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Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More

— But three times is probably your limit

Editing your own work is never as easy as you think it will be. You might be an absolute whizz with anyone else’s work, but no matter how many times you edit your own, there will almost always be a mistake you miss.

As a writer, you probably have to edit your own work — at least in the beginning. After that, depending on your circumstances, you might hand it over to a peer for review or use a professional. Professional editors are a valid business expense for people producing long-form text, such as books and manuals. Still, shorter-form blog posts and short deadlines don’t lend themselves to the employment of a dedicated editor.

However, if you’re a blogger or Medium writer (or another platform of choice), you’re usually on your own, with only the help of your editing software to help you. When you have edited all you can, you reach the point of publication or procrastination.

Editing software to the rescue

Otherwise known as spelling and grammar checkers, these handy apps and tools will catch most of your most glaring errors, even including some of those that aren’t incorrect. Still, the context requires that you might want to rethink whether you want to talk about “the emaciated from (of) the starving boy”. Editing software and writing improvement apps have come a long way since MS Word began using coloured squiggly lines under our mistakes.

Paid editing software such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid are just two examples of an essential tool for editing your work. The sad thing about these tools is that they only work in English. Admittedly, you can choose between the UK, US, Canadian or Australian English, but it’s still just English. There are others available for writing in different languages; Language Tool* is the best I have found so far.

While software apps are invaluable tools, they are not infallible, and they probably never will be. Language develops and twists to suit the users, but along the path of evolution, we don’t stop to write the changes down and plug them into our software. In most cases, there will be one or two errors that your software doesn’t catch. If you’re lucky, you will catch them with your fabulous editing skills on the first or second pass. If you don’t find it by edit number three, it’s unlikely you’ll catch it all.

Seeing is Believing or Is Believing Seeing?

When you have already edited your work three times, you’ve probably reached your limit. According to a few writers I’ve talked to about this, three times is pretty much the maximum you can do without a long break from it. Maybe you can do four and still find any remaining errors, but it’s not common.

You have reached saturation point, and from here on, you know what it should say. You wrote it, and you’ve read it over more than three times (I only count dedicated editing runs in my max approximation), you could recite it. However, when you reach this point, you are so familiar with the piece you read what it should say, not what is there on the page.

The technical and seriously unscientific sounding name for this is “filing in the blanks” or closure effect, where our brains automatically look for order and patterns for understanding and to dispel chaos. If you’ve ever seen the email or social post about the study from Cambridge University that says you must be super smart to read this passage, even with all the words jumbled, you’ve experienced this effect.

If you have reached this point, there is no reason to continue trying to edit; you wouldn’t spot a typo if you stared at it for hours. Ideally, this where you would leave it for a few days, but frequent posting schedules and tight deadlines don’t lend themselves to letting an article percolate — or at least get fresh eyes on it. Time is a luxury we don’t have when deadlines, either self-imposed or contractual, loom ahead.

What happens next?

Publish or Perish?

This trite little homily is as accurate in the writing community as it is in scientific circles. We could spend weeks editing a 2000 word article, tweaking and rewriting, but it will not result in a published piece. We keep going in circles, becoming more and more unhappy with the result.

Now, unless your article is about the correct use of language or a nuance of the written form, the content will be significantly more important than the precise grammatical accuracy of the delivery.

You’ll always find someone ready to shred your writing to pieces at the merest hint of inaccuracy, but most will let the small things slide.

What no one ever tells you, when you first start publishing online, is that you can go back and correct your mistakes. Whether it’s on your blog or here on medium, there is an edit button for just such occasions. Once you have published, you get to see it in all its live glory and spot the mistake that has been evading you the whole time. It’s always the way of things.

So, to publish or perish? We are writers, and if we want to continue being writers for a living, we must release our work. There is no world where unpublished work ever gets paid, so without publication, we perish. Sometimes literally.

Publish!

I am not advocating a “no-edit” policy or a laissez-faire attitude to accuracy. Still, the pursuit of perfection is one of the most significant barriers a writer will ever face. Your greatest critic will always be you, and if you don’t learn to accept that you will never be perfect, you will never love yourself, your writing, or complete anything. Seeking perfection in every word will only lead to a writer who writes much but publishes nothing.

Keep your voice; it’s yours to use.

How you write is as much a part of the content as the accuracy and grammatical structure. Right now, I’m not writing an instruction manual or a technical document; I’m talking to you — if there’s anyone there (helloo-ellooo-lloooo!).

No matter how accurate your grammar and spelling are, there will always be someone who will find something to dislike about it. Some people will hate you if you split an infinitive (we’ve only been having that argument since Star Trek), others will twitch if you end a sentence with a preposition. Please, don’t get me started on speakers of different English writing to your employer to point out all of your spelling “mistakes” — No, honey, it’s just not YOUR standard spelling.

The fact remains that as long as you’re diligent in your editing process to catch as many errors, typos, and grammatical faux pas as possible, most people will forgive the occasional oops! Okay, if you repeatedly use the wrong form of “there/their/they’re” or “it’s/its”, you are likely to lose some respect and draw some derision.

There are always people who like to complain or drag others down because it makes them feel better. If you are lucky, you can always find and correct your mistakes before they spot them. If you are unlucky, you have options:

  1. Block Them
  2. Realise that they are emotionally stunted people who will never be happy, ever. And laugh.
  3. Retaliate and pull their work apart too, if you can find it.

I recommend options one and two, the third one is just too much mental and emotional effort for someone trying to demoralise you.

Mistakes are NOT the end of the world.

If you’ve ever read a print novel or an ebook, the chances are that you’ve spotted more than a few mistakes throughout the story. The publishers aren’t wringing their hands and weeping. There are humans and machines involved, and neither is perfect for the job of editing a book.

How many editors do you think had their hands on any single manuscript? Aside from the author, there was probably a copyeditor, a developmental editor, and maybe another one along the way. The typesetter came along and made a few minor mistakes; mistook a d for cl or an m for rn. It happens. Of course, if enough people notice it, they’ll fix the errors in the next edition. Still, they will not strip the books from the shelves and remove it from the Kindle store for a few typos.

They know what we have to remind ourselves of every day. Mistakes are not the end of the world.

Don’t leave it to chance, but don’t sweat it either.

If you are still convinced that there is some invisible error with your work, you can go back to it as soon as you like. If you find something, fix it. No harm done.

Unless you have a chronic typo that confuses an everyday word with an offensive expletive, don’t sweat the small stuff.

*NB I’m a native English speaker, and I’m not fluent in any other language, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to learn. And most courses require a writing element.

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A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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Mamie P Muse

Mamie P Muse

Mistress of one field, interest in many. No theme, only subjects that grab me by the throat and make me want to write. There’s more here https://musingmamie.com

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