The 5-Step Guide to Editing Your Own Nonfiction Writing
The next best thing to an editor for giving your prose some polish
Editing your own work sucks. Much like how it’s impossible to tell if you yourself are hot, you yourself can’t tell whether your own writing is captivating or repulsive. Financially successful writers often say “hire an editor,” but most of us don’t have nearly enough money for such a thing.
While we’ll never be able to edit our own work with the quality of a hired editor, that doesn’t mean we must despair. After reading several books on writing and editing, I’ve created my own system for editing my articles before publishing them. This guide could work for you as well.
This is not a guide to spelling and grammar. Most people think of “editing” as correcting your semicolon usage and the like, but there are actually several different types of editing. Here are the three main types, in reverse order of importance:
- Proofreading/Copyediting: Editing for grammar, punctuation, and all the things your English teacher taught you about.
- Line Editing: Editing your work sentence-by-sentence to see if sentences make sense. This is key for making sure all sentences in a paragraph are related.
- Developmental Editing: Editing your work to see if the ideas are articulated in a way that makes sense and work well together. This ensures that the article makes an impact overall and flows well.
In my opinion, the most important of these by far is developmental editing. A piece of writing that has had no developmental editing may have perfect grammar, yet be an unreadable article destined for the recycling bin. A piece of writing with no copyediting, on the other hand, may have a few annoying punctuation errors, yet it might captivate the reader nonetheless.
Computers are capable of doing copyediting and proofreading almost entirely by themselves but are useless for developmental and line editing. As a result, this framework focuses mostly on developmental editing and line editing, with some pointers to software tools that can help with the copyediting and proofreading.
Step 1: Go Over Your Writing for Argumentation (Developmental Editing)
All nonfiction writing asserts something, even if that assertion isn’t made explicitly in the article. News writing asserts that the journalist’s interpretation of the facts is the most reasonable one. Encyclopedias assert that their collection of knowledge about the world is a trustworthy set of knowledge. This article asserts that this editing framework is a concise and effective framework for a writer to edit their own nonfiction.
If a piece of nonfiction writing fails to convince the reader of what it’s asserting, it has, in some measure, failed as a piece of writing. Therefore, it’s crucial that your writing succeeds in convincing your reader.
To make certain that it does, first, ask yourself this question:
What is the core message I am trying to communicate?
You can’t know if you’re succeeding in convincing your reader if you don’t know what you are trying to convince them of.
What I wrote down for the core message of this article is “this is an effective way to edit your nonfiction writing.” Other core messages of my articles have included “The world of movies, TV, music, advertising don’t appeal to sophisticated emotions, but to the selfish base emotions (The World Is Trying To Make You Miserable)” and “Instead of trying to get away, why not just make our own lives peaceful? (Stop Living For The Weekend).”
Once you know what your core message is, you need to figure out whether what you’ve written succeeds in convincing your reader that core message is true. This is done through your article’s argumentation structure.
All arguments are structured like this: evidence + logic = conclusion.
- Your evidence is the external information you bring to the writing;
- Your logic is how you put that external information together;
- Your conclusion is your core message.
If you don’t have enough evidence, your conclusion doesn’t stand up. If you don’t combine the evidence in a way that makes logical sense, your conclusion doesn’t stand up.
The reason this stage in the editing process comes first is that there is no point fussing over paragraph or sentence structure if your argumentation is fundamentally flawed.
Evaluating your argumentation comes down to asking yourself two difficult questions about your writing and being honest with yourself about the answer.
- Do I have enough evidence? If I’m making a scientific claim, have I cited the proper studies? If I’m making an emotional claim, have I backed it up with stories from my own life or the lives of others?
- Does my logic make sense? Is it reasonable for anyone looking at the evidence I’ve provided to come to the conclusion I’ve come to?
The pitfall I most encounter with this is not any kind of practical issue, but an emotional one. If my argument is weak or doesn’t make my point well, I often feel resistance to reworking my article. Articles take a few hours to write, and I hate writing one only to find out my argument isn’t watertight and I have to rewrite half of it. It’s very tempting to just publish it as-is and hope nobody will read it closely enough to identify the leaks. Do not do this. It’s lazy, sloppy, and readers will most definitely find the leaks.
Step 2: Read Your Writing for Paragraph/Section Flow (Developmental Editing)
All nonfiction writing carries a reader through a series of ideas. Sometimes those ideas are arranged in a simple evidence -> argument -> conclusion structure. Sometimes those ideas are interwoven in a more complex structure, such as evidence -> argument -> second piece of evidence -> third piece of evidence -> second argument -> first conclusion -> fourth piece of evidence -> so on and so forth.
High school teachers often preach what is known as the five-paragraph formula, and it looks like this:
- Paragraph 1 (intro, evidence, conclusion)
- Paragraph 2 (intro, evidence, conclusion)
- Paragraph 3 (intro, evidence, conclusion)
- Closing paragraph
This isn’t a bad structure, and it’s useful for people who are still learning to write, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all of writing that high school teachers make it out to be.
What’s important is that no matter what structure you choose, each idea flows into the next in a predictable way. When ideas do not flow in a predictable way, readers become confused by the sequence and find the writing difficult to read. In our culture of short attention spans, this usually means they give up, making your idea flow of vital importance.
To do that, look over your writing and ask yourself:
- If I summarized this writing to someone paragraph-by-paragraph, would it make sense to them? Would they become confused by any new ideas?
- Is each paragraph/section directly related to the one that comes before it and the one that comes after it? If not, are they separated by a header or divider?
