This enables the reader to make his or her OWN decision.)

  • alinla55

    I get the part about political whores…assuming you are talking about elected officials who have taken an oath to preserve protect and defend the constitution but….

    How exactly do “media whore” go about “gutting the constitution?’

    Outrage is useful, but don’t let it trump your common sense. (pun intended).

  • alinla55

    As for me, I saw the item, saw the disclaimer and went no further, because it was marketing and public relations.

    TRANSLATION: I am a highly bias, intellectual light weight who makes decisions based on perceptions. I have not need for facts or context.

  • rg

    How exactly? Why has there been no investigation into how the Twin Towers and building seven fell at freefall speed – or even fell at all? (the only skyscraper fires to ever result in collapse) Why have we not heard a cry of foul over all the information Snowden uncovered? Fourth Amendment? Why has there been no uproar over the ‘ethics’ of the collapse of Wall Street? Why has there been no cry of foul over all the Iraqi citizens who died as a result of a misguided ‘surge’? Why has there been no outrage over the Bush administrations mendacious selling of ‘wmd’? Where has the good ethics professor been through all this? Where has the media been? Business as usual. An actor is usurping journalist territory and the pack begins to howl. General McChrystal is laughing at the ghost of Michael Hastings, having a good hee-haw over Rolling Stone’s struggles while the good journalists swill Pappy Van Winkle and dream of bigger houses, fast cars, faster women and fat paychecks…exactly.

  • alinla55

    What you fail to understand (and certainly do not address) is that journalists are under no obligation to even acknowledge the existence of the U.S. Constitution.

    But cheer-up your outrage, as ridiculous and irrational as it is, is a manifestation of freedom.

  • rg

    Freedom? Basically, we’re free to not break any laws. Public demonstrations are shut down as soon as they appear. Are you free to be a communist? Are you free to smoke marijuana? Many years ago people were burned alive for disagreeing with church doctrine. Things are better now, burning at the stake has taken a backseat to mass incarceration. We are free to be jailed for non-violent drug use. Free to eat ourselves into disease overburdening the medical system. Free to surf all the porn on the internet but imprisoned if we look behind the NSA curtains. Free to watch all the sports we can stay awake for but don’t ask where all the money went for the military or the war. Free to go bankrupt for getting sick and going to the hospital. Free to have your job replaced by a robot or someone living in such squalor a dollar a day is like winning the lottery. Free to trust corrupt politicians and shiny, primping pundits. American exceptionalism right? Greatest country in the world…that ain’t saying much.

  • The Truth Hurts

    With the daily ethics violations committed by people who were actually trained to be journalists, it does seem strange that all of a sudden members of the media want to hash out what’s acceptable in reporting the news or conducting interviews.

  • AndrewMSeaman

    Hi Tom! Like I said on Twitter, allowing sources to review quotes or parts of a story is different than allowing the source to decide whether those quotes or the whole story will be printed.

    For example, a journalist who writes about health or science may want to bounce wording or a paraphrased description off a source for accuracy. Or, a journalist may say at the end of a conversation that he/she wants to confirm a few quotes. In both cases, the journalist retains editorial control, but is also doing his/her job to make sure in the information is accurate.

    Writing a story that will then be handed to the source to decide whether it will ultimately be printed is a different matter.

    While I’m not a fan of the Washington Post’s practice, I think it’s unfair to say its equivalent to Rolling Stone’s handling of the Guzman profile.

    Also, SPJ actively works on the implementation of a federal shield law, which could be used to protect Penn and Rolling Stone. However, I have not heard of any legal movement to question Penn or Rolling Stone.

  • Jeff Bowles

    Really, what I’m doing is reacting to the poo-bah from the Committee who is shaming Rolling Stone/Penn for not being ethical enough. I think they’re being foolish — that disclosure is enough for me to say that they’re overreacting.

  • rg

    Your jibes of “ridiculous and irrational” are typical of the whorish media, the insider pov, those infected with ambition who would sell themselves to anyone who promised more, better, bigger, stronger. You’re a climber rationalizing, justifying every step you take regardless of who or what you’re treading on, ignoring the costs of all your ambition, your desire. You don’t care about the innocent Iraqi’s maimed and killed…for what? You point to only a few thousand US soldiers killed during the Iraqi ‘war’ while ignoring the tens of thousands of soldiers suffering disabling trauma returning home broken to a country who care about little more than what sports game is on the telly. Isn’t it every persons natural inclination to be ambitious? Sure. Until we accrue a kind of human experience that values something more than consumerism. So you climb. At what cost? Hubris? Your levity, your wit, your vacuous lack of worldly experience only adds to the imbecilic direction our country is leading the world. We have been taught to believe that technology as a tool will improve humanity at large. So far, only the nth percent is reaping the benefits. The workingman is getting ass-fucked. Oh yeah, you should know that puns are the lowest form of humor.

  • rg

    Cheer up? Why don’t we just emblazon the headline “Might Is Right” across the front pages of all the papers in this country? Of the world? Shock and awe the world into submission and create a massive filter to scan the world for dissent? That would be untoward. Let’s just take the world as the world and go along to get along. The alternative is marginalization, being called ridiculous and irrational. This country was founded on slavery and genocide. Why should anyone expect a more rational approach.

  • Michael Moore

    ANYONE else would’ve done the exact same thing to get an exclusive from El Chapo. Anyone who says otherwise is a fucking liar. And considering all the off the record, side deals, efforts to control that are already considered acceptable practice in press today, there is literally NO ONE who can cast stones at Rolling Stone on this story. Much like how Milli Vanilli only got the main furor from a hypocritical music business (well into lip-syncing, double tracking, replacing vocals and so on) who protested too much, when the general public couldn’t care less who actually sang the damn songs.
    Also, the Washington Post and many various other media outlets regularly did deals like RS did with Jackie in the UVA case. Obviously, they didn’t make the jump to blind faith that RS, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Will Dana did and let the subject completely control everything, but they made similar deals to not give full names and only give the allegd victim’s side of the story in the very first article, which would be the lead-in to follow up stories later, with more interviews down the pike. Sadly, RS didn’t plan like that, which was a huge mistake, and was indeed a massive failure in journalism. But it’s not just RS that needs to change. The Washington Post needs to change. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, FOX “News”, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, and all of them need to change. And they can’t attack Rolling Stone for the very same sins they themselves commit.
    (P.S. I’m NOT the director)


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