After a delightful conversation with Phoenix Huber and Randye S Spina, I realized I had a superpower I never knew of! Editing. Often I tell my friends that there is actually no such thing as good writing, only good editing. While I’m sure someone else has also said that, I still stand by it even if I’m not the first to come up with the idea.
We were discussing how to edit and I let them know about my favourite trick: Use the keyboard function Ctrl+F to find certain words and phrases that are often a point of confusion or repetition in my articles.
In an ideal world, your writing is tweaked and refined by an editor. While that would be great, it’s not always possible. If I can’t find an editor, then Ctrl+F is my co-author. From years of having my work edited and workshopped, I’ve come to know about a few of my own writing quirks, so here is a list of them for you to use as well.
I love to use Ctrl+F to search for adverbs. If you aren’t sure what an adverb is, it’s actually a portmanteau for adjective and verb. Basically, it’s a word that describes a verb. Here’s an example for you:
Anita was walking slowly.
In this case, slowly is the adverb. Lots of adverbs end in -ly. Because of that, you can find them easily in a document but searching just “ly.” Truthfully, I don’t do this as much anymore in my own writing so it’s not as helpful. However, when I edit for someone else, this is one of the first things I do.
These are just a verb ending in -ing and also called a present participle. Personally, I don’t like that verb tense. When I speak in French I like it, but when I speak in English I don’t. Perhaps it’s because that verb tense feels wordy? Either way, it’s good to be aware of it for other reasons than your writing style.
You might be switching your tense all over the place for one, so it’s a clear way to see when you’re writing in the present and when you’re writing in the past. Often I read things written by non-writers and for some reason, they like to time travel.
The literary magazine GEIST talks about removing gerunds to make your writing more punchy. This is a stylistic choice more than anything, but it’s fun to play with!
Another word that I search for is just “it.” I learned this from one of my first college professors. The reason is that the word “it” often leads to confusion. Sometimes there are two subjects in a sentence, then we write “it” in the next sentence without clarifying what the subject is. Here is an example to clarify:
Yesterday, I bought a cute scarf and boots. It was my favorite colour, red!
Was “it” referring to the scarf or the boots? Honestly, probably both if you know me, but we will never know until I clarify. Find those “its” and get rid of them. Or, if you need a rhyme to help you remember: treat your its like zits and cover them up with some other words!
While that may be a personal preference, it’s still good to review them and see if all are necessary. Sometimes, it sounds or flows better to use full words. We aren’t all Shakespeare writing in iambic pentameter after all.
This is especially important for consistency, if you switch often between contractions or not, then choosing one can make it seem less jarring for the reader. Search for a simple apostrophe and make your decisions!
This one depends on your writing quirks. If you’re writing a fiction story about a gal named Carla, maybe you write “She did this” and “She did that” at the start of all your sentences. If you’re writing an opinion piece, maybe you said “I” a little too much. My issue tends to be the second one.
By using Ctrl+F, you can find the issue much more easily and correct it right away. The best way to find this out is to have a friend edit your writing and highlight phrases you say a lot, then you’ll know better how to fix it in the future.
This is again a specific quirk of mine, but I’m sure that I’m not alone! Sometimes I’ll accidentally use it twice in one sentence… Embarrassing I know. That’s why we have rough drafts thankfully.
Also is also just too common and there are plenty of other synonyms that we can use instead (drat, I did it again!) Try other words like “too,” “as well,” “even,” “additionally,” or “on top of that.”
Really & Very
This is not a writing tendency of mine anymore, but I see it a lot in other people’s writing still. With both these words, you’re probably working too hard. It’s usually because you’re trying to heighten the meaning of another word and there might actually be a better word to use! Or maybe, it’s completely redundant and doing nothing.
Let’s see this in action.
After I snuck up on my brother, he screamed really loud! He was very scared.
Hmm, screaming is already a loud activity isn’t it? We can probably just cut the word very and really entirely. We can also try coming up with alternatives. Instead of “screamed really loud” maybe I just mean “shrieked.” For “very scared,” we could instead say “petrified.”
Grab a thesaurus and get creative! We’re writing, after all, this is supposed to be fun. Personally, I love my thesaurus. I could curl up with a coffee any day and just read it.
I Think & Maybe
Breaking this habit is excruciatingly hard. When we say “I think” we’re hedging our statements because we aren’t certain. You’re basically throwing your credibility out the window. Sure, there is a time and a place to hedge your statements, but not all the time. For me, this comes from two places and I will explain both since you might have the same experience.
1. Academic Writing
In a linguistic class at UBC, I learned about hedging. This article goes into more depth, but I’ll cover what I can for you now. Basically, when academics write research papers, they have to write as if their findings aren’t the truth. By hedging their statements, they are protecting themselves from being wrong. Thanks to my psychology degree, I like hedges now.
2. Being Female
Beyond that, my upbringing as a woman also affects my language. This meta-analysis talks about how gender differences cause women to sound more uncertain in their statements.
I think hedges are bad, maybe, just like a little bit, you know?
Now, let’s inflate that ego and make you sound more confident. Trim those hedges people!
Hedges are definitely bad, so let’s stop using them.
If you’re introducing an acronym, then you need to be consistent. Once you start using it be sure to keep using it instead of switch to the full word. This is just standard practice.
Another good reason to do this is to make sure you didn’t type it wrong. Mixing up a few letters happens all the time, but it looks unprofessional. Don’t get caught looking silly because of butterfingers!
This is another terrible habit of mine. I’m just excited all the time! You, however, might be more prone to use semi-colons, em dashes, or too many commas. Everyone is different.
Like I mentioned at the start, have a friend edit your writing and find them for you. If no one volunteers, then at least you have Ctrl-F and you can try seeing if any of my quirks are also your quirks.
And there you have it.
My secret editing checklist revealed. Now you can write like a Queen.
Yes I just complimented myself.
One last thing I’d like to say before you run off and start eagerly editing is to get someone to help you. Medium is full of novice, intermediate, and professional writers! Follow some of them and reach out. The best writing is collaborative and seeing our own flaws is difficult. Everyone has good ideas, but the execution is the hard part.
This checklist is not exhaustive and there are plenty of other things to do when editing, but I hope it helps you look at your writing a bit differently and can use this guide to help you develop your voice and writing style.
This article was first published in The Startup