Nine tips for editing your own work

Taking an editorial scalpel to your own work can be painful. After days, weeks or even months producing it you may feel far too familiar or attached to be objective about the quality of what you’ve written and how to improve it. You may well also find that the pressure to submit, an excessive workload or exhaustion makes you reluctant to spend any more time on it.

Getting a pair of fresh eyes to check a near-final version is key, but the ability to edit your own work effectively is a skill to master if you want to make progress against your career goals.

So, what’s the best way to get over the hurdles and on with self-editing?

Here are nine (carefully polished and proofread) tips: 

  1. Be clear about the difference between writing and editing. They’re not the same, so don’t try to do them simultaneously. If as you write you become aware of something that will need editing later then highlight it but move on to keep momentum.  
  2. Make time for it. Thorough editing may seem a luxury if a deadline is looming. But skimping on it will be counterproductive it if it lowers your chances of getting published or securing the reach and impact you want. Put editing in your plan from the outset. (If time management is a challenge take a look at these ideas.)
  3. Structure your editing. Don’t let perfectionism force you to address every issue from the start. You’ll quickly get bogged down and lose perspective. Instead, do a high-level sweep for structure and sense first, identifying any areas that don’t work and coming back to address them afterwards. Leave sentence-level edits for a later stage.
  4. Put some distance – that could be minutes or miles – between you and what you’ve been working on. If you have time, take a few days off and even change location to reset your thoughts. Otherwise, you could go for a walk, make a drink, or whatever helps you switch off and come back refreshed. That way you’ll be more likely to see things you’ve lost the ability to notice.
  5. Start a new folder for the sections or sentences you feel particularly wedded to and are struggling to delete. Doing this will help reduce your resistance to removing them from the work in hand.
  6. However strong your writing, cutting it back is likely to make it more powerful. Try setting a target – say 10% – and finding ways to cut word count by that amount. It’s a great way to focus on finding and tightening any clunky wording you’ve missed.
  7. Change the format when you move on to a detailed edit. Print your text out, switch the font, blow up the point size or listen on a voice reader and you’ll spot things you missed after reading and rereading in a familiar format so many times.
  8. Pay particular attention to areas you did a higher-level edit of previously. It’s easy to drop a word or essential punctuation if you’ve cut or moved text around a section a few times.
  9. Read backwards when it comes to proofreading. It’s another useful way to overcome the familiarity that prevents you from identifying issues like duplication.

We hope you find these suggestions helpful. You might also like to take a look at these other Global Academy Jobs guides:

How to nail a grant application

How to write a cover letter for a journal submission

Six academic writing no-nos – and how to avoid them

Six reasons why it may cost you more not to pay an editor to prepare your paper for publication

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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