The Writer’s Guide to Self-Editing

5 easy ways to perfect your writing without stressing the small stuff.

Catherine McNally
Nov 13, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Kat Stokes on Unsplash

Last week I wrote about how unfiltered, child-like feedback can help us improve our writing. But what if you aren’t ready to share your work — or don’t have anyone you trust enough to share it with?

That’s where a little self-editing comes in handy.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t require you to memorize every single entry and nuance tucked inside the Chicago Manual of Style or Associated Press Stylebook.

It doesn’t require you to engage in verbal battle over whether the Oxford comma is the keystone of modern writing — or not.

You don’t need to rewatch Schoolhouse Rock!’s “Conjunction Junction” episode either.

All you need is an eye for strengthening your writing — and a few cheats too.


1. Seek and destroy “to be” verbs.

Here’s a shocker for most of us writers: not all verbs are created equal.

Yup, I’m talking about “to be” verbs. They’re sly, they slink into your writing without you knowing, then muddle it up with a passive voice. Ugh.

Luckily, my editor showed me an extremely easy way to hunt down those pesky “to be” verbs and strengthen my voice. All it requires is the Find and Replace function on your word processing software and a short little code:

  1. Press Ctrl + F (PC) or Cmd + F (Mac) to open the Find and Replace function. (If you’re on Google Docs, you might need to click the three vertical dots to the right in the small window that pops up.)
  2. Select “Match using regular expressions.”
  3. Copy and paste this code into the “Find” box:
    \b(be|am|is|are|was|were|been|being|’re)\b
  4. Watch all those “to be” verbs light up.
  5. Realize you’re not alone.
  6. Replace weak verbs with strong ones, rewrite sentences, or leave things alone. It’s your choice.

2. De-dupe the first word of every sentence.

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

One small item my editor regularly catches in my work is back-to-back sentences with duplicate first words. This edit falls into the same bucket as the advice to alternate your sentence length. Because when your writing is static, your readers get bored.

Re-read your draft and flag any back-to-back paragraphs or sentences that start with the same words or phrases. Then swap in alternate words, add an intro phrase, or restructure one sentence to shake things up.

Here’s an example from one of my drafts for “How Much Is Internet?”:

“The average for most cable plans comes to $55 a month, give or take. The exception is Spectrum, but it’s that 940 Mbps plan that skews the curve with its high price tag.

The average doesn’t take into account Xfinity’s redonkulous 2,000 Mbps plan because it’s really not available everywhere.”

becomes

“Most cable plans average out to $55 a month, give or take. The exception is Spectrum, but it’s that 940 Mbps plan that skews the curve with its high price tag.

We should note, though, that this average doesn’t take into account Xfinity’s redonkulous 2,000 Mbps plan because it’s really not available everywhere.”

3. Remove “that” and other filler words.

Photo by Reuben Mcfeeters on Unsplash

Sometimes the word “that” adds clarity to a sentence. But oftentimes it just sits there, taking up space. Just like a few other words I know . . .

Help your readers out by deleting unnecessary words and getting to the point more quickly. For example:

“I saw that five of the plans featured the same price . . .” becomes “I saw five of the plans featured the same price . . .”

“The latest model was very overpriced . . .” becomes “The latest model was overpriced . . .”

“Wait just one second!” becomes “Wait a second!”

4. Don’t make it overly complicated.

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Sure, you know your stuff. But your writing isn’t the place to prove it to your readers by throwing in jargon, acronyms, slang, or lingo.

Instead of polishing your crown of expertise, those complicated terms confuse your readers and turn them away. So remember to K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Smartypants.

Okay, okay. A quick aside here: Sometimes those complicated terms are necessary. You don’t have to tell me twice — I write about the internet for a living!

When keeping those complicated terms in your writing becomes the lesser of two evils, you can still do your readers a favor by defining the term clearly.

5. Read your writing out loud.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Or take a pointer from Stefanie Flaxman of Copyblogger and read your draft backward.

It may seem like basic advice, but reading your content out loud or backward helps you pinpoint any areas that trip you up.

It makes sense that those same areas will probably trip your readers up too, right?

Once you’ve uncovered those trouble spots, go back in and edit them. Simplify your sentences or words, add strong verbs, give passive voice the boot, and show jargon the door.

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Catherine McNally

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I’m an internet expert and writer for Reviews.org. I fell head over heels into the internet in 1998 and haven’t looked back. Instagram: @cmcnally.writes

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