Check Yourself

In a past life, I taught writing at the upper-elementary and middle school levels. At the beginning of every school year, I would lead my students in a discussion about why developing strong writing skills was vital to their future academic and personal success. We would talk about how great ideas can only reach their full potential if the originators and advocates of those ideas can express them clearly and succinctly. For better or worse, I would tell them, our writing is a signal.  Our written thoughts signal to our readers just how focused, original, and informed we really are.    

Writing is also hard. Ideas that feel promising when they live inside our heads can be difficult to articulate. Errors in grammar or syntax can be hiding in plain sight, only to reveal themselves after we press ‘send,’ ‘post’, or ‘submit’.  The process of building a composition can be time consuming and mentally taxing, and we often lack the time or organizational capacity to proofread our work for clarity, consistency, and correctness.  Every professional knows the feeling of working hard on a deliverable, blog post, or formal email, only to spot an avoidable mistake after it’s too late.  

The purpose of this blog post is to share some best practices and effective tactics for self-editing.  If you find it useful, please feel free to pass it along. If you have some feedback, please feel free to share it! 

  • Give it some space. Whether it’s a few minutes or a few days, your writing will  always benefit if you step away and edit with  fresh eyes.  
  • Proofread with Intentionality. Proofreading for typos and other common mistakes requires tricking your brain into ignoring the meaning of your writing, and focusing only on the letters, punctuation, and syntax that were used to create meaning. Effective ways of doing this include reading your work out loud, “touching” each word with a pencil or mouse as you review, or even reading your work backwards, one sentence at a time.  
  • Avoid jargon, business speak, and clichés.  The most effective communicators use their thesaurus not to find fancy words as replacements for everyday phrasing, but to find simple, straightforward replacements for words that obfuscate – I mean confuse – the point they’re trying to make. As George Orwell said in his famous “Politics and English Language” essay, “never use a long word when a short one will do.”  
  • Watch out for the passive voice. In most cases, particularly in business writing and professional communications, the subject of the sentence should be the person or thing taking action, not the thing being acted on. For example, ‘This blog post was written by Tyler’ is passive. More direct, and succinct is the active voice ‘Tyler wrote this blog post’. The passive voice makes writing sound unassertive, indecisive, and even aloof.  
  •  Pay attention to structure. Busy professionals are often prone to writing in a scattered, stream of consciousness style, which can be difficult to follow and rarely reads well. A few key principles to  ensure your writing is effectively structured and easy to follow are:  
  • Spend the most time on the beginning; catch your reader’s attention up front, and clearly state the purpose of your writing so that your work is both read and understood.  
  • Think deliberately about the purpose of each section or paragraph; is it correctly placed? Does it contribute to the larger idea you are working to convey?   
  • Use subheadings in longer pieces, and for short pieces, follow the old high school English rule of topic sentence, followed by supporting paragraphs, and then a conclusion.  
  • Cut it down. In the attention economy, less is more. Yet, overwriting continues to be more common underwriting. If a word, sentence, or paragraph can be removed without affecting the whole, cut it. Your writing will be clearer and more effective as a result.  
  • Dedicate yourself to continuously improving your writing.  This post was based on the writing guidance of many different (and highly recommended) resources, including: