Hemingway did it. Maya Angelou did it. Vladimir Nabokov did it. Dr. Seuss did it.
Name any great author who is still banging on a keyboard, and they do it too: They rewrite.
Of course, you don't have to pen a bestselling novel or children's book to enjoy the benefits of editing.
Email, business proposals, progress reports, blog posts: These all deserve that extra slice of time and attention that will turn your first draft--your "sloppy copy", as my 10-year-old daughter likes to call it--into polished prose.
Your writing is better when you edit it. Here are the five steps I follow--and the questions I ask--when I edit my writing:
1. Nail your message
Every piece of writing large or small should contain a message you want to deliver. And every sentence should contribute to that message in some way.
- Are your words not conveying the meaning that you intend? Use different ones. Your message hangs on the words you use, so choose them with care.
- Are you not supporting your assertions with examples and facts? Add them. Do research if you must.
- Are there sentences that don't belong? Cut them. Mega-bestselling author Stephen King had this to say about unnecessary words: "When you write you tell yourself a story. When you rewrite you take out everything that is NOT the story."
2. Refine your style
You've built the foundation and the walls of your house. Now is the time to decorate it according to your taste.
- Are you avoiding clichés and jargon that cheapen your message and dilute your impact?
- Are you using active verbs and avoiding passive ones?
- Are you varying sentence length to emphasize points and add rhythm to your composition?
- Does your writing sound good when you read it back to yourself (silently in your head, or out loud, if you prefer)?
3. Follow the rules
A story well told will stumble upon the rocks of wrong grammar, poor punctuation, and bad spelling. Don't let your precious creation suffer from lack of attention to the fundamental principles and rules of good English.
Stephen King, once again: "Grammar is...the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking."
4. Let it simmer
So you've nailed your message, refined your style, and cleaned up all those prickly grammatical and spelling mistakes.
Ready to hit publish? Not yet.
Let your writing "simmer" for a few hours--maybe even for a few days or weeks (if you can wait). Your subconscious will quietly take over. And when you get back to your work-in-progress, you'll almost certainly find words that are missing, don't sound right, or are just plain wrong.
5. Fix your formatting
One more step before you release your creation to the world: Fix your formatting. Break up "walls of text" into smaller, more digestible chunks. Remove stray punctuation marks, unneeded spacing, and anything else that doesn't belong on the page.
Make your writing look as good as it sounds.