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How to be your own editor

The first draft of everything is shit.

-Ernest Hemingway

Have a little confidence when you write. As long as you’re using your own voice, avoiding jargon and clichés, and having the conviction of your words, all the rest is editing.

It’s a bit like pulling out all your paints, slopping them on your project with abandon, then cleaning up afterwards. You had the satisfaction of painting or creating. The grunt work comes later.

The ideal, of course, is to have your own personal editor who can see at 50 paces a wrong comma, a run-on sentence, or a rambling paragraph.

But if you don’t have one, you can be your own. The important part is to be sure you take this step ‒ editing first and then proofreading ‒ before you hand over your work.

Here are a few suggestions:

First, and this is one rule you can’t break: READ. Read, read, and then read some more. This is how you’ll learn effective writing, by observing how others do it. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, news, analysis. Read the backs of cereal boxes. Read posters and billboards and notices. Read everything you can find in print or online. If you don’t read, good writing will always be a challenge, and probably not possible at all.

When you’ve written your first draft, put it aside and do something else before you return to it. Then stand back and take a look.

Check for long sentences. If you see one longer than 30 words (maximum 25 is better), break it into two ‒ three, if you can.

Find the best place to break paragraphs. This might be with a new thought, idea, or approach. It’s usually a matter of your own style. Just be sure to keep them short. One-sentence paragraphs can be powerful if the statement is important or surprising in any way. Try to limit 10 sentences to a paragraph: fewer, if possible.

Check for run-on sentences. Two sentences should never be joined with a comma. If they are, break them apart and use periods at the end of each. (The exception is if you’re Margaret Atwood, who gets away with anything and turns it into her own marvellous style.)

Commas can be tricky. There are rules, but rules don’t always apply. If you’re writing in your own natural voice, and if you have been reading, chances are you’ll know where to put them. Go by instinct. Read your work out loud. Do you pause? Probably needs a comma. Does the comma break your flow? Probably shouldn’t be there.

Pay attention to spell-and-grammar checkers, but don’t always believe them. They can be wrong. This is especially true of automated grammar suggestions. Grammar so often needs a human brain to know if it’s “right”.

Go through your article or story from the top. Get rid of any words you don’t need. Go through it again. Get rid of more words.

Trust your gut. Know the rules, but be prepared to break them when it feels natural. Are your words something you yourself would like to read? Do they seem friendly, approachable, simple, and engaging? Do they sound like you?

If so, you’ve probably done a fine job of “cleaning up”. Task completed. You’re ready to move on.

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