Going from Writer to Editor to Critique Your Own Business Writing

By Consumer Dummies

Effective writers recognize the need for editing. It’s part of the writing process. With practice, you can teach yourself to change hats and assume the editor role. The writer and editor roles reinforce each other.

  • In writing, you plan your message or document based on what you want to accomplish and your analysis of the reader, brainstorm content possibilities, organize logically, and create a full draft. Always think of this piece as the first draft because every message, whatever its nature and length, deserves editing and will hugely benefit from it.
  • In editing, you review your first draft and find ways to liven word choice, simplify sentences, and ensure that ideas hang together. You also evaluate the macro side: whether the content and tone deliver the strongest message to your audience and help build relationships. Furthermore, as you make a habit of regularly editing your writing, your first-draft writing improves as well.
  • In proofreading, you review your writing in nitty-gritty detail to find and correct errors — mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation, facts, references, citations, calculations, and more.

Don’t expect to discard the editing process down the line as you further refine your writing abilities. Professional writers never stop relying on their editing skills, no matter how good they get at their craft.

Improving your editing abilities goes a long way toward improving the effect of everything you write. The following tools and tricks make you a more capable and confident self-editor.

Choosing a way to edit your business writing

You have three main ways to edit writing. Try each of the following and see which you prefer — but realize you can always switch your editing method to best suit a current writing task or timeline.

Option 1: Marking up printouts

Before computers, both writers and editors worked with hard copy because it was the only choice. For about a century before computers, people wrote on typewriters, revised the results by hand, and then retyped the entire document. If you were reviewing printer’s proofs — preliminary versions of material to be printed — you used a shorthand set of symbols to tell the typesetter what to change.

These symbols offered uniformity; every editor and printer knew what they meant. Typing and printing processes have changed radically, but the marks are still used today and remain a helpful way for communicating text changes between people.

Many professional writers still edit their work on printouts because on-screen editing strains the eyes and makes you more error-prone. You may find that physically editing your copy with universal marks to be more satisfying; you have something to show for your editing efforts when you’re finished. Editing on paper can help you switch over to the editor’s side of the table. Of course, you must then transfer the changes to your computer.

Proof marks vary between the US and UK, and some organizations have special marks or special meanings.

Option 2: Editing on-screen

After you draft a document, you can simply read through it and make changes. Younger writers may never have considered any other system. With a few mouse clicks or keystrokes, you can substitute words and reorganize the material by cutting and pasting. The down side to this method of editing is that you’re left with no record of the change process.

When maintaining a copy of your original text matters, save your new version as a separate document. Amend its name to avoid hassle later, in case a series of revised versions develops.

Keep your renaming simple yet specific. If the document is titled Gidget, title the edited version Gidget 2, for example, or date it Gidget 11.13. When you edit someone else’s document, tack on your initials: Gidget.nc, for example. Be sure your titling allows for easy identification of the various versions to avoid time-wasting confusion later.

Option 3: Tracking your changes

Most word-processing software offers a handy feature to record every change you make to the text in a document. In Word 2010, choose Review, then choose Track Changes.

When you choose to track changes, all changes show up on the copy in a color other than black or in small text boxes off to the side (depending on your choice of screen view). Deletions appear as strikethrough text or off to the side.

The system takes some personal trial and error but provides a useful tool for your editing experiments.

When you’re tracking changes on an extensively edited document, you can end up with something quite complicated. You can spare yourself the nitty-gritty of every deletion and insertion by selecting to view as Final with All Your Proposed Changes Included. You don’t lose your edits; they’re just hidden from immediate view.

When you finish editing, save a version that shows the revisions, and then go back to the Review tab and choose Accept or Reject Changes. Accept all changes, or go through your document section by section or even sentence by sentence. You emerge with a clean copy; save this version separately from the original. Proof the new version carefully because new errors creep in when you edit.

The Track Changes tool can help you improve your writing process and offers a way to share refinement stages with others when needed. (Numerous online tools, such as Google Docs, help you share document development.) But when you ultimately send the message to your audience, be sure your final saved version does not reveal the change process: Turn Track Changes off.

Distancing yourself from your business writing

The first step for a self-editor is to consciously assume that role. Forget how hard some of the material was to draft, or how attached you are to some of the ideas or language. Aim to judge as objectively as you can whether your message succeeds and how to improve it.

Your best tool to achieve this distance is the one that cures all ills: time. For everything you write, allocate roughly one-third the available time to planning, one-third to drafting, and one-third to editing. But ideally, that last third isn’t in the same continuous time frame as the first two stages.

Try to build in a pause between drafting and editing. Pausing overnight (or longer) is highly recommended for major business documents. If your document is long or important, try to edit and re-edit in a series of stages over days or even weeks. Some copy, such as a website home page or a marketing piece, may never be finished. It evolves over time.

For short or less consequential messages, an hour or two between drafting and editing helps. A top-of-your-head email or text message that doesn’t seem important can still land you in a lot of trouble if you send it out without vetting. If an hour isn’t possible, just a quick trip to the coffee maker to stretch your legs can clear your mind and refresh your eyes.

So put the message away and then revisit it after a planned delay. When you return, you see your words with fresh eyes — an editor’s rather than the writer’s.