A Simple 5-Step System for Editing Your Own Writing

In order to revise your writing effectively, you need to look at your work objectively. You don’t want to just glance at what you’ve written, quickly decide it is perfect, and then move on … missing an opportunity to become a stronger writer.

But how do you accurately critique your own creation?

In this 14-minute episode, I discuss:

  • How to manufacture objectivity when examining your own writing
  • Why you need to focus on the weakest sections of your text first
  • The Traffic Light Revision Technique: A 5-Step System

The Show Notes

A Simple 5-Step System for Editing Your Own Writing

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Stefanie Flaxman: Hello there, Editors-in-Chief. I am Stefanie Flaxman, and you are listening to Editor-in-Chief, the weekly audio broadcast that delivers the art of writing, updated for marketing in the digital age, to help you become the Editor-in-Chief of your own digital business.

Today’s episode is called A 5-Step System for Editing Your Own Writing. The macro theme of today’s episode is awareness, and the micro theme is revision. The two themes go together because, in order to revise your own writing properly, you have to have a critical awareness of your work. Otherwise, you just glance at what you’ve written and quickly decide, “It’s perfect!” — and then move on.

That’s not really being very critical. That’s not the case if you really want to focus on your writing in a way that you improve it so that you’re really intently focused on communicating your message very clearly to your audience.

When you want to edit your own writing, you need to manufacture awareness. I have a technique that I use that I call the ‘Traffic Light Revision Technique.’ I’m going to show you how you can use it with your own writing. Here is a little story to help introduce the technique.

Why It’s Hard to be Objective

I am a Los Angeles native, so I know a thing or two about sitting in traffic. I’m talking about physically sitting in your car while stopped in traffic on the way to your destination, not the traffic that you talk about when you’re talking about people visiting your website, website traffic. The two different types of traffic may not be as unrelated as you think.

They both have something to do with a lack of objectivity, so here’s where I’m going with this. One of my favorite observations about traffic jams is that sometimes you’re the one accidentally blocking an intersection with your car — it happens — and you make it difficult for other drivers to move forward on the road. Sometimes you’re the one honking at the person blocking the intersection, the person who’s in your way.

If you drive on a regular basis on crowded streets, you fluidly move between these two roles. It’s easy to recognize another driver’s mistakes and criticize her shortcomings or behavior that has frustrated you. It’s difficult to objectively observe and accurately assess your own actions and your own possible missteps there. When you block an intersection, you don’t necessarily regard yourself in the same disapproving way you regard another driver when he blocks your path.

This same lack of objectivity is present when you write, when you’re creating that content on your own digital media platform that you use to attract traffic to your business. As you develop your content-based business on your own digital platform, you need to evaluate your writing with the discerning taste of an onlooker. The problem is you can’t magically become another person with an objective outlook.

But there are ways I found that help you look at your writing like an outsider who can see your writing differently than you do. A person not involved with the writing can identify a problem more clearly and more effortlessly. That’s what you’re going for. You’re completely wanting to assume this mindset that is different from your own outlook.

Before I get into the five steps that I’m going to discuss, I want to let you know that Editor-in-Chief is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for building your marketing and sales platform. Find out more about Rainmaker so you can use it to become the Editor-in-Chief of your own digital business. Go to Rainmaker.FM/Platform to take a free 14-day test drive.

The Traffic Light Revision Technique: A 5-Step System

We are getting back into the five steps. I call this the ‘Traffic Light Revision Technique.’ It’s a new way of you to look at each sentence you write. You can use the Traffic Light Revision Technique when you’ve finished a draft of your writing. If it’s still a rough draft, you can use this method to expand, copy it, and finalize the text. If it’s the final draft — final, final, final — you can use this method to proofread as well.

It depends on where you are in your content creation process, but I’ve used this when I really feel like I’m still editing. Then I’ll use it again when I think it only needs a proofread. Again, I developed this out of the idea of looking at your own writing. It’s different when you’re editing a piece of writing that you haven’t written. It’s a whole different experience. It’s really strange, but you just have so much more objectivity when you haven’t been closely connected to the crafting process of putting each word next to each to other.

The Traffic Light Revision Technique I abbreviate TLRT. I’m going to use that when I get into exactly how you can use it. So TLRT, if I say that, I’m abbreviating Traffic Light Revision Technique.

You want to put your writing in a word processor that allows you to highlight the text with different colors, like a Microsoft Word document or a Google Doc — any word processor where you have the option of highlighting. Then there’s a whole array of different colors that you can choose from for that highlighting. You want to make sure you can highlight in different colors. Follow these five steps after you’ve saved your current file.

