Don’t Fear the Red Pen

I have a confession to make: I’m long-winded. That’s right. Verbose. Fustian. Rambling. I’m in love with the sound of my own typing. And I’m an editor.

When it comes to editing others’ work, I can be a harsh mistress, dicing, slicing and re-jiggering text like the 8th grade English teacher of your middle-school nightmares. Seth Godin would be proud. Yet when it comes to my own beautiful words, I let them flow like the Ganges.

But as the lovely Marian Schembari noted in her recent blogging adventure, we all make mistakes. Typos, incorrect usage and errant apostrophes are the bane of us all. Unfortunately, if you’re a writer — or worse, an editor — your mistakes seem to shine like a lighthouse beacon for all to see. So how do I save face? Ladies and gentlemen, I self-edit like nobody’s business.

Photo Credit: Visentico / Sento via Flickr

How does self-editing become second nature for a writer who’s never met a dependent clause she didn’t like? This is how.

1) Just Write

Simplistic, I know. Don’t agonize over how you’re going to write it, just write it. Stop stressing over le mot juste. You have your topic and a vague idea or opinion of what you want to communicate, so just get your thoughts on the screen (or paper, if you’re like to kick it old school from time to time). The point is: You can’t edit a blank page.

2) Embrace the Process

You type a paragraph, and by the time you reach the end, you realize your closer works better as your opener. A quick copy & paste and voila! Magic! Or your fingers linger restlessly over the keys as your focus deteriorates and you can’t seem to get unstuck. So you abandon that line of thought and move on to the next paragraph where the words fly from your keyboard with lightening speed. Embrace the process. This is your right brain telling your left brain to shut the hell up. You’re doing what I call an “organic dev edit.”

NB: Development editing is that horrible beast that exists to make mystery writers scream and technical writers cry.

3) Pause to Correct

So you’ve hit a wall. You can’t reach the finish line because your brain won’t play nice anymore. Pause. Breathe. Go back to the beginning. … Why are you hyperventilating? I said: “Breathe.” Pause to correct any typos, grammatical faux pas and verb tense shifts (an Achilles heel of yours truly). Sure, re-reading and correcting these errors helps you get a jump on editing your final piece, but it also helps tighten your writing and root out any stray thoughts that might have derailed your progress. This step may occur several times before you reach the end. Have no fear; it too is a part of the process. When in doubt, see #2.

4) Edit “Someone Else’s” Work

You’ve finished writing. It’s not perfect, but you’re feeling a little proud right now. Guess what? It’s time to get mean. There’s 3 ways to go about this:

    • You’re an English Comp professor with a trusty red pen who just found out he’s not getting tenure
    • You’re a loving parent who doesn’t want you to feel discouraged because you try oh so hard
    • You’re a friend who doesn’t want to see you look foolish by clinging to clunky phrases and excessive rambling

Depending on the day of the week and the subject matter at hand, you’re going to become each of these personas. Sometimes, you’ll be all three in one day. Just remember: You’re not the writer anymore; you’re the editor. This is going to hurt.

5) Step Away

For journalists penning articles, copywriters building campaigns, authors creating book proposals, this step usually involves leaving the piece alone for a night. When you awake in the morning, you have a semi-fresh perspective and you’re more likely to catch any mistakes that escaped you the day before. Once you’re happy, send the hallowed text on its merry way.

For bloggers racing against the clock, this step involves hitting publish, walking away, then coming back to read through your work after its had time to embarrass the hell out of you. Sadly, due to time constraints, there’s no real way around this end game. But returning to your blog post a day or two after you’ve hit publish often helps you discover missing words, hackneyed cliches and funky formatting that mars your otherwise benevolent masterpiece. Make the necessary changes, once you’re happy, hit “Update.”

Now I can’t promise that my self-editing style will work well for you, because as I mentioned, I’m a long-winded writer. In the end, I believe in hacking away the excess, but never at the expense of conveying the author’s complete thought or destroying the author’s voice. The truth is editing someone else’s words is a lot easier than editing your own, but we can’t be slaves to our own egos if we want to stay relevant in the world of freelancing. Writing riddled with typos, poor usage and repetitious language hurts your image and job prospects. Self editing will only help you improve as a communicator for your product, your brand and your business.

