Often, inexperienced writers believe they’ve finished the project when they type “the end.” They post the article, send the news release to the media, mail the complaint letter, or submit the manuscript to an editor. Then they discover a glaring error in the headline, a typo in the company name, an omitted word – or a number of more serious errors.
I won’t promise you’ll ever have a perfect manuscript. No matter how careful we are, mistakes happen. An error-free e-mail isn’t too difficult, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 100,000 word book manuscript without a single mistake.
However, you can ensure your writing is as error-free and easy to read as possible, whether you’re a professional freelancer writing Web content for a client, an entrepreneur announcing business news in a press release, or a concerned citizen writing a letter to the editor.
- Write first, edit later. I’ve known people who have been working on a manuscript for years and haven’t got past chapter 1 because they continue to edit, revise, rewrite, trying to get those pages perfect before moving on. Although some writers do work best if they edit as they write, most are more creative and effective if they get their thoughts down first before trying to edit.
- Take a break. After you’ve been wrestling with text for hours (or longer), you tend to lose your perspective.You think you’re editing, but you’re really reading what you meant – what you thought you wrote rather than what you actually wrote. If you put the piece aside for a while (the longer the document, the longer the break), you’ll return with fresh eyes and a fresh viewpoint and do a better job of editing.
- Edit in stages. How many stages you need will depend on the length, complexity, and importance of the document. An essay for a college entrance application will need a lot more editing than a short memo to your staff. For a major project, read the entire document first. You may discover that you need to move a section or add or delete material. After you’re satisfied with the structure, go back through the document as many times as needed. Edit for content – sentence structure, word choices, clarity. Then proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You can use spell check and grammar check in your word processing program as a guide, but don’t rely on the recommendations. The programs know rules but not context. You can easily turn the right word into the wrong one by accepting the program’s suggestions.
- Watch for your own pet problems. Most writers have words they overuse and mistakes they make often. I just finished reading a book in which the author used the word instantly on almost every page. Instead of adding to the story, instantly became an annoying intrusion. My big bugaboo is leaving out words. Almost everything I write is missing several words in the first draft. There are many grammar resources online. One of my favorites is The Elements of Style, a classic that’s still helpful after almost a hundred years. Another excellent resource, Guide to Grammar and Writing, has lists of “confusable” words to help you decide whether to use it’s or its, accept or except, advice or advise, then or than. Look for your own bad habits and make sure you correct those errors.
- Repeat the process of editing, setting the work aside, and editing again as often as needed. You may not need to go through the complete cycle for a short, informal document, but you will probably go through it dozens of times for a book-length manuscript. Mix editing on screen with editing in print; errors show up more readily in print than on screen for many people.
- Read the work aloud. When you think your work is perfect, try reading it out loud. Chances are you’ll stumble over sentences that read fine in print or on the screen but are awkward or confusing. I discover those missing words that I automatically inserted when I read on the screen. Some writers like to read backwards, but I don’t find that helpful. Use what works for you.
- Get another opinion from someone you trust. When you’re working on a book, a manual for your company, a paper that will determine whether you are accepted into college or earn your degree – anything of high importance, ask someone else to edit the document after you’ve finished self-editing. Don’t ask your spouse or mother, though; they’ll probably tell you it’s wonderful. A teacher may be excellent for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but a reader of the genre may be better to point out loose ends you need to tie up in a mystery novel. Someone who isn’t familiar with the subject matter may be helpful for a how-to article; if he understands your explanation, other readers probably will also. On the other hand, sometimes an expert in the subject is best to ensure that your information is accurate. You can join a critique group to get feedback from other writers. A professional editor can help you with grammar as well as with content. I encourage my clients to have several advance readers for their books (and used several advance readers for my own novel). The more eyes and perspectives you get on your work, the more likely it will be the best you can make it.
This may seem like a lot of work – and it is – but if you don’t edit your work … again and again, your brilliant advice or your exciting story will never have the impact you want on your readers. Writing the first draft is only the first step – editing your work finishes the job.