It’s late. You’ve just cranked out a brilliant essay, and the last few pages practically wrote themselves. This may be your best work yet, and you’re sure that your teacher is going to be blown away.
But a week later you get your essay back, and it’s bleeding red ink and scarred with a less-than-stellar letter grade.
How did this happen? Why did your brilliance go unrecognized? The answer to this age old question is, almost always, a lack of editing…
Editing is so often the difference between an incredible piece of writing and a complete mess. You know that game where you tap out a beat and a friend tries to guess which song it’s from? The song is so obvious to you, but for your friend it’s incredibly difficult to guess. That’s because our minds are remarkably good at superimposing sensible patterns of our own creation onto chaos, whether it’s the erratic tapping that you firmly believe is the beat to T-Swift’s “Shake it Off” or the paper you wrote that failed to effectively get its message across. This disconnect between the words on the page and what you’ve written is the real reason great editing is essential to any successful paper.
Of course, simply understanding that your literal writing is different than your imagined writing isn’t enough to make a piece great. It does, however, position you to be exponentially more effective in your editing. Because you know that your brain is lying to you when you read your essay, you can learn to expose those falsehoods and edit your paper as if you were an objective observer with the following four techniques.
1. Back Away from the Computer Screen
First thing’s first — get away from your essay. Literally. Just don’t look at it for a full 24 hours, including a night’s sleep.
After some time away from your paper you’ll immediately start to notice where your ideas don’t come across as effectively as you’d imagined. Give it a good read over and take notes on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe a structural change is required, or you notice that one paragraph is weak compared to the rest of the paper. The moral of this step is don’t be afraid to make larger scale changes. Once you’ve gone through and re-written and re-structured the most obviously lacking parts, then it’s time to move onto the next phase of the editing process.
2. Change Your Context
The second method is to change the context in which you’re viewing your essay. This is the best stage for finding awkward sentences, grammatical mistakes, and not-so-smooth transitions.
The easiest way to change your context is to simply print it out. Read through your paper with a brightly colored pen and don’t be shy or overwhelmed by the amount of ink on the page. Remember, no one writes perfectly the first time around.
3. Get Vocal
Once you’ve fixed the larger mistakes, go through your essay with a fine-tooth comb. Read it aloud to yourself, or better yet (and probably even more painful), record yourself reading your paper and play it back. Hearing your paper read aloud will distance you from what you think you wrote, and force you to edit what you’ve actually written. It also makes bad sentences, poor word choices, and residual grammatical errors stand out like sore thumbs.
4. Get Perspective
If you’re working on an especially important assignment, this is when you should start thinking about getting a fresh perspective. Once you’ve done all of the above, show your work to a friend or teacher, or you can even get a professional to look at it like those on Smart Edits (www.smartalec.io).
While objective edits can sometimes be hard on the ego, editors will be able to eliminate unnecessary sentences (or even paragraphs) that you’re too fond of to judge extraneous. An expert will go a long way towards helping you focus your ideas, finding your voice and polishing your product. There’s a reason publishing houses employ teams of editors after all.
These incredibly simple techniques go a very long way towards helping you see your writing through the eyes of your readers. They break the illusion of superimposed greatness and allow you to see the words on the page, warts and all. So before you hand in your next paper, try to give yourself some space from it, print it out and listen to it. Once it truly sounds brilliant, then you can turn it in confident that you’ve written something worthy of that amazing brain of yours.