How To Self Edit Like A Boss

At the graduate level, we all think of ourselves as bosses, scholarship wise. We imagine self editing to feel something like this:

happy writer - phase 1
A few hours (and a few cups of coffee) later, we somehow end up here:

Middle stage

This is a dangerous zone, my friends. Here, expectations, stress, and fear of failure commingle to make you compulsively Google a brief history of Bitcoin, the debated effects of lemon water on the body, and the best #summersun tips.

After you’ve taken your dog for a walk and fulfilled the (suddenly urgent!) need to organize the bottom drawer of your desk, you finally hit a wall and end up here:

third one
The great myth of advancing as a writer is that it gets easier with time. It doesn’t. In fact, the stakes just rise as you advance through the graduate level up to the publication level.

So what does change, as we advance as writers?

Our perspective.

As you grow as a writer, your embrace of self editing has to grow with you. Think of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent album: everything is love. You have to love what you put on the page just as much as you love the idea of helping your readers understand your point. In order to help your readers understand your point, some things will (naturally) need to be moved around or deleted for meaning. But ultimately, that helps you reach your goal: being understood.

It’s about shifting your incentives. To self edit with ease – like a boss, that is – try what I call ‘editing by design’. While the following three tips might at first appear basic for graduate-level work, they help shift our focus from #feels to mechanics (where it should remain).

1) Color

I came up a color coding system over the seven years I spent running my own writing business, Girasol Consulting, where I wrote grant proposals, newsletters, and annual reports for social impact clients. Across organizational types, I found that clients weren’t so much stuck on distinct turns of phrase as they were keenly focused on what goes where. They wanted a clear ideas map of what was being conveyed.

From there, my driving question as a self editor evolved from ‘is this interesting’ to ‘do the ideas make sense in the order in which they’re presented?’

To help me see what is happening where on the page, I highlight ‘like text’ – text that shares either a similar theme, topic, or quality – by color. For example, content around a certain theme can be highlighted in green, content around another idea can be highlighted in purple and other content can be highlighted in blue.

It can be helpful to highlight weak text that needs to be altered in a bright color such as red or orange in order to draw our attention as we scroll across the page.

Color can also help with reverse outlining. As an exercise, highlight the topic sentence of every single paragraph and copy and paste that content onto a new document, and see how the ideas flow. For an example, below is  a short excerpt from an essay draft by the Writing Center’s Doctoral Writing Coach, Tori Dalzell:

Throughout his book, Fiol upsets binaries within South Asia studies. In Chapter 6, he shows how the boundaries between high religion and folk religion are blurred within jagar rituals. As possession rituals particular to the Uttarakhand region, jagar has absorbed concepts of both pan-regionalism and the folk. Through the career of ritual specialist and folk musician Pritam Bhartwan, Foil puts jagar at the center of the folk paradox: as a mark of regional spirituality, it is something people are proud of, yet aspects of the ritual practice make it something many are still embarrassed about. Focusing on Bhartwan’s experiences allows Fiol to demonstrate the status negotiations that take place within and around jagar rituals, not just on an individual basis but also as a region.

The greatest strength of Fiol’s work is the stories of individual musicians that illustrate folkloricization’s consequences and benefits. This aspect gives the book wide teaching applicability. Individual narratives and detailed descriptions of folk music components and recording processes are not overwhelmed by the theoretical framing, which makes the work accessible to undergraduate students. Consequently, this work would meet the objectives of many upper-division music courses on South Asian or Himalayan music to introduce students to the sounds and cultural placement of so-called folk and popular music traditions. This same theoretical scope makes it a good fit for graduate seminars. Fiol’s introduction and conclusion lay out the work’s contributions for readers, and it can be read in conjunction with theoretical works on folklore. Its setting in Uttarakhand makes it a good fit for courses framed as South Asia or Himalayan studies: his work is clearly rooted in Himalayan studies but is not Nepal-centric, while it demonstrates the continued interactions of national and regional imaginaries through folk music in South Asia studies. The relatively short length of the book—the main text is less than 200 pages—will make it attractive to instructors.

In conclusion, Fiol’s deconstruction of the folk concept in Uttarakhand, India allows him to forefront people’s agency and the uneven consequences of folkloricization. His work examines important themes for religious studies, South Asia and Himalaya area studies, and folk studies, and its grounding in ethnomusicology prevents it from being fragmentary. While the interdisciplinary nature of Fiol’s work will initially attract a wide audience, its focus on people will keep readers engaged.”

2) Number

Numbering sentences can help us better understand our own content and thus decide how to move forward with it.

Using a print out of your paper, rank every single sentence from 1-10, with one being unusable and ten being excellent. (And be honest!) Write the number either above, below, or on the side of your sentences. To rank them, ask yourself:

-Is this sentence vital? That is, does it add value to the topic sentence and essay, overall?
-Is it phrased well – when you read it out loud, does it have a ‘good ring’ to it?
-Is it grammatically correct?

Spend serious time with sentences that you rank as a 5 or below. If you can’t fix them to rank above a 7, consider eliminating them.

Let your eyes draw you to the different color fonts and also the different number rankings now present within your work. If you find a paragraph with three or more sentences with rankings of 5 or below, spend some serious time with it. Consider why isn’t this paragraph working. Does it need a structural fix, such as a different framing idea or topic sentence? Might sentences need to be allocated to different content areas, or does the paragraph perhaps need to be eliminated altogether?

If the thought of deleting a paragraph is painful, Marie Kondo it: that is, thank it for its service (in this case, helping you arrive at your main idea), and move forward.

3) Sound

Your sentences should sound impactful. Whether you choose to write in active voice or passive voice – depending on your discipline – make sure that verbs are the centerpiece of your phrasing.

Example: “Researchers tested participants’ reactions to serum A.”
“Voices were selected due to their tone and pitch.”

If we were to select two key words in the first sentence, they would be ‘test’ and ‘reactions.’ That’s really the core action of the sentence.

Fact: If the reader can’t find the verb, they can’t find the action (i.e. fully grasp what you’re saying).

Remember, the priority should be to have the reader understand your point. If you achieve that and still have time before the paper’s due, you can then move on to fine-tuning style and phrasing.


In his song Hermana Duda (Sister Doubt), Grammy winning singer/songwriter Jorge Drexler has a great line that reads, “Soy jardinero de mis dilemas” – I am a gardener of my dilemas. I love that line, and I included it here because to self edit is to do precisely that.

Through self editing, we encounter our own worst writing tendencies – the weeds of our writing, so to speak. We have to stare down the growths we don’t like, either due to under or overdevelopment. But that’s the game: gardening is ultimately about design. What are considered weeds in one garden are considered the centerpiece of another. Good gardeners play with color and numbers and spacing to create an aesthetic ethos and impact viewers.

While self editing will always be difficult, technology has made it easier than it ever before. It’s not like in the age of typewriters, when you had to physically retype something. (Shout out to my mom typing up her Mt. SAC composition syllabi in the 80’s!) Now, all you have to do is send love and press delete.

So, go be the gardener. Trim away!