Candace Nicholson

Candace Nicholson is a freelance writer and editor in Indianapolis, IN. She writes loquaciously on her blog on Incandescere.com, as well as for IndyConcerts.com. For more information, connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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10 Comments

  1. Great post!

    I’m usually pretty good at controlling my inner editor, but every once in a while she rears her ugly head. For instance, I was writing a blog post over the weekend. I can usually finish these in an hour or two with revisions. But for some reason, the editor came out and gave me the willies and it took me eight hours to write the post. I was just going back and forth, over-editing mostly. I wrote two pieces instead of one and chose my favorite.

    It was really weird. Random OCD behaviour or something.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Thanks Lisa! I envy your ability to knock out a post so quickly. Blogging is an involved process for me. I still approach it from the magazine editor’s perspective, so I look at content, editing, layout, proofing, permissions, etc.

      That’s why I only have a one post/week goal. I know that’s not the norm, but I worry about sacrificing quality for quantity. Plus, I’m long-winded. Did I mention that? ;-)

      I think most creative professionals have a borderline OCD behaviour about something or other. Some of us have several. ::cough:: My tack has been to turn my OCD into a lucrative freelancing business. You know, let my perfectionism work for me instead of against me.

      I’m glad you liked the post. Thanks for the feedback!

      Reply
  2. I have the same problems of being long winded with my content. What helps me cut that down is to verbally read what I’ve written. It makes it easier to catch clunky phrases, awkward tenses and other things that can be missed.

    Reply
    • Oh, reading aloud definitely helps me too. Sometimes, I get so bogged down in re-reading phrases aloud to the point that I wonder if I’m hearing something truly awkward or my brain is just exhausted from over-analyzing.

      Before I started writing this entry, I reviewed the word count on my blog posts. My average word count is 896. I try to tell myself that that’s not that bad, but then I remember that some of those pieces are close to 1200 words. :-0 Long-winded indeed.

      Reply
  3. Good post, Candace. My favorite tip for brevity came from an editor who used to buy red ink by the barrel. Basically, write your story — and then delete the first two paragraphs. Usually, you’ll find that they’re not necessary, and you’ve just been “clearing your throat”!
    Jake P recently posted..Where can I find high paying freelance writing jobs

    Reply
    • Thanks Jake! That’s great advice. I find that’s often true for me too. Or sometimes my first two paragraphs will end up in the middle of the piece as one or two sentences, usually serving as a transitional phrase.

      For many, writing is very much a process of learning how to get out of your own way. I’ve found that the best way to do that is to: 1) Trust that you’ll get there, 2) Not every article is going to be a home run, and 3) Don’t be afraid to scrap something that just isn’t working.

      Reply
  4. Candace, I’m long-winded, too. I often find myself going off track in a post. I’m terrible at self-editing, which is why you see the number of typos you do here. I just have this problem of reading what I wanted to write instead of what I actually wrote.

    By the way, thanks for guesting here. Your post was big hit traffic-wise and it’s obvious everybody loves your post. You’re welcome back anytime.
    P.S. Jones recently posted..Time Machine Notes

    Reply
    • “I just have this problem of reading what I wanted to write instead of what I actually wrote.”

      Truer words were never spoken. I’m right there with you. I don’t know if it’s a sign that I need to work on my concentration or that I’m just getting old(er).

      I’ve gone back and re-read some of my comments, posts or articles and I’m left scratching my head wondering how in the world did I not catch something the first 8 or 9 times I read it through. SMH.

      Cool! I’m famous. j/k I was surprised to see how many times the post was retweeted yesterday. I thought it would just be you and me passing along the link.

      Thanks for the platform. Had I written this post on my blog, I wouldn’t have gotten 1/4 of the attention or views. I look forward to stealing your audience away from you again in the future. :-P

      Reply
  5. Having trouble with the self-editing process? Guest post for Diary of a Mad Freelancer: "Don’t Fear the Red Pen" – http://bit.ly/g3ebEQ

    Reply
  6. That #3 has saved so many posts from flat, boring prose to something much more readable for me. I hit that wall, and it’s because I know it’s flat, boring prose. Going back rescues me not only from typos, but from banality. Thanks for pointing it out, Candace.
    Shakirah Dawud recently posted..A Public DM- Can I Talk To You In Private

    Reply

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