Editing: Distance is Critical

Editing is the process of working with a text to review it, improve it and ensure that it’s achieving its aims. The tricky thing about editing at university is that you have to act as editor to yourself – and I certainly find it’s hard to get the distance you need from your own writing to see it objectively! Checklists for editing work often include items such as ‘are your points clear’? ‘Do your sentences make sense?’ And the problem is, of course, how are you supposed to know? Well of course your writing seems clear to you, you wouldn’t have written it that way otherwise!

This is the first of a series of posts which aims to give you some practical strategies, not only what to look for, but how to look, and how to tell if your writing really does what you think it does. We use many of these in our work in the Writing Development Centre.

First of all, to get an objective and accurate perspective on your writing, you need to find a way to get some critical distance from your own writing. Working with someone else’s writing is easy, but how do you create that distance for a text which you wrote yourself and which is possibly so familiar to you that you can’t see it at all any more?

Seeing it with new eyes
Editing your own work means seeing it afresh through the eyes of your reader. One of the key strategies for successful editing is to make the text seem alien to yourself. As its author, you are often too close to it to see it objectively, and you are likely to see what you think it says, and not what it really does say. You can achieve this critical distance simply by putting it to one side for a while. Realistically, however, not all of us are organised enough to have time to do this before the deadline, or unforeseen issues might have arisen which mean that there is less time than anticipated to edit a final draft –such is the unpredictable nature of research. Other strategies for seeing your own writing afresh include:

  • View it in a different format. If you work primarily on a computer screen, simply printing it out can make it seem a different thing. Likewise, if you are used to working on paper, you might try working on a tablet gives you a fresh view of it.
  • Read it aloud. This might seem excruciating, but hearing the words come out of your mouth will often help you realise where sentences are structured awkwardly, don’t quite make sense or are too long, or if the tone is a bit too ‘academic’ to sound natural. I use this technique a lot on my own writing, and find it really helps. You could even record yourself reading, or text-to-speech software might be useful too, if you can’t bear to listen to your own voice!
  • Change its appearance. Times New Roman 12 point font looks so finished – it can make a text seem more polished than it is. Try changing it to a less usual, less formal font, or perhaps change the colour of the type and background.
  • View it in an unusual order. The eye can sometimes skip issues or overlook places where the text doesn’t say what you think it says. It could be that reading backwards can help you look at words or sentences in isolation and see them as they actually are without your brain filling in what it wants to see or getting distracted.
  • Look at different aspects in isolation. You might try an initial skim read to pick up any immediately obvious issues, but after that, try to look for one thing at a time. We’ll consider what some of these things might be and how to look for them, in future posts.

Posted by Helen