Self-editing: flag and fix
It takes a lifetime to become a writer. If you break the task into smaller steps, it’s much easier. That’s where 30 seconds of self-editing come in.
Try this self-editing technique for a week.
- Set your timer to 30 seconds.
- Check the first two or three words in every sentence.
- Don’t read, just look. Do this as a series of quick glances across and down the page.
- Find and fix sentences that have a weak start.
Set the timer: 30 seconds
Flagging and fixing takes about 30 seconds. First, focus on a specific writing habit you want to develop (or break). Then, fix the problem. That doesn’t mean rewrite the sentence. Just fix the problem you’re trying to avoid.
Once you have deleted the same word a few times, you’ll start catching yourself just as you’re about to key it in.
When you have built one habit, move on to a fresh 30-second edit. I’ am posting one every Monday over the summer (July and August 2019). Collect the whole set!
Sample edit: fast and not too furious
One of the habits I’m trying to break is starting sentences with “I think…” or similar words that focus on the writer instead of what I’m writing about.
In the first draft of this post I wrote “I call this flagging and fixing. It’s the habit of…” at the start of the previous section. As soon as I keyed in the words “I call…,” I knew I was using a familiar habit to ease into an idea. That’s the “flag” for my writing habit. It’s fine for getting started in a first draft. But it’s not strong enough for a final draft. The first two words in the draft sentence invited readers to focus on the wrong thing: me.
A quick edit will help readers find the key idea sooner. Moving “flag and fix” to the start of the paragraph also made it easier to connect with the definition in the second sentence. Two sentences from the first draft are combined as one idea in the final draft: the definition of flagging and fixing.
Try it: first steps
Some writers are like the roadrunner cartoon character whose legs have to wind up for a second or two before taking off. We rely on a word habit to get our sentences moving. There’s nothing wrong with needing a little nudge to start. Just don’t forget to cut the writing nudges out before hitting “send.” The habit of focusing on the writer or the writing first is not as charming for readers as writers might imagine.
Here are a few 30-second self-edits to get you started. I don’t know which one you’ll need. Neither do you, for that matter. We usually can’t see the weak spots in our writing until someone sends us into the darkened editing room wearing a decontamination suit and carrying a big dictionary.
The quick edits below will help you with two bad habits:
- Using too many words. The first two or three words in a sentence are often just the writer spinning to get a little traction.
- Focusing on your thinking or your writing, instead of the content that readers are looking for. Can we just assume that you were thinking?
The habit: Writing about writing
Use the search function on your computer to find the words or phrases you’re looking for. Or, just do a quick visual scan down the page. Don’t forget to set a timer.
Words to look for [and cut]
The flag: Use these words as a flag to help you find a stronger focus for the sentence:
- I think…
- I feel…
- I believe…
- I call this…
The fix: Instead of pointing at yourself, point at the main idea. The main idea is whatever follows “I think.” (Or the group think: “We think…”)
Another flag: When you see these phrases in your writing, check the sentence to see if it works just as well without the added emphasis. I have helpfully crossed out the phrases so you can see the quick fix:
It is important to note that...this is an estimate only. It is evident that...employees care about this issue. It is possible that…the project team might need to meet.
The first fix: Cut words you don’t need. Read the sentence to see if it can stand on its own. If so, cut the empty introduction. If the sentence doesn’t make sense without the intro, leave it in (of course!).
The other fix: Revise to focus. Try translating “it is important” into an actual reason: reduce costs, ensure safety, make the process work. If you can’t find words for why it’s important, perhaps it’s not as important for readers as it was for your struggle to write the first draft.
Another fix: Use format to focus. If you still think it’s important to point out it’s important, make sure the sentence is in a place where readers can find it. At the start of a paragraph perhaps? Or, use formatting to highlight the message.
The good news is…
If you looked for these words in your writing this week, and couldn’t find them, the good news is that your sentences already have a strong start.
Don’t worry about being too good to need self-editing. Maybe next week’s self-edit will be something you can use to improve your writing.