By C.K. MacLeod and Carla Douglas
This post first appeared on June 17, 2015 at The Book Designer and on July 15, 2015 at Beyond Paper Editing.
How do you edit your writing? Perhaps you use one of these self-editing approaches...
Approaches to Self-Editing
There are many ways to improve your writing. You can
- set your writing aside for a month or two and tackle it again from a renewed perspective
- get structured feedback from beta readers
- hire an editor to assess your first draft and suggest improvements
- run editing tools on your writing
Let’s look at each of these self-editing approaches.
You may be exhausted from your first-draft efforts. Setting your writing aside for a spell may give you the time you need to recharge and become excited about your book project again. It may also afford you the perspective you need to see where your writing needs fixing. This approach to self-editing is most effective if there aren’t time constraints, and if you’re able to see what needs improving.
The remaining items on the list above are different from the first item in one important way: they offer feedback on your writing from an external source — from someone, or something, other than you. Because it’s difficult to be objective about your own writing, external feedback can alert you to your writing blind spots.
Not everyone responds well to feedback from beta readers and editors. Writers need to be able to develop resilience for receiving feedback, but this takes time and practice. If you’re still working on developing your resilience, we have another “external” self-editing option for you: editing tools.
Many editors use automated editing tools to efficiently find problems in a piece of writing. If writers want to learn how these tools work, they can use them to diagnose their own writing!
Below is a list of some our favourite editing tools, linked to articles that describe how to use them. We’ve organized them into the four levels of editing that every manuscript should go through.
Not all tools are diagnostic and automated.* Some of them, such as the paragraph-level and big-picture tools, will help you when it’s time to fix your writing. We’ve selected tools that we think will be most helpful to writers, but there are many more tools that you can explore and try.
Self-Editing Tools for Writers
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*Diagnostic tools: these tools will check for one or more potential writing problems with the click of a button.
+Fixing tools: these tools will help you fix writing problems, once they are identified.
As far as we know, there aren’t automated diagnostic tools that will point out paragraph-level and big-picture problems. At least not yet. For now, you’ll need to educate yourself about common paragraph-level and big-picture problems, or get some direction from beta readers and editors. You can use the paragraph-level and big-picture tools in the table above to efficiently fix problems, once you know what they are.
Advantages of Editing Tools
Editing tools have a few distinct advantages over the other self-editing methods mentioned at the beginning of this article:
- They aren’t people, which means that writers probably won’t respond to feedback emotionally, or take feedback personally. A tool also won’t roll its eyes because you’ve forgotten to close quotations and parentheses 54 times in a 300-page book. It’ll point out these errors, without judgment. And we could all use a little less judgement.
- If you consider what these tools are telling you about your writing, you will sharpen your self-editing skills.
- You can use diagnostic editing tools five minutes after you’ve typed the period on the last sentence of your first draft. This makes editing tools brilliant for on-demand writing.
- These tools are widely available, and some of them are cheap or free. (Editors are widely available, but they’re not cheap or free.)
- If you plan to use tools for self-editing, and later decide to hire an editor, your editor may have less to do, and that can save on editing costs.
Can these tools help you to become a better writer? We’re still gathering data on that. From what we’ve seen — with authors who’ve been willing to act on the information suggested by diagnostic editing tools — it does seem possible.
For example, if a tool suggests that you’ve included needless words in your writing, after deleting 103 needless words in the first 50 pages of your manuscript, there’s a good chance that you’ll include fewer of them in your writing in future!
Limitations of Editing Tools
Editing tools will not do it all. They have limitations that are important to understand. They will not write your book, cook your breakfast, or collect your kids from school. And they also won’t do these three things:
Won’t Think for You
An editing tool can alert you to potential problems with your writing. You need to decide when to address a highlighted instance and when to ignore it.
For example, the Hemingway app will highlight adverbs in blue, so you can delete them. Why? Adverbs can clutter your writing and indicate instances of telling instead of showing. (Show, don’t tell!)
But does that mean you need to excise every adverb in sight? No. Depending on what you’re writing, you may choose to sprinkle adverbs as you would expensive fleur de sel.
Won’t Fix It for You
Editing tools are not designed to fix your writing for you. They identify problems, or help you fix problems efficiently. You have to do the heavy lifting.
For example, if your tool has highlighted a sentence that’s too long, you will need to divide that unwieldy beast into two shorter sentences. Your tool won’t do that for you.
Won’t Do the Footwork for You
If a solution to a writing problem isn’t obvious to you, you may need to dig around in writing craft books or style guides for help with interpreting what a tool is telling you.
Consider the example below. PerfectIt Pro 3 is asking the author to check the use of a hyphen in this instance. Has the author used the hyphen correctly?
Looking things up isn’t a waste of your time. The more you know why something might need fixing, the more you'll know about writing. If you let them, editing tools will show you where you quirks are, teach you what to pay attention to, and inspire (or provoke) you to make adjustments.
How to Use Editing Tools
As with any kind of learning, you need to go slowly or you could become overwhelmed. Here are some tips for keeping things manageable:
- Remember to begin with big-picture editing fixes and work your way down to word-level fixes. Editing order matters.
- Run diagnostic tools, one chapter at a time, until you become familiar with how these tools work. Exceptions: Run Consistency Checker and PerfectIt Pro on your entire book. Why? They’re designed to check for consistency across an entire manuscript.
- Run one tool at a time. Don’t run several tools at once. You’ll have too many things to pay attention to. The key is to remain focused and to improve your writing by degrees.
- Be strategic. You don’t need to run every tool on your writing, every time. Once you’re familiar with the tools we recommend, you’ll know which ones best address your most persistent writing quirks.
- Consult editing books for solutions to the writing problems your tools uncover.
Editing tools can help you to become aware of your writing blind spots and sharpen your self-editing skills. They may even help you become better at writing.
If, however, you’ve decided that learning how to use these tools is not for you, and you prefer to have writing problems fixed for you, hire an editor! (You had to know we were going to say that.)
Note: We used the Hemingway app and PerfectIt Pro 3 to edit this article.
Image by Steve Snodgrass