How to Self-Edit Your Writing – CAKKALS

Edited draft of Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence with edits by Ben Franklin, 1776

As painful as it can be to accept the criticisms and revisions of an editor, most writers would agree that it’s far more difficult to edit your own writing. A fresh set of eyes – especially skillful editor eyes – is dangerous to forego.

But there are times when all of us have to write something that no one else will take a crack at – a letter, a report, an essay, a blog post. Once I’ve finished drafting something that won’t benefit from another’s input, I go through a painstaking self-editing checklist summed up as the acronym, CAKKALS.

Yes, Dear Reader, it’s pronounced just like the hysterical sounds of relief you’ll make when you finish self-editing.

CAKKALS can apply to both non-fiction as well as fiction writing, although fiction requires an additional skill-set that I won’t tackle here. I should also note that these tips don’t have to be followed in exact order, and they are hardly exhaustive or definitive. For more on self-editing go here, here, and here. Following CAKKALS, however, will get you closer to a polished piece than you may achieve otherwise. Let’s unpack it.

Cut – I prefer to begin self-editing by cutting stuff right away, basically, by copy-editing. Other writers disagree with me on this, but I believe that cutting at every stage of editing is a good habit. After all, every first draft is “fat” or at least it should be to include all the points you want to make. Subsequent drafts may still have bloat but will get leaner with each revision. Learn to cut:

  • 99% of your adverbs (I stole this tip from Stephen King though he advised cutting 100%);
  • clichés – they’re boring and wordy;
  • extra adjectives to describe a noun (“big” will do instead of “big and tall”);
  • ancillary or parenthetical comments not critical to your piece;
  • excessive description that slows the action.
Winston Churchill edited draft of The Atlantic Charter
Winston Churchill’s edits made to the final draft of The Atlantic Charter, 1941

Avoid repetition – This is a big one for me because I have a habit of repeating myself. I like to blame it on growing up as the youngest in a large family. No one ever listened to me. Instead of commanding attention by acting out in more creative ways, I just repeated whatever I said though it rarely helped. I was a dim child. Avoid repeating words that you use habitually, also avoid making the same point. There are times, however, when it’s ok to repeat a point, such as: for emphasis – when it’s the main point of your piece, perhaps rephrased at the end; through an example – to illustrate your point in real-life terms; or, via metaphor – if you can pull it off, great, but don’t get too clever and make sure you don’t mix metaphors (see funny examples of mixed metaphors here).

Kill your darlings – We all have moments when we write something profound or pretty that we want to keep in a piece. But it doesn’t really work, or it’s too clever by half, or it’s tangential. Kill it. Kill it with fire. I know this sounds like the first step – cut – but it’s not. Because your darlings are not simple words to you. Your darlings are flourishes of phrasing that sometimes reveal improved writing skills, but that’s not reason enough to keep them. Let them linger for a round or two of self-editing if you must, then delete. I killed two darlings when I edited this piece.

Keep your thoughts in order – Time to pull back a little and look at the big picture. What is the goal of your piece? What is your theme? What are your main arguments? Are your points in the right order? A writer friend once shared the following simple advice: Sometimes just changing the order of paragraphs improves the piece. She’s right.

Active verbs; alternate sentences – Go through your draft and replace “to be” verbs with active verbs, e.g., change “I became worried” to “I worried.” See more examples here. Drop verb modifiers when you can, e.g., change “slows down” to “slows.” Similarly, change helping verbs with gerunds to simple past tense verbs when possible, such as changing “I kept thinking” to “I thought,” and “I continued walking” to “I walked.” Minimize use of gerunds in general. Also, alternate between long and short sentences to keep your writing fresh. Like this. See how I interjected a short sentence to grab your attention? It works. In addition, keep modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) close to the subjects they modify, otherwise you’ll create awkward sentences that confuse. A great example, found here, is changing the sentence “She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates.” to “She served the children sandwiches on paper plates.”

Let it sit – One could argue that this step comes sooner, but then it would mess up my acronym, which is one “darling” I won’t kill (my blog, my broken rules). It doesn’t really matter at what point in the self-editing process you let your piece sit, what matters is that you do it when possible. Distance promotes a fresh perspective that can only benefit your writing. The tone of the piece, or a particular word choice, may not sound right when you re-read it the next day.

Say it out loud – When you think your piece is finished, read it aloud. Make sure every point is clear; listen for rhythm and flow; ensure the writing is active and engaging; do final due diligence like double-checking grammar and word definitions if you aren’t sure (Google makes this very easy). Take another pass at it, still reading out loud but this time focusing on structure and the order of your points. Then say it out loud again to focus on the language… Re-read until you find nothing more to tweak. Finally, spell-check, then read once more. If you haven’t done at least six rounds of editing, you haven’t done enough.

Rigorous self-editing via CAKKALS may cause hysterics, but your writing will improve. Trust.