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How to Edit Your Own Writing (nytimes.com)
272 points by mapgrep 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

I often advise students to start with a sort of flowchart of ideas, instead of an outline. This consists of boxes with ideas, keywords, phrases, or diagrams, connected with arrows in a sequential order.

When the student pitches the plan to me, I start by looking at the items in the boxes of the flowchart, to make sure they are all relevant and that no relevant things have been missed. So far, this is no different than looking at a bullet list in a conventional outline. But the next step is the key: if the diagram has A->B->C, for example, I propose some other ordering and ask the student why that couldn't work. And I also ask whether we actually need that B in the middle.

This directed-graph approach can help to reveal a good logical structure for the overall composition, often saving an great deal of time at a later stage, where the pieces being moved around are not just phrases or ideas, but rather paragraphs, sections, or even chapters.

Quite often, the best way to come up with a diagram of this type is to explain the goal of the written work to someone else, drawing the diagram as part of the explanation. If the listener says "I don't see how you got from that idea to the next" then the diagram might need another box.

The other hint I give to students is to keep updating this flowchart as the writing is being done, because the act of writing can so often uncover things that were not envisioned at the start.

PS. when I say "my student", I include myself, for the teacher who is not also a learner is missing an opportunity.

Do you give this advice for long, literary pieces as well, such as a novel? Also, would be wonderful if you could share some examples.

Seconding examples. Would watch you on YouTube if you happen to make videos as well to learn more about this.

Sounds like a great idea. Is it too much to ask you for an example so that many others (me included) might have a concrete understanding of the approach?

I use a similar methodology when I write as I am often writing technical documentation and not as much fiction these days. In technical writing it is easier as there's a fundamental understanding that any base concept that's involved must be defined and explained before it is applied. This introduces a natural dependency chain of things that have to happen and can be used to help sketch out a basic order. Since you have the constraint of linear top to bottom text this often at least makes ordering beginning, middle, and end talking points obvious.

If you are writing a technical document ordering of points like this tends to look like an outline format but the dependencies are not visible in the end product and are often implied.

If you are writing about a report of events/fiction there's often also natural checkpoints or serialization paths. If Alice and Bob go to a casino at the same time, there may be a logical ordering that makes sense to finish some of Alice's and Bob's story individually with them both arriving at the casino. This allows the reader to unload the idea of the action of 'arrive at the casino' and use that as the foundation for new ideas without having to reconsider it. These new 'checkpoints' are places you can refer to, as in 'this thing happened because of how Alice and Bob came to the casino' without re-explaining everything. In Math you can refer to a previous Lemma, in technical writing you can refer to a previous section or figure. This concept also helps the idea that people can only generally keep a handful of things at the top of their head at once and can help collapse multiple individual ideas into a more common concept (similar to refactoring 'extract function' in programming).

So in actual practice this benefits by using a media or tool that's easy to rearrange sections and make dependencies. For physical media I've used blank index cards and for tools I use Emacs and org-mode because I can quickly rearrange outline headers. In this outline I list dependencies to other outline headings and external documents. This should only talk about the structure and not really go into things you'd like to write there, and generally by working through the dependencies you can see how you get from idea a to b to c and can lead the reader exactly where you want them to go. I can see how using a mind mapping software or draw.io to build a flowchart a good method as well but the act of moving things and reordering things needs to be cheap and intuitive to your thought process.

Another way I often approach more creative assignments is figuring out where you want to end up and working backwards until you get where you want to start. Much like going from the end to the start of a maze is often easier I approach writing the same way. It also helps make sure you have a direct line from the first idea to the end idea at least on paper as you assemble what's important. The end here can vary depending on what kind of document I'm writing whether it's a final statement of an argument, a single idea or multiple set of ideas I want to explain to someone, or the climax to a story. The way you find the introduction and start point this way is by thinking of your target reader and what you need to give them to get them naturally and easily to the ending you've already decided on. Because you know where you're going to end up it's easier to manage fanning out to all the supporting ideas that need to get to that end idea without bringing in things that are irrelevant or actively distracting. Because you are thinking about it like a flowchart instead of an outline, it's OK at that point to fan out dozens of ideas, and then fan out the precursors of those supporting ideas, and then fan out the precursors of those ideas until your target reader if they read everything would be able to comfortably reach your final idea. Then you can start doing some of the dependency and checkpoint work that I described earlier and the ordering starts to emerge from the pile. I find this method also helps my writing be more targeted towards the goal and does a better job engaging the reader (where this post is a poor example).

you are not respecting the conciseness rule here... :D

Would MindMap be helpful here than a flowchart ? It can show the flow ... And lots of Opensource tools available.

