Writing for yourself is one thing. Writing for others is another.
Whether you are working on your novel, your blog, an email, business letter, or sending a tweet, your purpose is to communicate information to others. Getting that information from your heart and mind to the keyboard is only the first step in the writing process. Unfortunately, many novice writers stop there.
Taking the time to ensure your work is clear to your audience is no less important, and demands just as much time and energy – if not more. Ask any professional writer or editor, and they will tell you the editing process often requires double or triple the amount of time it took to complete the original work.
Unfortunately, it is often when we are most excited or impassioned by what we are working on that we are most tempted to hit the send button before taking the time to reflect upon what we have written. This can have a catastrophic effect upon both your work and your reputation.
Having just finished a 120-page e-book, a friend recently told me me, she sent it out to a half dozen people, eager to get their feedback. “Almost no one talked about the book,” she said with not a little frustration. “Instead, everyone picked out the dozen typos I had made… oh, and one grammar mistake.” This is just a case of human nature. Our brains are wired to pick out what is different, what doesn’t fit in with the surroundings. Unfortunately for the modern writer, the phenomenon that kept our species one step ahead of any predators lurking in the trees, has created a hypersensitivity to any single word, letter or punctuation mark that is sitting out of place.
The worst part about this is that readers tend to remember the mistakes more than what the what you were writing about.
When sending out a tweet or a quick email, reading your own work once should be sufficient. Anything over a hundred words should be read at least twice before being declared “finished”.
For longer works, from a blog entry to a novel, working in a series of drafts is a time-tested method of ensuring your work is as good as you can make it:
1. First Draft. Write quickly. Don’t think about what you are writing. Just get your thoughts out as quickly as they come. If you seem to be going off-topic, don’t worry about it. Let your creativity take over. If you are lucky enough that your work begins to take on a life of its own – let it happen! This is often where your best work will come from. For me, the very best part of the writing process is when I actually forget that I am typing, and I no longer see the screen in front of me. This can happen regardless of the type of writing you do. When I am writing fiction, I become a spectator as the scene presents itself to me, and the characters take on a life of their own. When I am writing non-fiction, or poetry, I become immersed in the ideas, thoughts, colours, textures and feelings. If this happens to you, by all means let it happen!
2. Second Draft. Work with your paragraphs and sentences. Arrange your thoughts in a more logical way. Delete lines and paragraphs that seemed good at first, but no longer fit the work as a whole. Every book, every chapter, every blog post, every letter should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
3. Third Draft. This is where you get more granular in your work, by working with sentences, word selection, word order, and punctuation. When you are finished, run spell-check just to make sure you have not missed anything obvious. Then, unless you are working on a tight deadline, let your work rest for at least a few hours before going on to the Final Draft.
4. Final Draft. This is where your final proof-reading is done. Taking time away from your work before the final draft is crucial, because you need to remove yourself from if as much as possible so that you can read your work from your audience’s point of view. Is the writing smooth? Are there typos that were missed by your spell-check? (Spell-check is notorious for missing correctly spelled mistakes!)
If you have made many revisions in your final draft, read it again, and again, until you are satisfied. In the case of this particular post, I have revised and re-read it a whopping eighteen times over two days!
The longer your work is, the more time you have invested in it, the harder it is to gain some distance and objectivity from it. You have become so used to what you have read, that many mistakes will be invisible to you. Think of your mistakes as those silent predators, hiding in wait between the bushes. The longer you look at them, the less likely you are to notice what will be obvious to anyone who comes by for the first time.
This is why, for longer works, it is always a good idea to hire a professional editor. A good editor is your hired gun, trained to objectively pick off the mistakes you missed.