For part one of this series, “The Basics,” click here.
We all have quirks in the way we write. For some of us (*cough* me), those quirks include long sentences, overuse of commas, and overuse of em dashes. One of my best friends always used to mistype “minute” as “minuet,” not because she didn’t know how to spell the word, but because her fingers tended to jumble up the E and the T. Other people tend to mistype certain phrases – “all of a sudden” becomes “all the sudden,” for example.
Quirks like these are perfectly normal, and sometimes they can even be endearing. Unfortunately, a lot of people’s written quirks are pretty grating and can affect their audience’s experience negatively. Luckily, with some extra attention to detail, most of your more annoying quirks/repeated misspellings/regularly broken grammar rules will disappear.
So, how do you fix things?
The first step to fixing these issues is really analyzing both your own writing and other people’s writing. If you’re a novelist, read some high-quality novels and really take time to look at how they word things. If you’re a blogger, read some blogs written by professionals that have a really strong grasp of English and see how they put things together. Once you’ve done that, go back and look at your own writing. Older pieces will be better for this, as you’ve had some time away from them and they’ll feel a bit more like they were written by someone else. This will help you see your writing with new eyes.
Once you’re looking at your own writing, get really nitpicky about it. Are you using that word correctly? Are your paragraphs and sentences too long? Too short? Are they all one length with little variation? Are you using extra words you don’t need? (“Just” and “suddenly” are often used unnecessarily.)
Identifying these shortcomings can be difficult if you haven’t practiced it or if English isn’t your first language, but it’s a vital part of becoming a better writer and self-editor. Finding out what mistakes you make most often in your writing will help in two important ways. First, it will make your existing writing higher-quality and easier to read. Secondly, it will keep you from making those same mistakes in the future. This will allow you to update old posts and make them easier to read and increase audience engagement in the future by ensuring readers aren’t turned off by easily-avoided errors. With a little editing, everyone’s happier!
When it comes to writing, fresh eyes and a second opinion are invaluable tools. Having someone who can look over your writing and make it flow better and catch all the typos and misspellings you weren’t able to catch on your own can take your blog post, short story, or novel from “meh” to “amazing.” (Trust me, I know – the majority of my job is taking the work of okay writers and making their writing sound like it was written by a great writer.)
Fortunately, you usually don’t really need a professional copy editor like myself to fix the biggest issues with your work. A lot of the problems I see are simple fixes, and with a little practice on spotting those issues, you’ll be able to fix half the issues in your work so that when you actually do have someone go over it, they can focus more on the quality of the content rather than fixing a bunch of easily-avoided errors.
The absolute most important part of this is taking the time to do a first edit yourself. I know that probably sounds like common sense to a lot of you, but for those of you – or, if I’m being honest, us – who want the instant gratification of our stuff being Out There For People To Read Right Now Immediately, this can be challenging. But most blog posts only take a few minutes to read, and investing five extra minutes in your blog post or the latest chapter of your story on Wattpad is not going to kill you, and it will improve your audience’s experience. Whether you take some time to read it out loud or just read over it and check for mistakes, it’s worth it.
“But what do I look for when I’m editing?” you ask. “How am I supposed to tell when something doesn’t sound right or isn’t working? I suck at grammar!” My simplest answer to this is reading out loud. It’s a lot easier to catch when something’s funky in your writing when you have to say it and hear it, especially if you’re a native English speaker. You just know when something isn’t quite right. This works great for issues like:
Tense switches, where authors can’t seem to decide when their sentence is taking place. Like this:
I was walking down the street and then we see each other.
The word “was” tells me that this sentence is taking place in the past. But then the word “see” tells me that this sentence is taking place in the present. It makes for a very confusing experience as a reader and an editor, because I often have to use context clues from other sentences around the problem sentence to decide whether I need to change this sentence to “I was walking down the street and then we saw each other” or “I am walking down the street and then we see each other.”
Grammar issues, like punctuation being outside of quotation marks, or apostrophes in the wrong place. If you have trouble with things like grammar and punctuation, your best bet is honestly to google it. I do it all the time. Every time a teacher or professor has tried to teach me grammar, I have really struggled to understand it. It goes in one ear and out the other. (What’s a past participle? Hell if I know.) I understand how the English language works and what sounds right, but I can’t always explain why. Knowing why can be really important in editing, because English is a mutant language with a ton of exceptions to all of its rules, not to mention a ton of rules you have to memorize in the first place. If you’re unsure about a rule, the easiest thing to do is go to Google. It will often lead you to places like Grammar Girl’s articles where different grammatical concepts will be explained to you in a simple way that is usually pretty easy to remember. But if you don’t remember, it’s totally okay to look it up again. (And again… and maybe a few more times after that because grammar is hard.)
Problems with sentence structure. I will see a sentence that’s just weird. Usually these sentences aren’t wrong, exactly, but they just don’t quite come out right when you read them. I’ve been guilty of this. There’s a lot of different ways that this can happen, but here’s an example:
How foolish that was I have no words to express.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. (At least, as far as I can tell – someone correct me if I’m wrong!) It just sounds weird. And there’s a better way to write it so that it flows better: “I have no words to express how foolish that was.” See how nicely the second version flows? Just changing the words around a bit made the meaning of the sentence much clearer and easier to read.
And that’s really the whole point of editing: you want to make your writing easier to read. We could get really nitty-gritty and talk about every possible issue your writing could ever have, but the details aren’t as important as it is for you to keep the goal of making your writing as accessible for your intended audience at the forefront of your mind.
Have specific questions about editing? Feel like I missed something important? Leave a comment and I’ll answer your question in a future post!