Are any mind maps sequential? Most I’ve seen are static trees, usually without secondary connections and no clear start and end.

You would love Roam.


Is there anything like this that's not an online hosted service?

I would not trust my personal knowledge base on something I do not directly control.

I haven't used roam, but the screenshots made me wonder if there might be some overlap with TiddlyWiki, "a unique non-linear notebook for capturing, organising and sharing complex information."

TiddlyWiki can be as simple as a single HTML file, but can also work with a server.

There are also quite a few extensions, including TiddlyMap[1], which adds concept mapping.

[0] https://tiddlywiki.com/

[1] http://tiddlymap.org/

There is org-roam, although I know nothing about it except the first sentence of the README: https://github.com/jethrokuan/org-roam

There's org-roam, which is based upon org-mode in Emacs. That can be a barrier to entry for a lot of people who are apprehensive about learning Emacs.

Tinderbox if you’re on a Mac.

Use "chat" instead of "communicate"? Really that does not sound like good advice to me.

Here is a tip that's really helped me over the years. Have the computer read highlighted sections back to you (via Accessibility features on MacOS, for example). I do this so often on my Mac that I have a keyboard shortcut for it; ctrl-esc. I use this feature all the time including for the composition of this comment. It is amazing to me the number of mistakes you can catch in this manner that you would not catch otherwise. The reason is your brain takes the same mental shortcuts in reading aloud (as the article recommends) as when you write.

> Have the computer read highlighted sections back to you

On Linux I was able to do this with the following shell command:

  espeak "$(xclip -o)"

+1 for let-the-computer-read-it-to-me approach for proofreading.

Here is a doc with screenshots for any Mac users that might wan to try this out: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1mApa60zJA8rgEm6T6GF0yIem...

Chat is a perfectly reasonable replacement- if what you’re taking about is chatting, certainly, it’s not a universal replacement.

I just love this tip! Thank you. I just set up right now and gave it a go on your comment. Game changer.

What a great idea. Does Microsoft have something like this?

Microsoft Word does. It also has a good grammar engine that fixes many of the issues immediately.

This was fairly useful, if not amazingly insightful.

I think that "give yourself some space" is by far the most helpful tip. At any given moment, in any given state of mind, you'll only ever have an imperfect perspective on what it is you're trying to say, and how well you've succeeded in saying it.

Waiting until you're in a different frame of mind, then revisiting the piece, is the best way of "layering" your own ideas – filling in gaps, considering new perspectives, coming to new realizations.

I think it's something that has to be done with every piece of writing. You either get someone else to look at it and do it for you (if you don't have time), or let enough time pass that you have (in a sense) become "someone else" yourself, and read again.

What I do, is post it after what I consider a “complete” edit, but I don’t advertise it.

I then spend a day or two, revisiting it, and making tweaks.

I suspect that my biggest issue is overuse of the passive voice. I was pretty much trained into it (long story), and it tends to be my default.

Exactly. For me the tl;dr of this article is:

If you don't have a person to edit your stuff, read it over with fresh eyes.

This goes for anything from late-night texts to 100K - word books.

I get this by writing in minimal-markdown text, then pushing it to HTML and reading it in a browser. The reformatting breaks the prior spacial relationships of the words; swapping the text editor for the browser framing breaks the context.

My professor deducted a point for every instance of the verb “be” in my papers in college. Refactor “was, is, are” out of your sentences and you’ll see your writing improve - it forces you to think very critically about the subject of each action in a sentence and your writing will sound more precise for it.

“To is, or not to is? That is the question “

now you're using too much is.

To exist or not, I ask myself.

Might he have been a fan of general semantics?

I've learned quite a lot about editing from "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace." It presents some tricks to restructure and improve the flow of sentences, and through that process, to generate the momentum to really think about what you want to say.

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0134080416?tag=duckduckgo-d-20&lin...

I second that.

It has two things that stood out for me:

* It clearly discusses "grammar rules" and "personal style", which helped me locate myself in all this.

* It doesn't just say "avoid the passive voice", but explains when the passive is needed (it has nothing to do with "when we don't want to say who acts", but a lot with "the sentence is easier to understand when X appears at the beginning of the sentence, the easiest way to achieve that is to use passive voice").

Oh, and a third: it has wonderful exercises.

There are many editions of the book (actually there are even three titles, all with "Clarity" and "Style" in them) – it doesn't really matter which one you choose.

This was a key textbook in an incredibly useful rhetoric class I took as an undergraduate that influences my writing to this day.

