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Before You Submit: Some Tips for Self-Editing

Big load of logs, 1903. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, image no. 82796.

My colleague Geoffrey Pullum’s musings on our tendency to see motes in the writing of others while ignoring logs in our own raises the question of how writers are supposed to edit themselves in the first place.

Reading your own work objectively is a trick that some master more easily than others. The best-known tactic is highly effective: Put your paper away for as long as you’re able and then read it with a fresh eye. Unfortunately, that trick is available only to those who work ahead, have no deadlines, or research in fields that change slowly. Most writers don’t have the luxury of putting their work in a drawer for a month.

As a copy editor, I’ve noticed some glitches that writers often fail to see in their own work, as well as a few imagined flaws that they appear to monitor needlessly.

Things Writers Miss

  • Throat-clearing. When writer Richard Peck finishes a novel, he claims, he throws out the first chapter without reading it and writes it anew. He reasons that when we begin a work, we’re rarely certain of where it will end. Revisiting the beginning after the end has emerged makes sense. This time it will be easier to eliminate all the bush-beating.
  • Personal tics. Most writers have a few pet words or phrases: decidedly, or by no means, or incredibly, or most important. Ditto for favorite sentence constructions: “Not only X but Y” is always popular. Once you identify your own foibles, they become more difficult to ignore.
  • Repetition. Word-processing encourages this to the same degree that old-fashioned typewriting discouraged it: why say something once when you can say it three times? A common keyboard error is to copy and paste when you mean to cut and paste, so that whole passages are accidentally repeated verbatim.
  • Non sequiturs. Although these can occur with no help from technology, they are another by-product of sloppy word-processing. When text gets moved around, new transitions are sometimes needed to connect the dots.

Things Writers “Correct” Needlessly

A number of so-called rules are obediently observed by writers who haven’t cracked a grammar since high school—and whose high-school grammar was probably between 25 and 50 years out of date in any case. As a result, the writers avoid a raft of constructions that are actually just fine:

  • ­The passive voice. As long as it doesn’t obscure or mislead, the passive is a natural and honorable feature of fluent English (see Mr. Pullum, above).
  • Use of the first person. Even formal scholarly writing came around some time ago to allowing a writer to speak for himself.
  • Split infinitives. And prepositions at the ends of sentences. And sentences beginning with and or but. And sentence fragments. These prohibitions and quite a few more turn out to be imaginary monsters under the bed. Writers would profit from hanging out at John E. McIntyre’s blog, You Don’t Say (it’s worth climbing that pay wall). An editor at the Baltimore Sun, Mr. McIntyre  provides classy entertainment educating readers on issues like these.

Although I suppose I could write myself out of a job by posting secrets of self-editing, I’m not seriously worried. Rather, if writers were better able to clean up their work at the basic level, I would be free to concentrate on polishing, and the finished work would benefit.

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