Transforming your work from “draft” to “done” can be daunting, and the process can differ depending on the needs of a project. Here are some strategies to consider when reviewing your text, regardless of context, when preparing your final edit.
Whether you’re crafting poems, cookbooks, novels, or articles, there’s a point in every writing project when you give your work a final edit and call it finished. More than a simple copy edit, this process involves evaluating your writing multiple times from different perspectives and signing off at every level, whether the goal is to publish it immediately online, share it with an editor, or pass it along to a collaborator.
Transforming your work from “draft” to “done” can be daunting, even for experienced writers, and the process can change significantly depending on the needs of any given project. Here are some strategies I’ve used to help me feel confident about reviewing my text thoroughly, regardless of content or context, and delivering it in final form.
Have a plan
Rather than reading your text haphazardly fifteen times, sending it off, pouring yourself a stiff drink, and hoping that it all turned out okay, approach your final edit with a plan, knowing what you hope to accomplish each time you review.
As outlined below, some read-throughs should be focused on microscopic elements, like copy-editing and factual accuracy, while others should be more high-level, allowing you to evaluate your work for atmosphere, flow, rhythm, and aftertaste.
Different types of read-throughs will add different value to your writing: while examining your text through a magnifying glass will help you render it polished and professional, looking at a work with a broader eye can reveal issues you’d never otherwise notice and provide opportunities to streamline your text.
Reading the same text over and over can get numbing, but there are plenty of ways to stay present and focused during your review. My post, “How To Read, Edit, and Evaluate Your Writing With Fresh Eyes” offers tips on how to accomplish that.
As you make multiple passes through your text and focus on different things each time, try going through your work in a non-linear order. If you’re examining the text on a granular level, choose paragraphs or sections at random and read them out of context in an effort to root out anything you may have glossed over in the momentum of reading top to bottom. You can also try starting at the end of the work and read paragraphs, chapters, and/or sections in reverse order.
Regardless of how you proceed, I recommend using your word processor’s highlighter to keep track of your review. If you’re happy with a particular section, mark it in blue, for example, and areas that require more attention can be marked in pink. Once you’ve made any needed tweaks and have an entire document that’s highlighted in blue, you’re good to go on to the next level of review.
Strive for consistency
No final review is complete without a thorough copy edit, where you sniff out grammatical, spelling, or formatting errors and fix small issues for clarity. A big part of any copy edit is consistency.
Whether you’re sending your work on to an editor or directly to readers, make sure your text is as internally consistent as possible. For words that can have multiple correct spellings, for example, choose one spelling and stick with it; don’t mention an exciting “theater” production in one paragraph and the history of a landmark “theatre” in the next. Other elements like spelling out numbers versus using numerals, putting names of written works in quotes or italics, and adding spaces on either end of an em-dash are equally important to standardize throughout your entire document.
Choices about how to make your text consistent shouldn’t be arbitrary. Many publications, in print and online, have style guides you can follow. In the absence of such a reference, you can always turn to tried-and-true style guides like those listed in this Wikipedia entry. The Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago Press, is one of several popular mainstays (you can sign up for a free online trial).
Unless your editor or publication tells you otherwise, more important than the particular style you choose is that you use that style throughout your work. Delivering a polished, internally consistent document to colleagues, or directly to readers, can go a long way towards defining yourself as the writer you want to be. Also, eliminating internal inconsistencies gives your readers fewer distractions and a better chance to focus on your words.
Fill in the gaps
During one of your read-throughs, pay attention to whether there are any quotes, facts, plot points, key details, or other elements you’ve inadvertently left out. (An anecdote related to this: I’m on a mailing list that regularly sends out event invitations that always inexplicably fail to mention the time the event will take place. The folks responsible for writing and sending those blasts would do well to give their work multiple reads, for multiple purposes, before sharing them with the world.)
The truth and nothing but the truth
When you’re in the flow of writing, it can be easy to quickly grab facts from Wikipedia, quotes from some other random webpage, scribbled notes from a pad you’ve had in your desk drawer for years, or numbers from a fuzzy memory of what some expert told you years ago. Before you sign off on your final work, take the time to verify any information you’ve cited and ensure that you’re not inadvertently offering up fiction as fact.
The intensity of your fact check will likely depend on context, as well as where your writing will be published. Submitting an op-ed on the global economy to The New York Times will require a more robust investigation than crafting a sonnet about the evolution of snakes to a small, local poetry journal. But, regardless of whether you’re writing about currency exchanges for many or reptiles for few, it’s always worth vetting your facts, doing your homework, and making sure any nonfictional information in your work comes from trustworthy sources.
How To Read, Edit, and Evaluate Your Writing With Fresh Eyes
Green-light editing: What makes publication-quality text?
Cut and Cut (and Cut Again) — The Self-edit Credo
Red Pen Praising: The Best Thing You Can Do For A Writer
Five Reasons To “Take Out The Trash” In Your Writing