Step 1: Prepare Your Documents

Here is step number one: make a copy of the document.

Include TLRT1 in the file name when you save this copy. Now you have the original document and a version you will use to markup, but not edit just yet.

Step 2: Break Out the Highlighters

Step two: as you examine each sentence, highlight it with green, yellow, or red.

Use green if you think the sentence is the best it can be. Use yellow if you think minor modifications will make the sentence stronger. Use red if you think it should be completely revised or removed. Don’t change the text yet. You just want to go through what you’ve already written, your draft, and examine each sentence. Your only job at this point is to look at that sentence and say, “Does this deserve green, yellow, or red?”

Step 3: Make a Copy for Revising

Step number three is you make another copy of the document.

Include TLRT2 in the file name when you save this copy. The TLRT2 version will be the file you edit. Before you edit the document and change the colors, you want to save the original marked-up TLRT version for future reference.

You can learn from the TLRT1 document that has the green, yellow, and red text. It will help you recognize your strengths and your weaknesses when you want to go back and look at what you did first. It’s really like you can see the evolution of your writing when you have this final product, and this is in the middle stage, the TLRT1. You want to save that before you move on to the TLRT2 version, which will be the one that you actually go and start making changes to.

Step 4: Focus on the Weakest Sections of Your Text First (and Why It Matters)

Step four is editing the yellow and red areas you’ve highlighted.

You may also need to edit some of the green text to accommodate the changes you made in the red and yellow sections. The idea is that you don’t want to waste time repeatedly reviewing the green text you already regard as solid content. As you revise the weaker sections, you then, ultimately, change the yellow and red portions to green.

The green sections are there so you’re not just going, “Oh wow, this is great. I wrote this. It’s great. It sounds great.” It really helps you stop procrastinating and focus on those sections that need a lot of help, the ones that you’ve determined are either yellow or red.

I like to start with the red sections because usually those, for me, are the most fuzzy. Sometimes they’ll just be thoughts thrown together in my drafts, not even complete sentences. I’m like, “Okay, I really have to work out these areas first.” Sometimes even just to complete a draft. So I like to start with the red areas. Then once I’ve smoothed those out, I’ll go into the yellow where I feel, sometimes there’s a word that I could change that really helps make the sentence more clear.

It’s basically structurally sound, but it could use some improvement. That’s how I determine between yellow and red sections. Like I said, sometimes you’re cutting into the green sections to edit, to make everything flow together smoothly. You just don’t want to be repeatedly reading the green sections and praising yourself when those are probably okay. You don’t need it for this technique. You’re not going to get as much out of it. That’s not the point of highlighting the green there. The yellow and the red is where you need to focus your attention.

Step 5: Proofread and Manufacture Objectivity to Examine Your Own Writing

Step number five is proofread each sentence from the beginning.

Once all of your text is green, you should be able to read it from the beginning without making any edits. If you still need to change parts of the text, if you’re reading and you find that you still need to make changes, consider highlighting those sections in yellow or red.

If you’ve already gone through your writing a lot and you’re still making a lot of changes, the best thing to do is take a break. Correct those areas at a later time, until you really can confidently turn all the text into a green highlighted section because you feel very good about it.

When you have trouble identifying whether a sentence should be green, yellow, or red, ask yourself, “Do these words clearly communicate my true intent?” If your sentence is vague or it assumes something that your reader knows when she may not know that, you will likely benefit from a revision there.

Often times, we’ll write things out pretty quickly and then gloss over it when we’re editing it because we understand what it means — when it’s really only clear in our own heads. If you’re not sure, think, “Is this just something I say? Is it just something that’s part of my speech habit that I totally know what I mean, but in writing, it just may not be very clear?” You may need to add some more words or expand on the idea, so the reader really understands what you are saying there.

That is the technique. It is only five steps. I have used it a lot with my own writing, so it may be something that you want to try. I know it can be very difficult when you’re constantly producing a lot of content to be able to examine it with that critical eye and really be aware of what you do that could use improvement so that you connect with your audience better. So here is something for you to try next time you write.

Let me know in the comments section over on EditorinChief.FM how that goes. If that’s something that you think you’ll be able to use, if it does help, if it doesn’t help — let me know over there. And, of course, you can go over to iTunes and give Editor-in-Chief a rating or a review. I would appreciate that.

Thank you so much for joining me today. I am Stefanie Flaxman. You have been listening to Editor-in-Chief. Now, go become one.