Self-Editing Essays

Have you wondered about how to self-edit your personal essays? Fear not, here are some tips for polishing your prose.

Writing Tip for Today: Self-edit your work with these tips:

What’s an Essay?

Essays are short pieces about one thing. They differ from fiction or articles in focus and structure. Fiction features at least some “made up” details, creating scenes, dialogue and detail from the writer’s imagination. An article presents information without bias or persuasion. Essays mean to persuade readers in some way—either to feel, think or act.

Essays don’t pretend to be unbiased. The writer lays out a thesis somewhere near the beginning and then proceeds to make arguments to support that view. In personal essays (what could be called memoir), readers know they’ll go on a journey of discovery, learning and growth. The writer starts out with one attitude or belief and by essay’s end, has changed in some way.

Focus Your Subject

An essay is about one thing because your reader needs to understand where you are taking them from the beginning. If you begin in one direction, then switch to something else, readers may be confused or give up reading. Focus your essay by writing or saying one sentence that summarizes what it’s about.  

One good way to focus your essay is to begin with brainstorming. The Gabriele Rico method lets you free associate around a general concept. If, say, the concept is “love,” you write that word in a circle, then free associate with your life experiences. Each particular experience is a spoke surrounding the circle. When you think of an event you think is good to illustrate “love,” you have the “aha!” moment. And then you write about that particular time.

The word “particular” is important. As E.B. White famously said, “Don’t write about Man. Write about a man.” This means that to illustrate your essay, it’s vital to include specific instances. Instead of “Grandma always used to bake cookies,” you write, “THAT day, I could smell Grandma’s cookies baking from outside her house.” Being specific helps readers immerse themselves in your experience.

Don’t write about Man. Write about a man.–E.B. White

Self-Edit your Essay

When you draft your essay, it may sprawl all over the place. After a cooling period, use the Rico Aha! method again, to see if all the instances in your essay stick to the subject. Our memories lead us down all sorts of rabbit holes. Rein in tangents by cutting places that don’t belong. If you’re worried about losing an important bit of info, save that small piece and either weave it in or change something else to help make seamless sense.

Look for sentences or paragraphs which illustrate the same point. I’m really good at saying something five ways, but readers feel bludgeoned if you repeat things. Find your strongest example and take away the others. While you’re at it, trim excess words by consolidating prepositional phrases (instead of a house with three bedrooms, a three-bedroom house) and try to shave off as many modifiers as possible. Use specific nouns and verbs in place of those modifiers.

Save revising your lead paragraph for last. If your opening feels weak, read aloud the entire piece. If a sentence jumps out at you, it could be the lead. You may need to rearrange paragraphs and reword some things to make sense. Copy/paste your “trial changes” into a new document before you experiment. Now read out loud again, plugging holes in your narrative. Self-editing an essay helps develop your writing skills as you begin to understand what your readers will need to fully experience the essay.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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