In my last post, I mentioned how, having gotten the all-important first draft out, you can then go back and clean it up to your satisfaction. Cleaning up your text is also known as self-editing, and in my opinion, it’s the second biggest stumbling block to writing something down.
(Here’s an example of self-editing. The previous sentence originally read: “…it’s the second most important stumbling block in writing.” But then, as I finished typing it, I noticed that the word ‘important’ was repeated twice in two sentences. I found the repetition jarring to the flow of the text. So I went back and changed it.)
The problem with self-editing, however, is that you can easily get caught up in it. Sometimes, you may end up spending two or three times longer on self-editing than you spent actually writing the draft. And sometimes, you can become caught up in self-editing to the point where you forget to finish what you were writing.
How can self-editing be controlled?
Start by setting some hard limits on it. For example:
- Finish your whole draft before you start editing
- When editing, start from the top and work downwards paragraph by paragraph
- Limit the time you spend editing each paragraph
- Limit the number of times you allow yourself to make changes to each paragraph
- Limit the types of changes you make – content-only, grammar-only, style-only
When you self-edit, set limits on what you allow yourself to do. That will save you time and effort.
Why finish the whole draft first? Because editing is much easier and more satisfying than the actual writing. Once you start editing, you often don’t want to go back to writing. So, get the more difficult part done first.
Why start from the top? Because that was where you started writing. As you edit, you are retracing the thoughts you had as you wrote. By doing it in order, you are more likely to remember what you had in mind at each part of the text. That will help you decide whether something should be changed or not.
Why paragraph by paragraph? Because that helps you focus better on what you are doing. Thinking of the piece as a whole can be overwhelming. Your mind is likely to react by jumping all over the text in a disorganized manner that will make you waste time and miss out things you should have noticed. Therefore, break the text up into small pieces that you can deal with one by one.
Thinking of the piece as a whole can be overwhelming. Your mind will probably react by jumping all over the text in a disorganized manner. Therefore, break it up into small sections and deal with them one at a time.
A lot of people worry about setting limits, because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to catch all the mistakes. But this is in fact the last thing you should worry about. Your objective was to produce a piece of writing.
And you already did that when you got your draft down on paper, or on screen as it may be. So what you are doing now – going back over the text, changing and correcting and polishing – is about improving the piece of writing you already produced.
Yes, it’s possible to make improvements infinitely, just like it’s possible to run until you drop down dead. But you (usually) don’t want to drop down dead, and you (usually) also don’t want to spend the rest of your life picking away at one piece of writing. So when you set limits on your editing, you are setting a finish line beyond which you tell yourself: “OK, it’s done. Time to move on to the next thing.”
When you reach this finish line, remember: it’s not about how well you edited your writing. It’s about the fact that you actually did edit it and clean it up a bit. Maybe you didn’t make all the changes you’d have liked, but you did manage to improve it. And that, after all, was the whole point of self-editing in the first place.
Note: This advice is not for people who consider themselves writers, especially not you bloody novelists. I am not going to argue with you bloody novelists (and I’m one myself, so I know what I’m talking about) over the merits of indefinite editing, because that argument can go on indefinitely and I want to move on to the next thing.