Whatever sort of writing you do, it’s important to revise and edit your work – especially if you write academic essays, or articles or short stories that you’ll be submitting to editors. However much time you took over the piece on the first draft, you’ll always find a few mistakes to correct.
This is the method that I’ve used for years when writing essays or short stories, to ensure they’re as good as possible before a lecturer or editor gets to see them!
Do nothing (for a day or two)
Set your work aside for a period of time – don’t hit ‘Save’ on the first draft then start again straight away on the second pass. You’ll come to the work afresh if you leave it alone for a while.
As Michael said in Write First, Edit Later:
Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you’ll know which.
For essays, try to allow at least a day. Short stories can sometimes need longer – your mind will carry on mulling over the ideas whilst you’re doing other things. And many novelists advise putting your novel aside for at least a month before starting the revision process.
Read over your whole piece quite quickly. Circle any typos and mistakes that you spot, but concentrate on overall flow. If it’s an essay, check for any gaps in logic or any sides of the argument you might have missed. If it’s a short story, do any passages drag – or go too fast?
Print out the first draft, and read through the whole thing, concentrating on the overall flow of the piece. Circle any typos or mistakes that you notice, but focus on the big picture.
- If it’s an essay, are there any logical missteps, points you’ve not backed up, or angles to the argument that you’ve missed?
- If it’s fiction, do any scenes drag or go too fast, and are there any plot holes or inconsistencies of characterisation?
This is the stage to sort out any big problems. I often rewrite the whole thing (especially when working on fiction), starting afresh with a blank document on the computer. If you’re better than me at getting it right first time, you may not need to do that – but you could find yourself cutting out whole paragraphs, adding in new material, and changing the direction of the piece.
After you’ve done this, you might want to ask a friend, classmate or colleague to read the piece. Tell them not to look for tiny errors like typos or clumsy sentences at this stage: ask whether they think it’s broadly OK, or if they have any reservations about the overall direction of the article or story.
Editing and proofreading
Once you’ve sorted out the big picture, you can start fixing any individual sentences and words. Again, it’s a good idea to print out the document and do this on paper: I find I miss errors on screen (especially typos which are valid words, such as “they’re” for “their”).
Look out for:
- Typos and misspellings (a good tip here is to read backwards! You’ll go much more slowly, focussing on every individual word).
- Clumsy sentences and confusing or misleading phrasing (try reading your work aloud).
- Unnecessary words (check for the ones in Five Words You Can Cut).
- Commonly misused or confused words (there’s a whole list of these in the Misused Words category).
If you’re not 100% sure about a spelling, double-check with a dictionary: try Merriam-Webster for clear, succinct definitions. When you can’t quite find the right word, using a thesaurus can help (again, Merriam-Webster is good).
Do you have a great tip for revising and editing your work? Or do you have a horror story about an occasion when you handed in a first draft with a glaring error..? Share your experiences in the comments below!