I spend a considerable part of my working life editing other people’s writing, routinely striking out aberrant commas, suggesting alternative word choices, and asking authors to clarify their meaning when needed. Don’t get me wrong: editing someone else’s writing is difficult. Still, its difficulty pales in comparison with the cumbersome task of editing my own writing.
Why is that? Why is it easier to notice others’ mistakes than it is to notice our own? When returning after a long hiatus to something I once thought was well written, why have I often felt that it was not quite up to snuff? As we read and reread, edit and reedit, does there come a point where we no longer see the imperfections or shortcomings of our own writing? Where we’re too close to it, no longer able to look at it objectively? Where all that we’ve worked so hard on seems settled, shipshape, self-explanatory? And let’s be honest: Does there come a point, after countless rounds of revision, where we’re sick and tired of looking at what we’ve written?
The trick, I think, is to not let yourself get so sick and tired that you become a passive reader, an aimless editor of your own work, to not assume prematurely that what you have written is finished. What distinguishes good writing from great writing may well boil down to the ardor with which a writer continues to question what they have written, continues to unsettle and resettle the words on the page, continues to engage with their text. There are concrete questions you can ask yourself, new perspectives you can adopt, practices you can cultivate, and common pitfalls you can learn to recognize, all of which will help you actively engage with what you have written. In the process you may even rediscover a sense of enthusiasm for your work.
Consider Your Audience
This is crucial, and it’s something writers often forget to do. To produce a piece of writing that is meaningful to someone other than yourself, you need to consider the future reader (or readers) of your essay: Who are they? What is their relationship to the subject you are writing about? Will the references and allusions you make and the terms of art you employ be clear to them? Writing that is heavy with jargon or obscure references makes an assumption about its audience. Consider whether that assumption is a fair one. Will the legal terminology you use be clear to a predominantly humanist audience, or will some terms require definition? Will your allusion to the character of Georg Bendemann be intelligible to someone who’s never read Franz Kafka’s “The Judgment,” or will the connection need to be spelled out for readers? Your writing should encourage your readers to think—that much is clear—but deciphering it should not feel like an insurmountable challenge. A consideration of your readership from the vantage point of academic background and area of specialization will help you craft a piece of writing that is accessible—whether the final version will be read only by your first-year writing instructor or by a large and academically diverse audience.
Audience is important to consider not only in terms of academic background and area of specialization. The MLA advises writers to “[b]e wary of making assumptions about [their] audience.” In other words, “do not assume that your audience shares your own identity, background, geographic location, culture, or beliefs” (MLA Handbook 3.5). To avoid writing that projects this assumption, you might ask yourself some of the following questions: If I use pronouns such as we and our, is it clear who is meant? Will the use of such pronouns exclude any readers? Do I use gender-specific pronouns such as he or she only when they are relevant and appropriate? Language such as our Western culture values presumes a shared culture and set of values that may exclude some readers. Similarly, writing that uses gender-specific pronouns—particularly when gender identity is not relevant to the discussion or when the subject’s identity is unknown—may, however unintentionally, project the view that all individuals identify as either male or female.
Read Your Work Out Loud
This is something I was often advised to do as a student, but it was a piece of advice I regretfully never took. But doesn’t this age-old imperative make eminent sense? When we read silently, our reading is often anticipatory, hasty, incomplete. This is especially true when we read something whose subject matter and forms of expression are familiar to us—and whose writing could be more familiar to us than our own? To read something out loud is to adopt a different frame of reference, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to relate to the material in a different, more active way than silent reading allows. Missing words; unnecessary repetition; misplaced modifiers; subject-verb disagreement; overlong, convoluted sentences; ambiguous pronouns; the same grammatical structures or signal phrases repeated ad nauseam—some infelicities are difficult to see on the page but often sound wrong (or at least not quite right) when they are read aloud.
Take some time to read your writing out loud. Read it slowly, deliberately. Read every single word. Read it more than once. This may help you identify, in addition to the issues mentioned above, weak spots in your organization or argumentation, instances of redundancy, non sequiturs, missing transitions, and any number of things that might have gone unnoticed as you read silently. You might even ask someone else to read it out loud while you listen. (Better yet: ask someone who isn’t familiar with the subject matter.) Listen not just to what they read but also to how they read it. Do they read assuredly, or are there points where they stumble or hesitate? Does the tone of their voice change as they read, becoming variously more or less animated? Perhaps you’ll find an opportunity to simplify a complex point or to recast the delivery of an argument in a way that maintains the interest of your reader.
Learn to Recognize Common Pitfalls
We all have different ways of putting our ideas into writing, individual modes of expression that make our work recognizably our own. This means that every writer will have to contend with a unique set of issues and challenges as they edit their own writing. And yet many writers (even very good ones) experience many of the same pitfalls. The next time you edit your own writing, see if you spot any of the following:
- overhedging (It seems to me that the author may be arguing . . . ; I would like to suggest . . .)
- excessive signposting (As mentioned above . . . ; After that I discuss . . . ; I begin by . . . )
- misplaced modifiers (I was asked how long I had been absent by my teacher.)
- using quotation marks when nothing is being quoted
- ambiguous pronouns (Jessica was supposed to meet Priya after work, but she had to cancel.)
- dangling modifiers (After reading the book, its ending remains unclear.)
Even if these particular issues don’t often surface in your own writing, rest assured: the more you edit your writing, the better you’ll get at recognizing your own idiosyncrasies—whatever they are. Perhaps you’ll come to the realization that your paragraphs tend to be quite long and drawn-out, that your transitions could use some work, that your concluding remarks frequently seem a bit too extemporaneous, or that you rely too heavily on the same words or phrases. Whatever you discover, your writing will be better for having discovered it.
The advice offered here is not meant as a definitive set of guidelines that I expect all writers will find useful in equal measure. Perhaps this advice is only a starting point. At the very least I hope it provides food for thought. As I sit here, pondering how I might conclude this post, I already feel the looming presence of the editorial task that awaits me. This time I think I’ll take my own advice. You can tell me how I did.
MLA Handbook. 9th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2021. MLA Handbook Plus, 2021, mlahandbookplus.org/.