The Art of Self-Editing by Zuzana Starovecká

12/11/2011 10:40

or How to Write a Damn Good Article



The idea comes suddenly and completely out of the blue. When it hits you, you just can’t wait to get to your keyboard (or the old-fashioned, much-loved typewriter) and put it down. You pound out the first draft, and you keep going until you are through with the closing paragraph. You feel great. Writing is sweet. You hit the “print” button, or maybe you won’t even bother handing in a hard copy and hit the “send” button straightaway. In a hundredth of a second your editor/teacher has your work in their e-mail inbox. Unless you’re a genius of a writer, they will freak out and send it back to you (on rare occasions it will work, but I wouldn’t rely on that). Let’s get back to the original perfect inspiration. You slave over the rough draft, type the final period and put it aside. Pretend it never existed. Prepare dinner, clean your bathroom, go shopping. Then come back and practice the alpha and omega of a professional writer: the art of self-editing.


Self-editing and revising your work is an essential part of coming up with a polished and smart text. Imagine it is the text’s make-up. With manuscripts crafted by a really talented hand, a little bit of mascara and a touch of lipstick will do. Others will require more work; however, ugly ducklings should not despair: all can turn into a beautiful swan.


Finding just the right words and making them sing, float easily and playfully on the page like waves in the sea, is a really hard job. It requires a patient and attentive mind and as much talent and inspiration as the initial draft. How does a beginner learn to self-edit and use the clever tricks to master the revising stage? The writing techniques differ from writer to writer: some use outlines, some prefer to write as their thoughts come bubbling up to the surface of their minds, some will self-edit while writing their first draft, and others will wade through it later. There is really no right or wrong way of revising your text. What works for me could be deadly for you.


No matter how you edit your writing, there are certain rules and techniques that need to be observed in any case and will immensely help you increase your chances of getting published (I am talking Perspectives mainly). The first and most essential principle: when you finish writing your first draft, put it aside and let it sit and cool off for a few days (or hours at least) before you go back and do your final read-through. That will give you time and enough distance to reconsider your thoughts, get a fresh perspective and see the text as a whole in a new angle. Play with it! Don’t be afraid to shuffle paragraphs, wipe out whole junks of text, rearrange your word order, use unconventional synonyms and imaginative metaphors. Edit, edit, edit, edit! And when you feel, you have done as much as you possibly could, then edit a bit more.


The hardest thing about self-editing is that it requires an ability to look at your work with an impersonal eye. You as a writer must be able to stand outside your work and see it objectively, imagine that it wasn’t you who wrote it. Or have someone else read your text, such as your flat mate or partner. Another pair of eyes can be amazingly helpful. In that case, make sure THEY will be honest with you and don’t get touchy when they suggest deleting some of your precious words, over which you slaved several days (or even weeks?). Without objectivity, the revision won’t work. The writer must put aside all affections he might have for his text and look at it as if from someone else’s point of view. Read with different eyes. Listen with different ears. This part can be tricky, and it is also the most difficult to master.


Also, listen to your inner voice while reading. There is a nice flow (both of words and ideas expressed by them) that comes with a well-written text. Imagine you are in the editor’s shoes and be impartial. Perhaps you will find a passage that you thought was brilliant, but at the second reading it won’t sound as funny as you thought. Do away with it! Remember, the editors won’t be that lenient with you and certainly not biased.


Secondly, the basic rules of grammar and style will always apply whether your text is meant for a scientific journal or a literary magazine. Watch out for right prepositions, correct verb forms, third person agreement, articles in relation to anaphoric and cataphoric reference, idioms and set phrases, etc. Avoid using generic verbs such as “go, have, make” and replace them with more specific verbs such as “stroll, possess, create”, to name but a few. Generic verbs with their commonality and repetition make your writing dull, whereas specific verbs add glamour and originality to your work.


Next, check for general writing mechanics. Even if your text is wonderful, you can’t make a good impression if it is overflowing with misspellings and typos. It is really frustrating and tedious for a proofreader/editor to correct every bit of punctuation too. Now I am talking commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, hyphens, etc. As a writer you are responsible for the reader’s impression and experience from the text, which may be easily spoiled if they get distracted by wrong punctuation. Writing mechanics really do matter and can be easily repaired, so make the effort and tidy up your text. It will save the editor’s nerves and leave them free to enjoy your article. After all, isn’t that what you want?

In addition to that, watch for two spaces between words, the closing bracket or close inverted commas, both of which very often get lost when inserting some extra information or a quotation. I will tell you a simple trick how to avoid this: type out both of your inverted commas or brackets like this: “” or () and then go one space back and “write the text in between like this”. That way you will never forget to type the closing bracket or the close inverted commas, may your sentence run across an entire paragraph.


When writing in English, ALWAYS switch to English keyboard. Problems arise when you type an apostrophe on a Slovak keyboard, which causes some users to enter, instead of the correct apostrophe character, the acute accent (e.g. isn´t). Furthermore, don’t forget to check your spelling with a spell check. If you don’t have one, then get one. But again, don’t rely on it for doing the editing work for you. The thing with spell check is that it checks only how words are spelled, not how they are used. So there will be words that your spell check will miss because they will be typed correctly. For example, you will have typed “her” instead of “here” and your spell check won’t get this (or public/pubic). Also, homophones often get mixed up, so make sure you are using the right form of a word: their/there/they’re or its/it’s or who’s/whose.


One more useful piece of advice: before you do your final edit, print out your text. Trust me. Reviewing your work from a hard copy will make things so much easier for you. First, it will save your eyes from going sore, and, most of all (don’t ask me how), you will see things that you would miss reading your text off a computer screen. The words need to be read as they were originally meant to be read—on paper.


Passages running across an entire page or narratives without breaks or adequate paragraphing will naturally tempt the reader to skip the long junk and scan the passage for some “excitement”. This will sound sad, but the reader will look for a blank space with little text. Put your hand on your heart: a page of continuous text doesn’t look very inviting or appealing, does it? So pay attention to paragraphing and keep your readers focused. You need to learn how to say much in a few words.


Check your stylistics and watch for unintentional repetition. If you repeat the same word in one sentence or too closely in a couple of sentences, then you should revise it. If you can’t think of a sophisticated synonym, try a thesaurus. This is the only permissible way of cheating. Also, make sure your text reads easily, and your thoughts are well-organized and clearly expressed.


Self-editing and revising is not much fun in itself, but it is this stage that separates writers from writer wannabes. The old cliché “Practice makes perfect” is in this case a self-evident truth. The writing profession is a hard one, and many professionals have been quoted saying that writing is really and truly “an art of rewriting”. In other words, multiple revising of your thoughts can’t hurt. You need to polish your text until it glistens miraculously. For God’s sake! It has your name on it, so it should be as good as it gets!


After much thought (and editing!), I assume the best way to conclude this “writing manual” is to quote two academics that teach academic writing at our department and who both have a thing or two to say: Ms. Lucia Otrísalová and Ms. Lynda Steyne.


L.O.: “Writing is a game. It’s playing with words and sentence structures. It requires multiple rearrangement of your thoughts, looking for the best word, giving examples and choosing relevant arguments. And that needs time.”


L.S.: “Each owner must take OWNERSHIP of their work. It’s a matter of pride. The words I put on paper and the resulting article, story, or whatever are MINE. They reflect ME. If what I produce is weak or even a non-composition, it reflects on me, on my abilities, intelligence, and skill. It also shows my disrespect for the reader. Self-editing isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.”


Yes, read that again because it is SO true. Self-editing isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.


Zuzana Starovecká


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