I agree, that book is much more useful than the advice in the posted article.

Thanks for sharing that.

best/easiest writing tip 1: You place a square around the subject of the sentence and a circle around the verb. This ensures you have one (or more) of each, as opposed to having an implied subject or verb. Then look at how close they are - the fewer words in between the subject and verb, the clearer the sentence is. Thus: Joe quickly and unerringly picked the wrong word becomes: Joe always picked the wrong word

Best easiest writing tip 2: The most important word in the sentence is the verb - it should always do the heavy lifting. This means that - when possible - you should avoid the passive voice, but it means much more. When writing, select verbs that pop. From: Joe walked down the street without direction To: Joe meandered west.

I recommend reading Stephen King's On Writing, it is half writing tips and half Stephens life story. It is the only Stephen King book I have read (so far) and it really made me want to write more! He also recommends the elements of style.

One tip I’d like to add that has helped my writing tremendously: read the sentences you write in reverse order. It basically simulates the taking time away from what you wrote process.

I used to shy away from editing my own writing. I felt like I couldn’t possibly make any improvements since I was the person who wrote the writing that needed editing in the first place. But once you get used to it, the real fun of writing is in the chance to perfect what you’re trying to say through editing.

Writing is hard and editing is time consuming. Anyone who went through college can agree with that.

The problem is that it's often almost impossible to maintain an entirely objective perspective on your own writing. The most reliable method is always having a third party give a document an in depth review in order to avoid sounding stupid.

In fact, a buddy of mine locked in quarantine recently released Edit Mule (https://www.editmule.com) to bridge this gap and make it easy to get a professional editor to do this. There really is way too much bad writing out there--hopefully they can reduce it.

It is easy to degrade by editing too. There's a flow that comes with the thought; there's an interchange with the reader that comes with conversation.

It is comforting to think we can be geniuses with time and effort. But the genius that visits you does not labour.

Not criticizing the content, but the expression in this recent example of overediting: http://paulgraham.com/useful.html Note a paragraph comes to life towards the end, that I would guess is transcribed conversation.

The best tip I've heard to preserve flow in editing is to rewrite - not edit. This is how all editing was done before computers became ubiquitous but you can emulate the process by printing out your first draft with large line spacing, manually going through it with a pen and then - and this is the key - open a new blank document called "Draft 2" and retype it from scratch based on your printed version.

Sounds daunting... yet I used to do this in effect, by writing first draft by hand, reading and editing there, and then typing up.

Writing by hand, you can also draw arrows for relationships, little diagrams, mini-drafts etc.

I generally agree with the piece, especially writing as discovery. And I certainly identify with the opening being hard--in fact, there's a good argument for putting something there so that you can get on with writing the rest of the piece. I've sometimes probably spent a decent portion of my total writing time figuring out a hook/analogy/etc. for the rest of the piece.

The thing that's missing is that you also need another pair of eyes at least for anything beyond a personal blog post where it's somewhat OK to have mistakes. Obviously you can't get at least a copy editor for anything but you basically can't publish even a short book, report, or something like that without someone else doing a careful read.

"And don’t neglect a second pair of eyes: Ask relatives and friends to read over your work. They might catch some things you missed and can tell you when something is amiss."

Fair enough. I missed that near the end. Although I would say that casual reads by colleagues, friends, etc. tend not to be very careful. If it's important you probably need to pay someone.

Depends on your friends. I ask my liberal arts onesz

What made the biggest difference for me was using a text to speech reader to proofread and edit. You are able to catch a lot of phrasing that looks ok but sounds wrong or awkward this way.

When I was a journalist we had one rule about proof-reading your own writing (not the same as editing, I know). That rule was “Don’t”. Always get someone else to proof the final version

Are you sure the rule wasn’t “don’t publish something only proof-read by the author?” The best journalists I’ve worked with do extensive self editing. Then they file their copy to an editor.

Also, journalists work in a different context than other writers. They write for publications with people on staff specifically to edit their copy. Someone writing a blog post, internal company memo, personal essay, documentation, etc may not have access to a paid editor or time to wait on volunteers. Definitely a good practice to get someone else to read something you care a lot about or are getting paid to write. But there are lots of things (arguably!) that fall short of that.

The ProWritingAid team has made a free course on this (https://blog.reedsy.com/learning/courses/editing/self-edit-l...).

It covers technical issues like ticky sentences, excessive pronouns, and overused words — plus stylistic things.

I understand that things are tough in NYC, but, sorry, this is a low-effort article with little value; all the recommendations in it are material that kids learn by around Grade 11 English. (Quite probably, today's teens are all over online resources like Grammarly, too).

