Sunday 16 June 2013

How not to send in crap - self-editing

This post was prompted by a question asked by Vanessa Harbour on her blog Chaosmos - why is it so hard to see problems with our own writing, even when we can pick up the same problems in the writing of others? The answer, as she says herself, is that we see what we want to see when we re-read our own work - we're blind to the things we never intended to be there (ie mistakes). How to get unblind?

I've spent some years as a Royal Literary Fund fellow. RLF fellows work in UK universities helping students to improve their writing skills. A lot of it is about self-editing. It's not about teaching them to write fiction (most of them are not creative writing students - they can be writing about pharmacology, fashion, maths, history - anything). It's not about editing what they have written. It's about teaching them to be better writers, to take charge of the nuts and bolts of writing, not only using grammar competently but writing effectively. One of the techniques I use with students might, I hope, help other writers. You need to print out some of your work to do this.

1: I go through a few pages of the student's writing highlighting all the mistakes with a highlighter pen and explaining what is wrong. If possible, I use different colours for different types of mistake. For instance, there might be one colour for grammatical errors, one for changes of point of view, one for unnecessary passive constructions... you get the idea. If you can get someone you trust to do this for you, they might spot more than you spot yourself, but if you don't have someone to do it, print your work in a font you don't normally use so that it doesn't look like your work.

2: Over the next few pages, I highlight the same mistakes in the same colours, but without the annotation.

3: I check the student understands why each bit has been highlighted and help them to change/improve it. I tell the student to go through the rest of the work highlighting the errors, using the same colours.

4:The colour pattern shows which are the most common mistakes. Focus on looking out for that type as you write. Every few pages, print some out and highlight in colour all the mistakes of that type. Revise to correct them.

5: Do the same with the next type of mistake. Every so often, do an audit of the type of errors that are sneaking through still and try harder. Keep the highlighters by the keyboard as you type - seeing them will remind you of what you are avoiding.

This is much easier for a competent writer than for a student who doesn't really understand why some of the things even ARE mistakes.

This method doesn't work so well on big, structural issues, but it's useful for many other types. This is part of my writing-in-colour method which I will write up one day. Probably after I have bought shares in a highligher company....


  1. Thank you - this is brilliant!

  2. Useful to know how you encourage self-editing. (Though rather feel as if I need a multipack of highlighters, not the basic four!)

  3. Brilliant advice. I suggested to someone that they use a different font the other day - it really works for me. So now I'm going to try highlighting in different colours too!

  4. What a great idea.

    I read this suggestion somewhere (sorry I can't attribute this), when self-editing - read it backwards. That way you are more likely to see what is there rather than what you think is there. I've found a few mistakes that way.

  5. I can check most of my spelling and I like to think my cat hairs are properly arranged but I know there must be many out of alignment.
    I cannot even ask someone for help. If I mention I am trying to write a book everyone I knows just looks at me and says, "What do you want to do that for?" :(

    1. That's their loss, catdownunder! But very sad, and hard for you to keep feeling good about writing when no one around you sees the point. It's good that you are such a solid part of the online writing community. Perhaps an online critique partner could do the very first bit with you?

      JO - I've heard that method for finding typos and so on. I'm not sure I could stand reading something long backwards, though. I'd just get too bored. Short attention span ;-)