Polishing Your Writing? Follow These 3 Self-Editing Steps

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No matter what you’re writing, revising drafts is a headache.

Not only do you have to review your article or story with microscopic focus, but the stress of missing an error and hurting your future writing prospects can be terrifying. Automatic editing software often misses errors and paying for editing services isn’t always an option.

It’s important to find an editing technique that makes the revision process easier and makes you feel confident in your writing.

I developed my own editing method while pursuing my bachelor’s degree in writing and communications. I was freelancing for a local newspaper and serving as editor in chief of my college newspaper while balancing a full course-load of writing-intensive classes and a 75-page senior thesis.

I didn’t have time to spend hours reading over every article or paper.

To handle the workload, I devised a simple three-step method to catch every mistake and build confidence that each draft is well written.

Step 1: The content read-through

The first step of any revision should always be to review the content by reading through the draft.

Many people try to proofread their drafts while they edit the content, but in order to ensure you catch everything, try breaking this into two steps.

Start at the beginning and read your document through slowly, focusing what you’re trying to say. Make sure your document makes sense as a whole, and each point you make is fully developed. Add supporting examples or quotations as needed.

Does your introduction include an interesting hook and explains what you’re writing? Does your conclusion offer a summary or great wrap-up sentence to leave your reader with a sense of finality?

You should also ensure your essay, article or story follows the stylistic conventions of the type of content you are writing, such as including the thesis statement in an academic essay or following the inverted pyramid for news articles.

Try not to focus on proofreading or the flow of your writing. Make sure your content is finished first. Just focus on your message and purpose.  

If you have trouble reading for content errors, make an outline of the points you intend to make before you read your content. Then check off elements on your list as you read to ensure every point makes it into the document.

Once you feel confident that the content of your writing is finalized, move on to the next step: Proofreading your draft.

Step 2: The reverse proofread

You might have fixed some of the more obvious errors in the first step, but the second step is when you should focus on grammar, spelling, and awkward phrasing.

I got this tip from one of my high school English teachers. Most people jump right into proofreading at the top of the piece. But rather than read your work from the beginning, start at the end.

When you’ve spent a lot of time on a document, it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of your work, and the human brain doesn’t read every word of longer pieces. It skims for meaning instead.

In order to force your brain to stop looking for meaning and read each part of the text separately, start at the end and read each sentence piece by piece. By taking the sentences out of context, you check that each sentence alone is grammatically correct.

During this phase of the process, look for correct usage of punctuation, especially commas and quotation marks. Another key focus should be common mistakes such as mixing up homophones like “there” and “their,” or “two,” “to” and “too.”

This is also the time to check for common writing errors, such as overused adverbs or passive voice.

Step 3: The flow breakdown

Once you start editing, you may find your document lacks a cohesive flow, either from drafting or caused by the changes you made in your edits.The last step is to focus on the flow of the document to ensure the writing still makes sense and is pleasing to readers.

Read your document paragraph by paragraph and make sure that each section of your paper, article, or story is easy to read and sounds good. Eliminate any remaining jargon or awkward phrases that might have slipped through your previous revisions.

After this step, you’re done.

It may be scary to think about letting a draft go after only three read-throughs, but by being intentional about what you’re looking for in each step, you’re better able to give your document the focus it needs in the revision process.

Once you try the method and become comfortable with it, you’ll become a quick editor and be able to trust yourself to catch most, if not all, of your errors.

Do you have a special method for editing and proofreading? What is it, and how did you come up with it?

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Peggy Carouthers is a fiction writer and Knoxville-based freelancer specializing in creative writing, human resources, content marketing, business, and more. You can follow her on Twitter at @PeggyCarouthers.... .

Peggy Carouthers | @peggycarouthers

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  1. What a great article! Thanks for all the tips!

  2. I am currently taking a copy editing course and love the idea of proofreading the copy backwards for grammar, spelling, and syntax errors. Thank you!

  3. my teacher said : in the paragaph there are ten sentence
    i can not understand that

  4. Gideon Mutembei Nkoroi says:

    Good article,i like it.

  5. alison figueroa says:

    I also read it out loud. That helps because sometimes when we read we already know what word should come next. But if we say it out loud, we realize we missed a word or it’s the wrong word.

  6. Good Evening to All

    OK I really don’t know where to start. I did debating at school and got my junior certificate for public speaking. I wrote all my own speeches, I started writing to get all my emotions out as I battled to speak about how I was feeling. So I write emotion and motivational pieces. Who can I talk to or how do I get in to the circle.

    Kind regards

  7. I will second the “read it aloud” suggestion. I always find if something isn’t quite sounding or feeling right, the best thing to do is read it out loud to yourself, even just quietly (and who cares if it seems like you’re talking to yourself!). You are much more likely to catch problems with flow, meaning, and even spelling since you’re being intentional about each word.

    Another thing that works for me is to just put it away for a an hour and look again – I always seems to catch more errors doing that since I’ve already forgotten what I thought I wrote.

  8. Kalli Deschamps says:

    Thanks for the insight to editing. I like the idea of reading from the end. Will try it on this new book in the works.

  9. Thanks a million times Peggy.


  1. […] are many styles and approaches to revision. Here’s a simple three-step approach, from the helpful folks at The Write Life […]

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