What skills should I develop to get better at editing my own work?
Great question. You might expect me to say something like ‘spelling, grammar, and punctuation’, but actually the skills that I think are most important for an editor (or even for someone who just wants to get better at self-editing) aren’t writing-related at all. In my opinion, the top three skills that all good editors cultivate are curiosity, empathy, and attention to detail. Let me explain.
Good editors are fundamentally curious. They have a wide-ranging general knowledge (often in addition to a speciality) and they love adding to it, learning about new subjects, and putting pieces together. This is important, because a major part of editing is looking critically at a document and being aware of when things may not be quite right – when they need to be fact-checked, referenced, or referred to a specialist (such as a lawyer or accountant) for further advice.
Once you get into the habit of reading critically, you start to develop intuition about the types of things that need to be checked. Editors of historical fiction, for example, will know when something sounds anachronous to the time period the book is set in. In my field – government, business, and professional associations – I try to have a good sense of what’s going on in the wider world, because the documents I edit often refer to politics, international affairs, and societal issues such as public health or climate change, and these can change quickly.
My aim is to learn something from every document I work on, and it’s amazing how often I apply that knowledge to subsequent projects. Learn to read your own work critically, ask why, and be curious about the world, and your self-editing will improve substantially.
No matter their field, a good writer knows their audience. And a good editor can get out of their own head and into the mind of that audience, to think about whether they’ll understand what the writer is trying to communicate. This means developing empathy with audiences whose experiences may be very different from your own (e.g. people whose first language is not English, or people with disability).
One of my editorial bugbears is when I point out to a writer that their work may have accessibility problems due to the way it’s presented or written, or even due to something as simple as using two spaces rather than one after a full stop – and the writer chooses to ignore it. This shows a lack of empathy with their audience and suggests they don’t care that they may be making life harder for their readers. If you want to get better at self-editing, learn to look at your writing – language, tone, structure and formatting – from outside the lens of your own experience.
Attention to detail
In some ways this one is obvious – a good editor needs to be able to spot things like errant punctuation, or the fact that one paragraph has 9pt line spacing while the next one has 3pt. But attention to detail is about more than this. It ties in closely to curiosity. In my field, attention to detail means seeing a reference to ‘Council of Australian Governments’ and knowing that COAG was disbanded in mid-2020. For a fiction editor, it might mean tracking down the etymology of a particular word to check if it would have actually been used in that context. Individually, these are small things, but collectively they can make or break a piece of writing. Paying attention to the little things will vastly improve the quality of your writing.
Like any skill, these three can be developed with practice. The more you use them, the easier it will get, and the better your writing will become. And they will also serve you well if you find yourself in a position where you have to give feedback on other people’s writing.