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How To Edit Your Own Work

Posting an entry that tells people how to edit their own work might seem counter-intuitive for someone who stands to gain from students who require a pair of eyes other than their own, but I prefer to think of tutoring as a series of stepping blocks which teach people how to do what I do on their own. From that perspective, it's clear why I'm so invested in giving people tips and tricks for seeing what really works (and what doesn't!) in whatever they've decided to write, whether it's a grant proposal or a book report. Here are the top three things I find the most helpful to remember when editing my own work:

1. It’s Impossible To Edit While You Write.

I find it simplest to finish a draft and then examine it, rather than trying to look at the paragraphs, ideas, and themes as I assemble them. Not only is trying to write and edit simultaneously frustrating, it’s also unproductive, as a written work should always be more than the sum of its parts. By the time you get to the end of your draft, you might realize you discovered something really important or unexpected in the process of writing, an idea that didn’t get fully explored in the paper. If you tried to edit while you worked, you now have to go back through and write a new draft anyway, which undermines the editing you did in the first place! I find that editing while writing also tends to “fix” the work as finished in the writer’s mind, which makes it more difficult to shuffle things around and make big changes—both of which often need to happen during editing. Making editing a separate step from writing streamlines the whole process, I promise!

2. Fresh Eyes Are The Best Eyes.

So, you’ve finished writing your first draft. Here’s a pop quiz: What do you do? A) Start re-reading it immediately, or B) Take a break? If you said A, I can see why—the ideas from the paper are fresh in your head right after you’ve finished writing it, and that might make it easier to read. But, it’s important to remember that the person reading your work for the first time won’t have the same perspective as you do just after writing it; while the ideas are still bouncing around in your head, your reader will be approaching it with an uninformed perspective and less of an idea about what the overall work is supposed to say and/or do. If you have time—which, ideally, you should—take a break. Go out for a run, take a shower, go get a snack, or even watch some TV; it doesn’t matter what you do, you just need to “restart” your brain so that, when you read your first draft and begin editing it, you can see with a fresh perspective, which will help you decide more easily where you need to clarify your statements and ideas.

3. A Hard-Copy Makes Things Easy!

When you finish your nice, relaxing break after writing your first draft, you might look at your workstation with disgust; after spending so much time sitting there, the last thing you want to do is consign yourself to a few more hours in that chair. That’s why I recommend printing out your draft and taking your hard-copy with you somewhere that you enjoy but still won’t be distracted (so your best friend’s house or your favorite pizza place is probably not the best idea). A coffee shop, the library, your backyard, or even the kitchen counter—all are great places to shake up your routine. Moving yourself and your work from one place to another tells your brain that this is a new step in the process, and it gives you a new perspective, since you’re not staring at the same, old computer screen. Marking errors with a pen or pencil might seem a little slower than just making your changes directly in the word document, but a little slowness is good for the editing process; you have to read carefully, and it’s usually easier to study a word, sentence, or paragraph on a physical page than on a computer screen. The hard-copy method has a few other benefits, too. Firstly, it erases the fears many people have about losing their original words while trying to come up with new ones. If you delete something on a computer and, two hundred words later, decide you want it back, the undo button isn’t going to be as simple or helpful as looking down at the hard-copy and re-typing it in. Secondly, you can do a fun and helpful exercise called a “word collage,” which involves cutting your draft up into sections and rearranging them in new ways to see if that helps you make new connections or clarify your existing ones.

These are only three of the many things to keep in mind when working with your own drafts, but I think this is a good start! Above all, remember that no-one is perfect, and no-one expects you to be.