Monday, December 21, 2009

#120 - How to edit your own writing

Many have argued that the key to great writing is actually great editing. As a career editor, I can confirm that there’s a lot of truth in that statement, which is why developing your own rewriting technique can add significant luster to your finished documents.

The copy editor's secret weapon
I'd like to share a technique that’s proven highly successful for many writers. It's known as the
One Paragraph Rewrite. This technique works for term papers, reports, articles, news stories, advertising copy, even that letter you've been meaning to write your mother. Here’s how it works:

Do a standard rewrite or edit just as you would usually. Once you think you’ve got the final product, start your One Paragraph Rewrite by opening another blank document. Select and copy your lead paragraph and paste it onto the new blank page. This isolates that one paragraph in a sea of white space. In fact, go ahead and maximize the copy so it fills the entire screen and blocks out background distractions. The more white space the better. This allows you to consider the writing (more objectively) from a microcosmic perspective.

Now, each word and sentence – placed in isolation – comes into fuller relief. Your ability to concentrate on the critical components of word choice, word play and sentence construction is strengthened as you evaluate in the microcosm, much in the way headlines are given extra time and consideration because of their finite nature.

In the minimalist environment, you conduct your own One Paragraph Rewrite. Then, assuming you made changes, copy and paste the paragraph back into the original document. Next, copy the second paragraph and paste it onto your blank page. Graph by graph, work your way through the entire document. The extra time and effort expended will make anything you write better.

Of course, paragraphs don’t exist in a vacuum. They must integrate seamlessly back into the preceding and ensuing sections. It’s simple enough to toggle back and forth between the two files so you can consult adjacent paragraphs and make sure your changes have no undesirable side effects.

After you’ve worked your way through each and every paragraph, only then should you read the document again in its entirety. The downside to the One Paragraph Rewrite is that it can lead to choppy copy (which sounds a lot like a new flavor of ice cream I'd like to try). Reading the full document beginning to end one more time is the crucial ingredient in any edit. You want the words to flow and track with no inconsistencies.

This may sound extremely simplistic, but it is a powerful method employed by many professionals. Try it for yourself on the next important document that requires some extra polish. You just might be surprised by the "editor" in you.

Happy holidays to all ...and to all a good week!

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