Why self-editing is the key to better writing


What do you think is the secret to improving your writing?

  • Getting a better grasp of grammar?
  • Developing a keener eye for jargon?
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of your reader?

All these skills are useful, of course, but they’ll take you only so far.

Do you want to know how to write content that persuades? That “engages”? That people actually want to read?

Here’s the simple step you must take: Stop writing, and start editing.

Yes, becoming a better writer isn’t about knowing how to write. It’s about knowing how to self-edit.

Download this free white paper to discover 10 ways to improve your writing today.

It’s about knowing when your writing’s, well, rubbish, and it’s about enjoying going back and honing your work over and over until it’s right.

Often when I’m teaching people how to write better, someone will ask: “How can I get my writing right the first time?” The implication being that that’s what a professional writer does. It’s always fun to disabuse people of that myth.

In case you were wondering, I’m not the only writer who usually gets it wrong the first time.

Check out this page from a manuscript of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” as the author describes the character of George Smiley:

Or this extract from the same author’s The Tailor of Panama”:

All this looks familiar to me. Does it to you? If not, you might want to consider tweaking how you proceed the next time you have a document to produce.

Below is a chart showing the various stages involved in producing a written document—and the percentage of time different writers might spend on each. I’ve identified five stages: research, planning, writing, editing and proofreading. (Note: proofreading is not the same as editing.)

The chart on the left shows my own writing process. The chart in the middle shows what I suspect is fairly typical for most people, and the chart on the right shows the writing process of a recent client who came to me for coaching.

As you can see, I’m not a great planner. (Other writers swear by “mind maps,” but I can’t think of anything less useful than a load of squiggly lines in no logical order. Check out my simple alternative to mind maps here.) I do, however, spend a huge amount of time editing: re-ordering great chunks, rephrasing, generally honing and honing away.

I suppose you could argue that my lack of planning is the reason I have to spend so much time editing. But something else is going on. It’s that I think by writing and editing. I never really feel I’ve got something straight in my head until I’ve got it straight on the page.

If you look at the chart again, you’ll see on the right the writing process for someone I recently coached—an economist who had to express complex ideas quickly.

He came to me for one-to-one training because he’d done numerous writing workshops but people were still telling him his writing was “dense.”

With a little probing, I discovered he spent most of his time researching his documents—which just generated loads of ideas he felt he had to cram in.

Because he spent no time planning—and no time going back and filtering stuff out—it was hard for him to detect a clear, logical argument. I pointed out to him, too, that every other sentence seemed to contain at least one set of brackets—symptomatic of a lack of filtering and structure.

After just a few one-to-one coaching sessions, my client has become a much better writer—or, rather, a much better self-editor.

How do you divide your time among research, planning, writing, editing and proofreading? Please share your writing process in the comments section.


How to Use Google in the Most Unusual Way to Make Your Self-Editing Faster, and Better


This is a guest contribution from Karol K. You can read the first and second post in this mini series here and here.

“[…] then the evening came and she found herself sitting by the drawing board again, trying to […]“

Um … wait a minute, is it “sitting by the drawing board” or “sitting at the drawing board”? Damn it, I never remember, and both sound okay to me! How do I check this?!

Oh, the struggles of every blogger attempting to edit their own work. There are thousands of expressions just like the one above, causing us problems on a daily basis.

Is something in or on, at or by, from or with, of or for, “all of a sudden” or “all of the sudden”? There’s really no end to this craze. And this is especially relevant if English is not your first language.

So what to do? What to do if you’re not entirely sure and you don’t want to look silly?

Call a friend? Email a friendly blogger? Shout this out on Twitter?

Sure, that could work, but you can be sure that if you do this multiple times throughout the day, people will hate you.

There’s a quicker and better solution though.

Its name is Google.

Please, hold on! Don’t leave just yet. I promise the trick I’m about to describe isn’t as obvious as it sounds now.

Introducing clever Googling!

Here’s what I do when I’m in doubt like that.

Step #1. I go to Google and search for part of the phrase that I’m uncertain of. I put†the phrase in quotation marks.

Using the example above, like so:

“sitting by the drawing board”

Now, the individual results Google gives me don’t matter that much. What matters is the number of indexed pages:


Not a lot in this case.

Step #2. I start checking other known alternatives. Like so:


Ah, that’s better, over 130,000 results.

In most cases, what this means is that the higher number means proper expression.

The end.

Quick. Simple. Correct in most cases.

(Of course, sometimes a common error is more popular than the correct form. But even if that’s the case, can using this wrong form still be considered a serious mistake?)

How to do this properly

To be perfectly honest with you, I use this trick all the time. I’ve truly made Google my lightning-fast blog editor, and I encourage you to do the same.

Now, just a handful of final guidelines.

  1. If you’re completely clueless about what the correct expression you’re looking for might be, try using the magic “*” character. This star lets Google know that you’re looking for any word that fits the gap. Go ahead, try it with†“sitting * the drawing board”.
  2. Always put the phrase in quotation marks. This is important. Without them, the method is useless.
  3. Enclose the word you’re looking for on both sides. For instance, looking for just “by the drawing board” wouldn’t provide me with sufficient context for the returned number to be an accurate representation. Always put the missing part in the middle.
  4. Use replacement verbs and nouns. Not all expressions are popular enough and they might not return any reliable numbers, but you can improve the results by replacing some not common words with more common ones. For example, if “drawing board” is too specific, I can replace it with “desk” and the meaning remains more or less the same (“by the desk”).
  5. Mind the context. In some cases, two versions of a phrase can be equally as popular, but that can be due to the fact that they mean two separate things. In such a case, look into the individual results and take a look at the excerpts Google gives you. Here’s an example result for “sitting on the drawing board”:


Is this method fail-proof?

Of course not.

But it’s not meant to be fail-proof. This is just a trick to speed up your editing when you’re stuck and can’t find the right way to express a thought.

What do you think? Will you make Google your personal editor too?

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a freelance writer, published author, founder of NewInternetOrder.com and a blogger at Bidsketch.com (delivering some cool freelance blogging and writing tools, advice and resources just like what youíre reading now). Whenever heís not working, Karol likes to spend time training Capoeira and enjoying life.

Originally at: Blog Tips at ProBlogger
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How to Use Google in the Most Unusual Way to Make Your Self-Editing Faster, and Better