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Tools of the trade
Four tips for better self-editing

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

A freelancer’s life can be lonely, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work and trying to polish it until it glows. Weeks, days or hours spent on a project can infuse a sense of entitlement regarding the content, with every word in every line considered sacrosanct and pruning too painful to contemplate.

As several writers are credited with saying: “Writing is easy. Just put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.”

Whether it was Thomas Wolfe, Red Smith or someone else who originally made the connection, most good writers know that editing is what makes fair writing good and good writing great. Rare is the successful writer who commits an unalterable thought to print. Rarer still is the one who does it without embarrassing himself.

Editing one’s own work is even more important for freelancers than staff writers because it’s so easy for the client to simply throw up her hands and say, “I’ve had enough of this guy.” The trouble is, for freelancers as for staff writers, effective editing first requires a sense of detachment from the work to develop a crisp perspective attuned to bias and fault. When it’s just us writing, and nobody else is around with either the skill or patience to perform a quality edit, finding that detachment can be difficult.

When it’s time for that critical eye, the following tricks can help put freelance writers in the frame of mind they need to get the job done.

Walk away from the story for a while. Put it aside and do something else — exercise, yard work, billing — for 20 minutes to an hour, deadline permitting. Don’t even think about the story during that time. This separation helps the brain reorder its thinking about what it has digested repeatedly over the time you’ve been working on the article.

Because human brains are capable of filling in gaps in logic and order, many of us can read this …

“It dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod aeppar, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm.”
… with little trouble, while the corrected version says this …
“It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word appear, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a problem.”

Because of this, even seasoned editors misread occasionally. That’s why they pore over their work two, three, four times to make sure they see what the writer intended to say. That’s also why the best among them take short breaks between re-reads, or longer ones before tackling another editing project.

Change the background. After writing in a black-on-white environment on a word-processing program, change the program’s settings to alter the colors, transforming the background to, say, blue and the type to yellow or pale green. This, too, fools the mind into believing it’s seeing something entirely new. Altering the screen font and font size can have a similar effect.

Read aloud. Eyes are not the only tools we use for reading; we also “listen” to words as we read. However, during the writing process, either the eyes or ears take over, subsuming the other half of our perspective. Thus, on review, certain words don’t “sound” or look right, or the context deviates from what we intended. Reading aloud while editing helps the mind see and hear gaps and inconsistencies that developed while we were busy trying to get the idea nailed down.

Read backward. In other words, read the story from the end to the beginning, going against the flow of the intended narrative. This practice works remarkably well for parsing the true meanings of sentences and figuring out whether they were constructed well enough to make sense. It’s also effective for fact-checking, as backward reading tends to bring out whether there is too much or too little of something in the overall narrative.

Some of these techniques work better for some writers than others. Try them all — you may find them helpful in different aspects of your work.

Contributor: David Sheets

Last updated: February 2015

Copyright © 2012-2018 by Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.

Questions or comments? Please post them in the Freelance Guide Comments forum of the Freelance Community Board or email fcguide@spj.org. We’ll answer as soon as we can!


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