As a non-native English speaker, using a thesaurus is often a great help. I do have a pretty decent vocabulary, but sometimes the right word just doesn't come to mind.

Besides using a thesaurus for writing, I occasionally also find it useful for naming things when programming.

the danger with that is always that you end up using words that are subtly inaccurate or that turn your writing into purple prose [0]. For me what really helped as I picked up english (take this with a grain of salt - this was when I was very young and so had the benefit of immersion etc, and i would consider myself fluently bilingual) - what helped me when I learned English was reading a lot of prose by writers that I really respected and that are considered good writers. Particularly contemporary writers, so we don't learn to write like folks from the 1800s. THat helped me learn how words are used in context and pick up the nuances, but it took a few years of course.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purple_prose

As a young adult, I wrote purpley, and I still write that way when I'm excited.

Now, I see information density as a sign of respect and empathy to the reader, and try to optimize in that direction.

It's ironic, because I greatly enjoy novelists like Turgenev, Storm, Mann and Tolstoi: prolific sewers of purple patches. Although Kosinski, Hemingway, and other such literary minimalists are satisfying, too, in their own ways.

Anyways, here are some informal notes that work for me, in effective communication and documentation, if this philosophy interests you:

- allow the reader to stumble over the diction once (needing to look up one word in a dictionary), than to stumble over the grammar two or three times: convert grammatical complexity into diction complexity at any opportunity. In particular, if you can replace a prepositional phrase with a word, do it: many people stumble on prepositional phrases.

- avoid redundant words or repetitions phrases ("I think", "if you think about it", "plan to think about"), unless you're intentionally expressing deference or uncertainty. This unnecessary "stuttering" creates space to read "between", and makes your language more difficult to parse.

- terseness is an underrated virtue. One can almost always shorten a sentence without sacrificing readability. I find arbitrary char limits (per line) and line limits (per paragraph) to be helpful tools.

- "unliterary" or even "poetic" structures – bulleted lists, quotation marks, crazy line breaks, are underrated tools in the terseness crusade.

- for non-printed documents: 1 sentence per paragarph. If your paragraph has 2 or 3 sentences, only 1 is more than 8 words.

- subjects and verbs close together, ideally adjacent. English is Germanic, but it is thankfully not German: no sense in forcing your reader to buffer a subject whilst searching for a verb, or vice versa. Likewise for adjectives and adverbs.

- avoid leading with "it", only to reveal the subject later in the sentence.

- avoid parentheticals. this is hard for me, because I don't tend to think linearly, but if you have something worth sharing, it deserves to be free of parenthetical prison, and easy to read. (exception is if it's a medium-length sentence, at the end of a paragraph, that you want to draw attention to).

- if the reader wants to know more, and your medium is interactive, they will ask. don't overdo it.

The way I typically use a thesaurus, and possibly the way GP is describing, is to use it to remind myself of words whose meaning I know when I see them but aren't coming to the tip of my tongue. I agree that that understanding comes from years of reading.

Yeah. That's exactly what I meant in my comment, thanks for clarifying.

It's funny that in the section that argues against the passive voice, the passive voice is used almost exclusively. Is the author a bad writer or is not using the passive voice bad advice?

The author wrote it in the active but Alan the editor had a strange sense of humor and turned it into passive voice. So even with the luxury of working for the NYT and having access to an editor you'd be better off to edit your own writing;-)

The latter. There is nothing inherently bad about the passive voice. What is bad is hiding agency so that actions that are taken for the benefit of some (usually rich or powerful) party are made to appear as the inevitable result of some external force. This tends to be easier in the passive voice, but grammatical structure is just a proxy here. Both “many workers were made redundant by the crisis” (passive) and “the crisis forced many workers out of employment” (active) hide the same information that “the rich cut their losses in the crisis by firing many workers” doesn’t.

Non paywalled link: http://archive.is/M4COJ

Writing is editing. I have a site (thepeel.news) and am also writing a novel, and I see it every time - quality comes out with editing and reditting.

Re-write or re-type. Use your laziness as a force for good to cut out extraneous stuff.

Personally, I think through writing. My first draft is what I write to help me understand a problem or an idea. That's good for me, but not so good for you. Useful writing addresses someone else's need. The questions are "who is your audience?", and "What do they need to know from you?" Writing for other people is communication. What are you intending to communicate? Technique, as illustrated in this article, serves that intention.

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic's book "Storytelling with Data" is a good book on technical communication. TLDR: it's a process, and it's not about you, it's about them.

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