Let me start by saying, I don’t recommend proofing material you write. Still, people do it so I thought it would be useful to provide some tips for editing your own work. I write and edit for a living and still hire others to review my material, particularly with books.
Red-faced and cringing, I find mistakes on blog posts after they’re published. Clients catch errors in ghostwritten material not passed off to someone with a fresh pair of eyes. Believe me, I get it. We all make mistakes. Even people who are experienced, adept, and keyed in on typical errors that surface in writing, are too close to their own work to be effective proofreaders.
That said, I recognize it’s not always practical or in the budget to hire a professional to give your copy the once-over before you call it done. Fortunately, there are some ways you can make your content cleaner. So, these tips for editing your own work are worth considering before you hit “publish.”
This is part one of a two-part series.
“I” shouldn’t be the star of the show
If you’re starting to feel like the poster child for the Frito Bandito song, you’re talking about yourself too much. Remember, if you’re writing with a business intent, the copy isn’t about you. It’s about your readers. In order to draw people in and keep them interested in what you have to say – or sell – you should write from the audiences’ perspective.
For short copy, the easiest way to avoid this trap is the write in the second person (using “you”). Obviously, when you’re telling personal stories, this doesn’t work. What’s important to pay attention to is consistency. If a paragraph begins in the first person (“I,” “me,” “we,” “us,” “our,” etc.) don’t switch to “you” or third person (“he,” “her,” “them,” etc.) midstream.
Staying in the second person is tougher for books. Most focused on business topics include illustrative examples that require shifting to the first or third person. This is OK. What can make for difficult reading, though, is starting half your sentences with “I”. It’s an easy pattern to fall into when writing from recall.
Pay attention to this when you reread your work. This is #1 for a reason in my tips for editing your own work. If this is the only tip you implement from this post, you’ll improve your reader experience dramatically.
Use passive voice sparingly
Fixing an “I” problem at the start of sentences often leads to too much passive voice. For example, “I invented a new product” can become “A new product was invented by me.” That doesn’t work either.
While this avoids starting sentences with “I,” it can reduce flow and understanding. Some passive voice is fine, but be careful here. You don’t want a majority of your sentences reading that way.
There are a lot of tools available (including Yoast SEO for your website pages and blog posts) that automatically flag passive voice. Personally, I think these tools are overly strict with their no more than 10% rule, but they’re a good guide to identify where this is becoming an issue.
It’s not always easy to spot passive voice. I still struggle with it. Here’s a good article explaining ways to identify it in your writing.
Pay attention to repeated & pet words
We all have them. Pet words are particularly noticeable with terms few use. Those words that are part of our daily vocabulary are hard to spot, whether they’re common or not.
I have an aunt who remarks “fabulous” almost every other sentence. She clearly adores the word. It’s become kind of a family smile expression when she’s not there. No one can utter or hear it without thinking of her. She’s a lovely person we see too infrequently these days, so its become a term of endearment.
A writer I know uses “terrific” constantly. That one bothers me more with its multiple meanings that work against the point she’s trying to make. It’s a pet word too. Not a good choice for one selling services around clear communications.
First time authors have a tendency to begin a row of sentences with the same word. Usually it’s a pronoun or an article. Think “it,” “this,” “the,” “they,” “many,” “each,” etc. While a repetition technique can work well for emphasis, when it’s unintentional, it’s distracting.
If you’re noticing a word crops up a lot in your writing, know your readers will be more sensitive about such things. Mix it up to keep things interesting.
Vary sentence length
Most people have a tendency to communicate with either quick, terse sentences or go into a lot of detail with lots of words to describe ideas. When writing, it’s important to use both. Short sentences tend to add tension or urgency. Longer sentences can foster a more relaxed feeling. Just don’t make them so long a reader can’t follow what you’re talking about by the time they reach the end.
While sentence length can be particularly powerful in fiction, it’s important to consider how your sentences are affecting pace in your non-fiction writing too. Mixing it up also helps improve your readers’ experience. Generally, it’s best to include both short and long sentences in each paragraph.
Next time, I’ll dive into more tips for editing your own work as well as some practical ideas for making it easier. If you haven’t signed up for the newsletter, consider doing so now (at the bottom of the home page). You’ll get notified with a brief subject summary when new blog content is posted. That way you can choose if you want to click through to information that interests you.