Yes, it has become commonplace to find sloppy writing on web sites, blogs, in articles, emails, and sometimes in magazines and books. But you don’t have to write like everyone else. You have the opportunity to connect with readers
and make a great impression. Being a good communicator requires clear and effective writing. By learning a few must-dos and having helpful resources and tools at hand, producing an excellent piece, short or long, can be easier than you think.
For self-editing, you need some specialized and comprehensive guides at hand—no one is expected to know all the rules of English. You can use online resources or tried-and-true books like The Chicago Manual of Style, or both. You can look up the answer to any question on punctuation, grammar, or confounding rules about when “army” should be capitalized, for example.
One of my clients discovered that “hospice” should not be capitalized unless it is part of an organization’s name. Fortunately, she knew how to use the “find” and “replace” editing tool in Microsoft Word, so she was able to correct 152 instances in a matter of seconds. MS Word also has a decent spell-checker tool, which of course you must use in self-editing.
Grammarly® is a popular, free application to help with grammar. There is a premium version that is worth it for many people. Grammarly Premium is a paid upgrade that offers over 400 types of checks and features, checks for grammatical errors, provides vocabulary enhancement suggestions, detects plagiarism, and provides citation suggestions.
Wait 3 Days
After your draft is finished, set it aside. Go outside and play. When you come back to begin self-editing in earnest after two or three days, you will have fresh eyes. It can feel like you barely recognize some of your work, or like you are reading something someone else must have written, but at the least, you will gain perspective and be able to see the writing with more objectivity. Also, as you come to areas where you struggled before, now you may instantly see eloquent solutions, better ways to say what you mean to say.
Forget the Story
Put on your surgeon’s cap. To be effective, a surgeon must focus on a particular process in a certain area, not on their whole patient. It does not matter what the patient’s story is at the moment, the doctor must be precise in what they are fixing or removing. And you need to put aside your project as a whole and focus on fixing or removing what isn’t working, sentence by sentence, word by word, comma by comma. There are some tricks to make this easier.
Things you missed before will become glaringly obvious when you enlarge the font to triple-size or more. Also, some authors are better at seeing words once they are printed out on paper instead of just reviewing your draft on the computer screen.
A great way to check for flow is to put yourself in your reader’s place, which happens when you hear the writing vs. reading it. Have a friend read it out loud to you, or read it out loud yourself. Some people like the computer to use text-to-talk and read out loud to them. Hearing the sentences can alert you to where something is unclear, awkward, or a repetition of what has already been said. Also, it will help you catch grammatical errors—you may not know the rule, but you know if something “sounds right.”
If you’re up to being a surgeon a little while more, read each sentence in reverse order. Start at the end and read up to the beginning. This forces your brain to forget the story and only focus on the operation at hand.
Be Stephen King
In his wonderful book, On Writing, King (one the world’s top best-selling authors with over 40 works published) is persuasive in his advice to “kill all adverbs, and many adjectives, too.” He says to use a rich vocabulary and active verbs instead of passive. Shorten, change, or delete any writing that reads dull. King’s coaching applies to nonfiction as well as fiction. Importantly, he says to know who you are writing to, and have that person in mind as you write. This is a KEY point. Your editor can’t fix this, so you need to have it top-of-mind all the way through your book—that is, if you want your target readers to be engaged, find your book worthwhile, and tell others about it.
Use “I” but Don’t Overdo It
It is critical that you write with your own authentic voice, speaking directly to your target reader. If you are a teacher, rather than writing, “It is common for students to become bored if…,” go ahead and say what you know from your own experience. “My students get bored if I do any of these five things…” Also, it is weak to say, “In my opinion…” You are the author and are expected to say what you think, believe, and conclude.
On the other hand, starting too many sentences with “I” will leave your reader feeling disconnected, not engaged. Don’t make it hard for them to relate, to see themselves in the problems, situations, and lessons you share. In one re-write project, the first thing I did for the author was point out that he used the word “you” 416 times and the word “I” in 1675 instances. We worked on flipping those so that the reader was included and addressed sufficiently (he had gotten feedback that his book was just his own ego trip).
Mix it Up
Every paragraph that your reader reads, they are potentially losing interest. The more paragraphs, the greater the chance they won’t make it to the end of your writing.
No reader wants to hit a huge wall of words, so enliven your text with headings, bullets, lists, tables, graphics, quotes, and links.
You can also use dialogue to break up pages of an example story. For nonfiction, don’t worry that you cannot recall every word that was said; simply create a short, natural-sounding conversation that shows what you want the scene to mean to the reader.
Hand it Off
Carefully composing an email is one thing, but for an article or book, don’t go it alone. Once you’ve completed two reviews of your manuscript or document, correcting typos, redundancies, and content errors (e.g., upon checking, it was actually 1963, not 1966), transfer the final editing and proofreading task to professionals. Reluctance to do this is fear-based, and can poison your project.
When perfectionism and procrastination combine, you can be your own worst enemy. By freeing yourself from this, you can better use your time to accomplish more with less stress.
The above teachings (and so much more!) are included in my online course for writing nonfiction. Learn more here MasterClass.