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can do this by summarizing your work paragraph-by-paragraph to a friend. If they become confused at any point, you know where you need to expand or add paragraphs to help your ideas flow more smoothly.
You can also try outlining your article to understand its overall structure. Outlining can reveal situations where moving a section of your article can help with the overall flow.
Step 3: Read Your Writing for Sentence Flow (Line Editing)
At this point, your writing makes logical sense and is organized in a way that makes sense to the reader. But if you zero in on individual paragraphs, you’ll find your sentences are not always arranged in the most sensible order. Sometimes sentences are standing out of order within their paragraph. This happens while we write; human brains don’t work in a linear way, so when we write, we have a tendency to pile like sentences together instead of laying them out one-by-one.
Readers, however, need them organized in a linear way. First A, then B, then C… your paragraph needs to be laid out in a way that makes following these ideas easy for the reader.
Look over your writing, and ask yourself:
- Does each paragraph’s opening sentence logically follow the previous sentence’s closing paragraph?
- Does each sentence make sense when you read them out loud, one after the other?
- Are ideas introduced to the reader in a way that is not shocking to them, almost as if they could predict what comes next?
Here is where reading your writing out loud to yourself, or reading it out loud to a friend, will be of great help. If a sentence would be confusing to a reader, it will be doubly confusing to a listener.
Step 4: Edit Your Writing for Word Choice (Line Editing)
Sometimes we write long sentences. Confusing sentences. Sentences with an overabundance of excessively syllabic linguistic peculiarities. Or sometimes our sentences are too short. Not good.
Sentences we find artistic and beautiful during writing often turn out during editing to be annoying flourishes, like the grandiose verbiage of a pumped-up politician. (See the previous sentence for your daily dose of irony.)
It’s time to search your writing for these flourishes. Luckily, spotting these them is pretty easy:
- Find any long sentences and cut them in half. Cut them in thirds, if you can. No sentence should communicate more than one or two discrete ideas.
- Find any three-syllable-or-longer words and reduce them to a one-syllable word. (If you can’t find a one-syllable word, two syllables will do.) It’s true that beautiful words often add a certain meaning that short words do not, but often this extra beauty is like a twenty-foot train on a wedding dress — at a certain point, the dress stops looking beautiful and starts looking like a pain in the ass to walk in.
- Get rid of any cliches. Writers often think they are being clever by using cliches, but to readers, they come off as trite.
- Are you using em-dashes, brackets, semicolons, or other grammatical techniques too much? Restructure your writing so they are used less. Grammatical techniques like these are enjoyable in small doses, but annoying if found more than once per paragraph.
As we drill down in the line editing process, we reach the part where computers are able to assist you. At this stage, I recommend Hemingway Editor and Cliche Finder.
Most text editors help with grammar and misspelled words. Hemingway does not. Hemingway highlights sentences that are hard to read and filled with unnecessary words so you can cut them down to size. They sort words and sentences into several categories:
- Adverbs, which are almost universally filler words
- Passive voice, which many writers want to avoid
- Phrases which have simpler alternatives
- Sentences that are hard to read
- Sentences that are very hard to read
Toss your text into the Hemingway Editor. Where there are adverbs, delete them. Where phrases have simpler alternatives, substitute the simpler alternative. Where sentences are hard or very hard to read, cut them down to size.
Many writers agonize over this cutting process, but I don’t think you should. I would recommend making every single change Hemingway wants you to make, and then going back and adding anything which appears to be missing.
Consider decluttering: When we declutter our houses, we find it agonizingly difficult to let go of things, only to find that once we’ve let go of them, we never think about them again. The same is true of our writing; adverbs and filler words we find so hard to let go of we often never end up missing. Best to just cut them — if we miss them, we can always put them back.
Hemingway has a free version and a paid version, but the paid version is merely a desktop edition of their free online version. Unless you do a lot of writing away from an internet connection, there’s no point in buying it.
Cliche finder is a simple tool that highlights all cliches in your writing. A simple tool, but it saves you the time of scanning your own writing for yourself.
Step 5: Edit Your Writing for Grammar (Copyediting/Proofreading)
In this article, I’m not going to go into the particulars about the kinds of grammar and punctuation edits you should be making. The thing is that nowadays, software is an effective tool to find and correct errors for you.
Modern computers come pre-loaded with their own spell-checkers and grammar-checkers. These are fine in a pinch, but often miss basic spelling and grammar mistakes due to the somewhat low standard set for the software engineers who design these features. If you are taking writing seriously as a craft, you should not rely on these.
Grammarly finds the mistakes an ordinary spell-and-grammar checker will miss. Grammarly comes equipped with an advanced grammar and syntax engine that will catch everything you know is wrong with your writing and some things you did not.
Toss your writing into Grammarly, and fix what it says is broken. As with the previous step, go ahead and make every recommended change and then go back and change what you don’t like after.
Grammarly has a free version and a paid version, and their paid version is awesome. It catches some truly esoteric grammatical mistakes, the kind that can elevate your writing from “merely good” to “fantastic craftsmanship.” If you have the money and the wherewithal to use it, Grammarly Premium is well worth it.
Bonus: How To Know When to Break the Rules
There are always cases where you don’t want to follow the rules. Writing is, as they say, an art, not a science. Sometimes breaking the rules is the right thing to do.
Only you can know if breaking the rules is the right thing to do, but there’s a heuristic you can use to guide yourself: If you can’t state why the rule is there in the first place, and how your breaking it serves your purpose, you shouldn’t break it.
To break a rule you understand is art. To break a rule you don’t understand is sloppy craftsmanship.