April 8th, 2012
Additional tips on better self-editing
By David Sheets
Ignorance is one of those things that doesn’t improve with practice. Yet a lot of writers in all corners of the craft insist their prime obligation is committing ideas to words, and whether it’s the right word is not always their concern.
“The first draft, I’m just trying to get everything down,” a book author told me. “After that, I leave it up to my editor most times to clean it up.”
This approach is fine for getting ideas down as fast as they come to mind; in fact, I endorse it. Lately though, I’ve seen more blogs, short stories, novels and non-fiction works come out in final form that suggest the commitment to clean-up was abbreviated or lacking altogether. What these shoddy pieces portend is embarrassment for the author, the publisher, and potentially the readers who expected professional work in the first place.
Blame this boom in boo-boos on the ease of electronic publishing, which has reduced the gap between writing and marketing to a barely perceptible slit and goads us into stream-of-consciousness creativity. We are all just a keystroke away from fame and fortune, we’d like to think. Thus, we’re inclined to rush the process.
In a previous post I broached a few basic tips for freelancers to improve their editing. Here, I offer more to consider, such as:
Creating a “mission statement” — Have reason and focus when writing. Don’t hang the hope that “something will come to me” on protracted banging of the keyboard. A goal can guide thinking, and clear thinking guides creativity. Establish goals at the beginning so that your purpose is obvious at the end.
Thinking about brevity when writing briefly — Writing space always is at a premium, even online. So, too, is the readers’ attention. Research has shown that readers flip through Web pages faster than printed ones, which means writers have less time than ever to make a good impression online. Short, punchy words tend to help in this regard. Long words can trip up readers and force them to stumble through one’s prose, if they bother staying around long enough to finish.
Using active verbs — And speaking of brevity, active verbs take up less space than passive ones, because the passive ones are bigger and heavier and need modifiers to carry them along. Active verbs can stand alone and bear their own weight. Sure, passive verbs have a place in English — wherever slow, ponderous writing is a premium.
Avoiding redundancies — There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once in writing. Let me repeat: There’s really no reason to say the same thing more than once. Unless you’re doing it for effect.
Trimming fat — Closely related to redundancy is excess verbiage — usually, the adjectives, adverbs and prepositions that pad our speech. Though it seems when first written that they help drive home a particular point, they in fact delay gratification or they overstate an idea. Use adjectives sparingly, limit adverbs to those times when it’s absolutely necessary to alter the verb’s definition, and make sure prepositions are always in their place, which is very close to, if not next to, the object they’re supposed to modify.
Doing the math — Just about all the journalists I know drifted into writing as a career in part because they were poor mathematicians, or had a natural aversion to numbers. Words were their passion. The thing is, good reporting often relies on making sure things add up the way they should, whether the scale of measure is math or logic. Take time to check the math. Or get someone else who’s good with numbers to do it for you.
Paying attention to personal quirks — This speaks broadly to everything said above. Our shortcomings are characteristic of our personalities. Detail-oriented people may miss seeing the big picture, while big-picture people may gloss over subtle distinctions. Still others have trouble in general with spelling or grammar or word usage. Subdue your ego long enough to gain perspective of personal writing or reporting flaws, even if it means asking other people about them, because those flaws could be the first things readers see in your writing.
Pacing yourself — Speed is essential in typing tests but not in thoughtful writing. Sure, deadlines constrain our penchant for doing things in free-form ways, but taking care to prepare for a writing or editing project can eliminate scheduling and organizational obstacles that slow us down. With careful preparation comes time to think clearly and carefully about what we’re writing, and given adequate time we can pace our production.
Editing more than once — In my line of work, however, speed counts. Newspapers never are casual places, and the closer to deadline my colleagues and I get the more prone we are to hurrying through our edits to news copy. This is not acceptable behavior, mind you, just one of the vagaries of deadline journalism. Freelancers, on the other hand, have rather more control over their schedules, and fortunately, more control over the editing process. They should understand that one re-read does not constitute a good edit; two, three, even four re-reads is much better. Because our minds slip into comfort zones as our bodies do, we’ll easily read past some errors while we’re keyed in to finding others.
If it helps, edit a piece at least three times taking three approaches: first, editing for story structure and clarity; second, for spelling; and third, for grammar. Dividing your focus on purpose improves the chances you’ll catch more errors and heighten your credibility.
David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.