The hardest thing about editing may be that we often forget to do it. Not in an ‘oh no, I forgot to edit my paper and went to the mall instead’ way, but in an ‘oh no, I read the whole paper but stopped editing on the middle of page two’ way. Our own writing is notoriously difficult to edit. We are so familiar with our ideas and our choice of words, and familiarity often lulls us into an easy reading rhythm that isn’t sufficiently attuned to the editing task. However, if we have accepted that we must commit to extensive revision, we need ways to overcome these natural difficulties. Here are some editing strategies that help us to edit and not just read:
- Let time elapse.The most obvious technique will be to leave time before editing a draft. Your own work is the hardest to edit, of course, because you know what you are trying to say. Professional or peer editors can be guided to some extent by their own confusion. You have to devise ways of making sure that you are seeing the work from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with your project. Letting time elapse is the surest way of accomplishing this goal. When I discuss this strategy in class, students often appear highly sceptical, even amused. While they don’t usually say much, I imagine them to be thinking, ‘Sure, this sounds great and I know that I should be doing this, but I’m not and I never will, so what else you got?’. I do persevere with this pie-in-the-sky advice because it does actually become more realistic as graduate study progresses; during the thesis writing process, ‘letting time elapse’ is inevitable for even the most last-minute person. As you move ahead with later chapters, make sure you go back and work through earlier material with fresh eyes and without a looming deadline. But since we often do edit under time pressure, here are some other strategies that will work even when time is tight.
- Read your work aloud. Since your work will sound foreign to you as it is read aloud, this practice will help you to cultivate a different sort of awareness of your own writing.
- Read paragraphs out of order. This practice will help to prevent you from neglecting the writing itself in favour of focusing on the underlying ideas. Looking at paragraphs in isolation can also help focus your attention on paragraph cohesion.
- Stop at the end of each paragraph. By stopping at the end of each paragraph, you can confirm for yourself that you have actually edited that paragraph.
- Edit in stages. It is very difficult to edit with more than one problem in mind. Plan to edit your document a number of times, targeting specific issues each time. Choose a logical order, starting with the broadest issues and moving to finer issues.
Do you have other ways of concentrating your mind on the editing task? Feel free to share your successful editing strategies in the comments below.