Becoming Your Own Best Critic: How to Edit Your Own Work

Becoming Your Own Best Critic: How to Edit Your Own Work

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Congress 2021 blog edition 
 
By Valerie Leow, J.D. Candidate, University of Alberta 
 
Many of you are likely familiar with the difficulties of editing your own writing. When reading over your own work, your brain has a tendency to make sense of what you think is on the page, rather than what is actually there, thus letting mistakes and inefficient writing pass by unnoticed. It is hard to edit your own writing. And it does not help that some of the most valuable – and obvious – strategies for editing your own writing are also, unfortunately, difficult to put into practice. Strategies like waiting a few weeks between drafting and editing, filling the time in between with a lot of other reading and writing, are simply not possible if you have a hard deadline to submit your work by. Alternatively, having a trusted friend or colleague look over your writing, or even hiring a professional editor, might also be impractical. 
 
At the “Ask Dr. Editor: How Can I Become a Better Editor of my Own Work?” open event, hosted by University Affairs, freelance academic editor Letitia Henville and University Affairs marketing manager Glen Ashworth went over a step-by-step process to editing your own work to make it tighter, more efficient, and more readable.

Step One: Count Wordsworth (http://countwordsworth.com/

Copy and paste your work into Count Wordsworth to get some baseline metrics. Some of the most useful of these metrics include word count, average number of words per sentence, and number of ‘to be’ verbs in your writing – all three of which you should write down somewhere, as you will need to refer back to them in Step Five. 

Step Two: HemingwayApp (https://hemingwayapp.com/

Copy and paste your work into Hemingway App. Henville suggested making use of this website’s highlighting of sentences that are written in a passive voice in green to identify sentences that you could possibly reword into an active voice in order to shave off some ‘wordiness’ in your writing. Note that using too much passive voice in your writing adds up and can cause your word count to balloon while simultaneously decreasing the ‘efficiency’ of your writing (using as few words as possible to get your point across). 

Step Three: The Writer’s Diet (https://writersdiet.com/

Copy and paste your work into The Writer’s Diet to identify and either reduce or eliminate clusters of excessive wordiness in your writing. Henville recommended focusing on prepositions (e.g. on, between, over), which will be highlighted in green; ‘to be’ verbs (e.g. be, are, is), which will be highlighted in orange; and normalizations or “zombie nouns” (words that end in, e.g., -able, -ation, -ism), which will be highlighted in blue. Normalizations or “zombie nouns” tend to feature prominently in academic writing. 

Step Four: Your Actual Human Brain 

After going through Steps Two and Three, and making those respective edits, you will likely be looking at a fairly different text from the one you originally started with. Now, it is time to change both the font and spacing of the text, ideally to a font and spacing that you do not normally use. The goal of this is to trick your brain into seeing your writing in a new way through the combination of altered words and unusual looking text, explained Henville. This will attempt to compensate for the tried-and-true strategy of putting some time between your draft phase and your revision phase. It is at this point where you can begin to “touch the ideas” or content of your writing by looking at and editing the flow of ideas, argument structure, etc. 

Step Five: Back to Count Wordsworth (http://countwordsworth.com/

Finally, return to Count Wordsworth, the website used in Step One, and copy and paste your revised work there. Compare the metrics of your revised writing to the baseline metrics of your original work. How much did the editing process actually help you in terms of cutting down excessive wordiness? For reference, you can even measure your revised work against your favourite works in the top academic journals of your discipline – how do you compare against them? 

Additional Resources: 

Henville’s website, Short is Hard: http://www.shortishard.ca/ 
 
Henville encouraged her audience to consult her University Affairs article on how to craft a strong conclusion to your journal article or book chapter: https://bit.ly/3fEMMHc 
 
Also, for the sake of leaving some time at the end of the open event for a brief Q&A session, Henville chose not to go over when to bring in a professional editor or coach, and how to find the best editor for your work, herself. Instead, she referred the audience to her article on the University Affairs website: https://bit.ly/3fXDIvP