Self-editing for authors: step into the flow

This week’s post comes from editor and writer Robin Bethel. Robin is a close friend and colleague, and we’ve worked together on various projects for more than nine years. Here, Robin shares self-editing advice she’s identified from working with dozens of authors (including me!). Whether you write articles or books—or aspire to do so—I hope you find this article useful.

Every author, whether they’ve been writing for two months or twenty years, benefits from collaborating with a talented editor. When you care deeply about your work and how it will resonate in the world, enlisting a trusted professional to help shape it into its best, most crystalline form is one of the smartest investments you can make. But taking that step doesn’t mean you should skip your own revision process. Far from it.

The highest-quality work is almost always the result of thoughtful consideration from everyone involved: first you, the author, and then one or more editors. As the author, you know more than anyone else what you want to express, and the more you consciously tailor your words to that purpose, the stronger your content will be. And unless you’re working with a ghostwriter who will be writing or rewriting nearly every sentence, the final quality of your prose will depend in part on the raw material you send your editor.

I’ll be the first to admit that self-editing can be hard. As writers, we’re often so tangled up in our words and ideas we can’t always see where it’s falling apart and where it’s working brilliantly. The number of elements involved can also feel overwhelming—and honestly, our time is limited. Despite this, I encourage you to revise as thoroughly as you can. While challenges of time and perspective will keep us from editing ourselves perfectly, we can still elevate our writing, and it doesn’t have to be incredibly complicated.

In my years as a writer, editor, and reader, I’ve discovered there’s one element that, when missing, trips me up more than almost anything else, and when present, holds everything together. Bringing your attention to this element, whether as one part of a more involved revision or even as the primary consideration in a focused pass-through, will make a meaningful difference in your writing.

So, what is it? Flow. Namely, the flow of ideas and the flow of language.

First, the flow of ideas. Do they move from one to the next in a clear, connected way, with each growing out of what came before it? As you read, try to identify any gaps that might leave a reader confused. Additionally, do all the concepts taken together form a cohesive arc that continually carries the reader forward? Or are concepts discussed and revisited in a loosely organized way, more like a series of unintentionally scattered waves? The tighter of an arc you construct, the easier it will be for the reader to follow along and the more of your message they will likely absorb. As you consider the overarching flow of ideas, especially in longer works, it can sometimes be helpful to note the subject of paragraphs in the margin as you read; you can then go back through and see the distinct path you’re laying out.

Next, the flow of language. This ties in to the flow of ideas, of course, as language is the vehicle that carries those thoughts. Yet flow on this level also zooms in to look at how sentences connect within discussion of the same idea. To revise for flow here, approach each new sentence as you would the introduction of a new idea, asking, does this grow out of what came before it in a clear, connected way? Also consider whether transitional/connective words are helping the reader understand how each sentence relates to those around it. For example, does “but” pivot away from the previous idea in some way? Does “moreover” extend it? Read closely to ensure the language around these words reflects the connection they imply, and when the relationship feels off, you might need a new transitional word that offers more accurate guidance. Or it might be a sign you need to clarify an idea or two.

E.B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting.” And if you look at your work through this lens of flow, you’ll have done some of the most valuable rewriting you can. When it’s time to bring in a professional set of eyes (remember you’ll typically need to get this scheduled months in advance), your writing will then be in an excellent place for an editor to help you fully realize your vision. And all the work will have been beyond worth it.

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