When a quick proofread turns into rewriting from the beginning, you’re editing your writing to death.
You finish writing and think what you’ve got is pretty good. You figure you’ll just give it a quick once-over and you’ll be good to go.
Hours later you’re still sitting there, wondering what happened to the time and to your piece of writing, which looks like it was attacked by a vicious Chihuahua.
What happened? Why does a simple proofread or a quick edit turn into a nightmare?
There’s one simple reason you’re editing your writing to death. And there’s also a simple strategy you can use to stop doing it.
Why You’re Editing Your Writing to Death
In all likelihood, you’re trying to do too many things at once.
As smart as we are and as big as our brains, human beings can only read one way at a time.
Sometimes we read for meaning, other times we read for sound and flow, and other times for factual or technical correctness.
But we can’t do them all at once.
So here’s what generally happens when we sit down to edit.
Writer: I’ll just read through one last time to make sure I’ve crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s.
Oops, I used “neglect” twice in that paragraph. I’ll just change the second one to “ignore.” OK, now to start over at the beginning.
<<Starts reading again from the beginning.>>
Wait, is the word I want there “infer” or “imply”? I’ll have to look it up.
<<Looks it up. Looks up several other things. Checks email. Checks Facebook. Watches a video about kids in Peru making musical instruments from discarded plastic. Cries cathartically. Finally remembers writing. Changes word. Looks at sentence.>>
OK, now this sentence sounds awkward. I’ll just fiddle with it a bit.
<<Fiddles with sentence. Fiddles with next sentence. Jumps around and starts fiddling with sentences at random.>>
Actually, I think I should add on a different opening paragraph.
<<Starts writing again from the beginning. Regains consciousness 4 hours later with writing and brainpower in shambles.>>
This is what it looks like to try to fix the flow, the facts, and the grammar all at once.
You end up distractedly bopping around to fix things like a pinball.
The solution is to edit your writing in three stages:
- Read like a brutally honest friend.
- Read like a fact checker.
- Read like a robot.
Read Like a Brutally Honest Friend
You know that friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth?She’s looking out for you! She wants you to show up in the world looking your best.
(I recently told a new friend she had egg on her boob. It was hecka awkward for a sec, but then we decided we’re now bosom buddies. 🤣)
If you gave your writing to a good friend, she’d call you out about awkward sentences or when your prose started to drag.
Reading like a friend lets you pretend the writing isn’t yours. That means your ego won’t get bruised if you find really bad sentences. So go for it! Hunt down all the stinkers.
You won’t hold onto a sentence just because you love it and it’s your “darling.” It’s not your darling. You didn’t write it. Feel free to kill it if it’s not working.
One more advantage of this friend: Since it’s not her writing, she’s only willing to spend so much time making it better. She’s not going to agonize over the perfect word. She’s just going to hunt down what’s not working and fix it. (For this reason, make sure you’ve completely revised your writing before you hand it over to your brutally honest friend persona!)
OK, ready to read like a brutally honest friend?
- Read aloud.
- Pause anywhere that sounds awkward, clumsy, repetitive, or just plain bad.
- If you can make a quick fix, like removing “just” where you don’t need it, do it.
- If you need to think about how to fix it, leave a note, like “awkward transition.”
- Read all the way through to the end making fixes/comments.
- Go back through from the beginning one more time and fix anything left over.
- Call it done and move onto the next stage.
Read Like a Fact Checker
From here on out, no more focusing on how things sound. You’ve been there, done that, and bought the souvenir shot glass.
Your next read is for correctness.
Here’s where you put on your thinking cap and ask, “Is that actually true/right?”
👉 Look out for factual and grammatical errors and for inconsistencies.
👉 If what you wrote contained research, statistics, or direct quotes, this is the time to double check them. Go back to your notes or your sources and be a bit anal.
👉 Open up Google. Ask it about that expression you’ve heard a million times but have never actually written.
(Did you know the expression is “waited with bated breath,” NOT “waited with baited breath”?)
Look out for your personal prickly places.
Most of us make the same few mistakes again and again. Start to become aware of what yours are and compile a personal checklist so that you you can check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Do you constantly mix up “your” and “you’re”? If so, you may not be able to hear that they’re in the wrong place when you read like a friend.
Here’s my favorite trick for hunting down your “Argh! I can’t believe I did it again!” mistakes:
👉 Use the search feature or “find and replace” in your word processing software and look up the words you know you tend to fumble.
👉 Once they pop up highlighted, look at them critically and ask if you’re (as in you + are) using them correctly.
👉 Or ask Google. There are about a bajillion different articles on the web to tell you how to use words and expressions correctly, so don’t skimp on this step!
This is also a great time to mention that word processing software is far from perfect. Don’t rely on that blue squiggly line under words to tell you you’ve made an error. Invest in a reference guide to keep by your desk. Here’s my absolute favorite go-to.
Read Like a Robot
Reading like a robot is when you move your cursor/pencil slowly over every single word you’ve written to make sure what you wrote is what you meant.
👉 Do you have all the words, punctuation marks, and spaces you intended?
👉 Do you have any extra words, punctuation marks, or spaces you need to delete?
👉 Is everything in the right order?
I call this Reading Like a Robot because I like to imagine a 1950s robot — the kind with no imagination that says, “Does not compute.” (OK, don’t laugh, but when I robot-read I actually read aloud in a monotone to remind myself I’m being a robot.)
This robot can’t give you the benefit of the doubt. It takes you completely literally. Like the irritatingly exacting comic book guy on The Simpsons.
Normally when we read, we read for meaning. Our brains fill in missing words to make sentences make sense. That’s why proofreading is so hard!
When you read like a robot, you tune out the big picture and focus only on the details.
Since you’ve already had a chance to read for flow and factual correctness, you won’t get distracted by anything that sounds off. This leaves you with all the focus you need to spot those tiny subtle little things like an extra “the” or a missing period.
Edit Like a Pro
Learning to edit your own writing is tough, but you can totally do it.
The key is to break it up into three stages instead of trying to do it all at once.
Start by reading like a brutally honest friend, being picky about flow and anything awkward.
Then, read like a fact checker, homing in on anything that’s incorrect.
Finally, read each word, space, and punctuation mark like a robot, making sure your writing says what you intended it to.
You’ll stop editing your work to death. You’ll finish faster. You’ll publish with more confidence. And you’ll save your time and energy to generate more killer content.