While we tend to see the errors in other people’s writing without any difficulty, we’re all but blind to errors in our own writing. As we read what we’ve written, our minds don’t see our actual words. Instead, we mentally rewrite our work to match our original intent. We’re not objective, and common errors slip right past us.
For important business writing, find a friend or coworker to edit for you. However, for less important documents, like business emails or other writing for an internal audience, you can easily edit such documents yourself, if you follow a few tips. If you’re going to submit your writing to an editor, the following advice will make the job much easier for them. They will be able to focus on the bigger picture—whether your writing is effective.
Write First, Edit Later
For any project, write for meaning on the first pass. Pay as little attention to spelling, grammar or punctuation as you can during actual writing. Once your text gets close to what you want it to say, then take the time to polish and shine it.
We often write more stiffly than we talk, so to reduce the distance between you and your reader, aim for a more conversational style without being too casual. Think consciously about your style of writing and whether it’s appropriate for your intended audience.
You’ve heard it since your school days, but start with an outline. Think through the major points you want to make before you start. As you write, your outline may change a lot, or even get dumped altogether. But your effort to organize your thoughts is what matters.
Edit Using Multiple Tools
- If you can let your document rest overnight and begin editing it the following morning, you’ll be in more of an editing mindset than a writing mindset. You’ll spot more problems than if you try to edit immediately.
- Run your spelling and grammar checker. Any remaining errors will be harder for you to find than for someone else, but methodical editing can produce good results.
- Set your paragraphs for 2x or 2.5x line spacing, then print and edit on paper. I like to use a red pen. This allows you to make bigger changes, because you can see larger passages in context and move them around as needed. It also lets you see how any edits you make affect your meaning. Do this two, three, or more times until you no longer see the need for edits. The image above shows a portion of my first edit for this document. I printed it three more times, making significant revisions each time.
- Read your document aloud. When audibly reading what you’ve written, you’ll tend to focus more on the meaning of your document, and its cadence, than on the mere placement of the words and punctuation. If you didn’t have clear topic headings when you started, this is where headings may start to suggest themselves. You may need to move sentences from one paragraph or heading to another or move whole paragraphs around.
- When editing on-screen, one or more of the following suggestions may help you spot most remaining errors:
- Read through in a very small font
- Read through very slowly, one word at a time
- Read the text backwards
- Print and read the text upside down
Each of these methods will force you to see only the text, instead of the meaning of the words.
- Make one pass for each type of mistake you’re prone to making. For instance, make one pass for punctuation only, then one pass for awkward phrases that you could move, simplify, or eliminate.
- Check for word choice. There are words that you might easily confuse with other words. For instance, the following words are homophones; that is, they sound just like each other, but they have different meanings: right, wright, rite and write. No spell checker will tell you if you used the wrong word, as long as it’s spelled correctly. Be sure whether the correct word is to, too, or two. Consult a dictionary or dictionary.com for such words, if you’re uncertain.
- Finally, check transitions between thoughts. Transitional words and phrases help you vary sentence length, which increases reader enjoyment and places your thoughts into more natural, pleasing relationships with each other. For an in-depth review, read Transitional Words and Phrases from The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin.
These suggestions should help you overcome your blind spots when editing your own writing. Errors in our writing slip by us, mostly because we’re in a hurry, and we assume our writing faithfully matches our thoughts. Be assured that it usually doesn’t. Slow your process by using deliberate measures to consider both your meaning and your words. You’ll see the quality of your writing improve as a result.