Rewrite or self-edit? How to decide without bias

Image: With Associates

It’s time to revise a previous draft — of a blog post, a report, a book chapter, or any factual content. You’re dealing with feedback from others, or maybe just your own better insights into what you wanted to say.

Should you tinker with words — self-editing — or rewrite from scratch?

How cognitive biases distort the psychology of editing and rewriting

Writers always seem to prefer self-editing to rewriting. That’s because of a simple cognitive bias known as the Ikea effect:

People misjudge things they created themselves, ascribing disproportionate value to them.

So if you assemble it, you’re likely to believe it must be worth keeping. In the case of writing, the sweat and pain it took to put those words on paper make you feel as if there must be value in them, and that sweeping them away is a sin.

A second bias is also at work here: Loss aversion:

We feel that protecting ourselves from losses is more important than taking risks to make gains. We’d rather keep what we created than lose it and try to improve.

Rewriting feels like losing something, and everybody hates to lose things.

Of course, there is also an opposite principle at work here, one I’ve seen countless times among writers. It’s called negativity bias:

Adverse events — like criticism — have a more significant impact on or our psychological state than positive events.

Negativity bias drives people to read a few criticisms and rush to the conclusion that what they created is worthless.

All of these biases distort the truth. You need to treat your words as separate from yourself and rewrite or edit based on the text and the changes needed — not on how you feel about red ink. Your feelings are irrelevant.

The more you write and get criticism, the more you’ll get used to treating what you create dispassionately, and focusing on improving it, not on your ego. Words are words, they are not you. They don’t love you, so you don’t need to love them. You can always make them better.

Having cleared that out of the way, what is a sober way to decide whether to rewrite or self-edit? Here are some principles you can use.

When to self-edit

Your decision to rewrite or self-edit doesn’t depend on the number or amount of criticisms and changes you need to make. It depends on the type of changes you need to make.

It always seems easier to just work your way through the document, top to bottom, and fix things as you go. Nearly everyone prefers that to starting from a blank page and rewriting.

Ask yourself what you need to fix. Here are some fixes that you can make with self-editing:

  • Grammatical errors.
  • Language issues, such as passive voice, jargon, and weasel-words.
  • Inconsistencies, such as using two different terms for the same thing, or listing steps in a different order in different places.
  • Deletion of extraneous content that’s all together in one place, not distributed throughout the text.
  • Adding a sentence or paragraph to explain something better.
  • Simple structural issues, such as reordering sections.

If these are the only problems you need to fix, then work your way through the document and fix them.

Sometimes the necessary editing is extensive. I’ve edited text where it seemed like every sentence was in the passive voice and jargon was scattered throughout. But amazingly, while fixing all those sentences was work, they were the right ideas in the right order, so changing them all to active voice and replacing the jargon made the text far better, without the need to rewrite significantly.

If you start these edits and it’s going well, you can dispel the “this is crap” negativity bias and retain the useful work that you did on the document, eliminating the problems and allowing the meaning to shine through.

When to rewrite

As you consider rewriting from a blank page, keep in mind a psychological principle I’ve learned over time:

Rewriting is far easier than writing, because you’ve already rehearsed putting the concepts down in words.

Try to put aside your aversion to rewriting; you’ll find the trepidation you feel is far greater than the actual effort required.

When should you rewrite? When you need to fix these problems.

  • A new insight causes you to rethink the way you are describing your main idea (or some subsidiary idea.)
  • You decide to rearrange the order in which you present things, and the new order requires rethinking lots of parts of the text. That is, there is a structural issue, but it’s not a simple structural issue.
  • You keep coming back to and repeating versions of the same content. You’ve explained the same concept different ways, but it’s still not clear.
  • You are dealing with contradictory criticisms (for example, “Explain this more detail.” and “Cut this section.”) and you need to come up with a more powerful, higher-level idea to resolve the conflict.
  • Any other situation that causes you to significantly rethink what the text is saying, or how you explain things.

How should you rewrite? Do the following:

  • Open a new document.
  • Referring back to what you wrote before, write down a fat outline of what concepts you will explain, in what order.
  • In the fat outline, make note of changes you want to make this time, for example, new terminology, or what now comes first.
  • For repetitive content, indicate the one place in the outline where the primary explanation of the content belongs.
  • After you’ve written the outline, in the same document, start writing text at the top. You can copy and paste bits from the previous draft that you feel were worth keeping, but focus expanding the outline and writing anew, not cobbling bits together that you already wrote.

Combining self-editing and rewriting

Often you only need to rewrite part of a document. In that case, follow the path I’ve laid out for self-editing until you get to the problematic portion. The follow the instructions for rewriting as it applies to that portion. Finally, continue with self-editing the rest of the way.

I recently had to apply this technique. There were two conflicting sets of “main ideas” in different parts of a document, and it wasn’t clear how they related to each other. I determined which set was most relevant, and then rewrote the section that included that explanation to include some of the orphaned ideas from the other set. The resulting rewrite cut about 500 words from the document and was much easier to follow, but at the same time, made the list of main ideas richer and more persuasive.

The rest of the document didn’t have major issues. Once I’d revised the main ideas section, I made small edits throughout to fix the rest of the document.

Writing is problem-solving. So leave your biases behind.

If you can manage to untangle your writing problems from your ego, you’ll find it far easier create great prose through both self-editing and rewriting.

Remember, rewriting is easier than you think, since you’ve already wrestled with the concepts once. And most of your prose is probably in better shape than you think, so don’t throw it out just because you see a lot of critical comments. If they’ve taken the time to critique it, that means they saw value in it.

Rewriting and self-editing are both useful tools. If you learn to use both of them well, your drafts will make steady improvements. And that’s how good content becomes great content.

One response to “Rewrite or self-edit? How to decide without bias

  1. I swear that you’re surveilling me, Josh.

    I decided a few weeks back to buy back the rights to my book Why New Systems Fail.

    The second edition dropped in 2010 and I thought that I could make a few minor changes and deletions.

    Boy was I wrong.

    I quickly ascertained that I need to start with a fresh document. I’ll absolutely be pulling some case studies from the prior version, but it made sense on a number of levels to start from scratch. You’ve pointed them out clearly here.

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