Okay, it’s not the sexiest subject in the world: editing. It would be nice to think we could just open up the writing valve in our head and perfect, crisp prose would pour out. But if there’s a good writer who doesn’t spend ten times as long editing as they do writing, then they may be a good writer but they’re also a liar.
Writing to edit is also a good way to get past writer’s block, which either comes from a general fear of doing something imperfect (hello to my four-year-old, who wants me to colour in for him because he doesn’t like going outside the lines), or just from procrastination. (Right now I’m officially doing a year’s worth of accounts – sometimes procrastination can be helpful in pushing you into writing rather than out of it.) Anyway, if you’re sitting there afraid to write anything that’s not quite right, just write it down quickly and tell yourself you’ll edit it later.
Then do actually edit it later.
The other thing this approach helps with is flow – text that speaks effortlessly, confidently and naturally inside your reader’s head. Good flow comes from two things – writing as you speak is the first, and quickly writing down exactly what’s in your head helps that. (Touch typing helps too, because you can write as quickly as you can articulate thoughts.)
The second thing it comes from is good editing – reading through your words painstakingly slowly and watching out for odd rhythms, word orders or sentence constructions. You’re looking for anything that jars – that’s hard to read, unclear or phrased in a painfully contorted way.
The trick to editing is seeing your words afresh; you need to engage the other side of your brain (left or right? I never know. The orderly one rather than the creative one). Have a list of things you want to look for – your particular weaknesses. It might be that you write in long sentences. It might be that you write overly formal text. It might be that you repeat words a lot. Have the list to hand and then use a trick to help you see the text as someone else’s. Ideally you’d edit a few weeks after you write, but that’s not always practical. Print it out. Change the font or colour. Read it in a different room or sitting position (if you wrote it lounging on the sofa, sit up straight on a dining chair to edit it). And, most importantly, go over and over it like you don’t trust yourself at all – pick through it for problems and be your own pedantic, worst critic. When you think it’s perfect, read it again. If you keep pausing on something then concluding it’s fine: it’s not – change it.
Finally, make yourself a cup of tea and read it again – by now it really should be good to go and you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done and go back to doing your accounts.