February 1

How to edit your own writing

    We are writing more than ever these days. Between status updates, wall posts, comments, tweets, emails, and text messages, we pour out words (or abbreviated words) at an astonishingly fast pace.

    In this constant cascade of words, we actually tend to desensitize ourselves to typos and grammar mistakes. We send a text (partly at the fault of auto-correct) that says, “OK, sea you at hike in a bit,” and we hit send before we even realize that those words strung together make no sense! We assume that the person on the other end will be able to decipher the code and realize that you will see them at home, not that you will be performing some nautical/mountainous voyage.

    We comment on Facebook posts, maybe scanning our message before hitting enter and moving on to the next item in our news feed. We rarely go back and re-read our message once we've hit enter.

    Now, I love the ease of communication in this technological age, but it makes us take the written word a little less seriously. When we turn to write something of more lasting importance, like a book, we have to re-train ourselves to edit our words.

    I have a couple of self-editing habits to share with you.

    1. Read your text aloud.

    Your brain attempts to operate at maximum efficiency. So, in order to read more quickly, your brain automatically processes things like articles or subjects or missing letters that actually are not there, in order to make sense of the words quickly (Koriat and Greenberg 1994).

    Sure, you can write your first draft in a coffee shop or other public space, but when you're going back to look at what you've written, read it aloud. You are significantly more likely to catch the awkward phrases and the missing articles this way.

    Plus, you will probably be able to follow your own logical train of thought better if you're reading aloud. It's like you take on the mindset of pretending that you are explaining your thesis to someone else in the room. When you imagine the audience, you suddenly realize that the points that seem so clear to you may not at all be clear to the reader. This is a great mental place to be in when editing for logical structure and argument coherence.

    2. Read your text backward, sentence-by-sentence, from the last sentence to the first.

    This sounds cumbersome and time-consuming. It is. I assure you, though, that there is no better way to slow yourself down and catch those small grammatical errors than reading one sentence at a time. If you're reading forward, especially if you are reading a very familiar paper, your mind will not concentrate on the current sentence but will anticipate what is coming next.

    By reading sentences one at a time, in reverse order, you remove yourself from the argument and focus only on whether that particular sentence makes sense.

    The long-term benefits of these practices are that you will get better and faster at self-editing.

    Forcing yourself into these mental positions of more intentional reading helps you to enter into an “editing mode” more quickly and more naturally.

    The side effect will be that you notice more typos and grammatical errors in wall posts, tweets, and texts than you ever did before!

    These are just a couple of self-editing options. We can actually learn a lot from other writers when we all share our favorite habits! What are your favorite ways to edit your own writing?


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    (ASA Style Reference)
    Koriat, Asher and Seth N. Greenberg. 1994. “The Extraction of Phrase Structure During Reading: Evidence from     Letter Detection Errors.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 1(3):345-356.


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