14 invaluable editing tips

Write with your readers’ needs, problems and preferences in mind. Then, nix nonessential words, aggressively tighten paragraphs, and take your sweet time.

Not many people set out to become editors.

Editing is thankless, tedious work. It’s also the most crucial skill any communicator can cultivate.

Here are 14 ways to craft cleaner copy and tighten your work:

1. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes.

Unless you’re keeping a journal, don’t write for yourself. Tailor your content to your audience’s needs and preferences. Before, during and after you write something, ask: “Would our core readers find this interesting?”

Consider your typical reader’s interests and problems. Does your piece answer a relevant question ? Would they click this headline? Is your writing above or below their experience level? Your answers will help you serve your audience’s needs.

2. Read your writing out loud.

Reading your work aloud draws attention to clunky phrasing, misused words, typos and convoluted sentence structures. It’s a great way to revisit your work with fresh eyes (and ears) after hours of writing.

Reading aloud helps more than your syntax. You’ll more easily detect lapses in your authentic voice—moments when your writing stops sounding like “you.” You might also discover opportunities to finesse the rhythm and pace of your writing.

If you don’t want to read your own work out loud, Read&Write is a helpful Chrome extension.

3. Kill your darlings.

Ten to 15 percent of what you’ve written should be cut. Don’t despair. Taking a hatchet to that first draft will make your writing leaner, cleaner and more effective.

Look for repetitive sentences, weak transitions, unnecessary anecdotes and clichés. Cut or revise anything that raises your word count without delivering value.

There are SEO benefits for longer content, but never prioritize word quantity over quality.

4. Quell your writer ego.

Again, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. That perspective helps you serve your reader, rather than yourself. Thoroughly editing your work—offering the most concise, clear and streamlined version of your content—best serves your audience.

Clinging to your ego obstructs your development as a writer and prevents you from creating excellent work. Prioritize your readers, and stronger writing will result.

5. Make paragraphs smaller and sentences shorter.

English speakers find shorter paragraphs and sentences easier to comprehend. The human brain looks for natural breaks in the text and uses pauses to interpret what it’s just read. Ramble, and you’re likely to lose your reader.

Most sentences should fall inside the 20- to 25-word range. As for paragraphs, there is no “perfect” length. Just limit yourself to one idea per paragraph, and break ideas into concise, comprehensible chunks.

6. Vary sentence length and structure.

Cap most sentences at 25 words, but don’t be afraid to mix it up. Throw in a pithy, emphatic statement here and there. Pepper in a 30-word sentence.

These variations create a pleasing rhythm and hold readers’ attention.

7. Avoid adverbs.

Take it from Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Comb your work to spot tepid adverbs such as “very,” “totally” and “really.” Look for specific ways to create emphasis without relying on empty adverbs such as “extremely” or “positively.”

8. Develop a jargon allergy.

Be careful with industry-specific terms and acronyms. Match your language to your audience’s experience level, and err on the side of clarity.

Don’t mistake a “fancy” word for a precise one. Avoid “utilizing” or “leveraging” something when you could simply “use” it.

As you edit, ask yourself: “Is this language as specific as possible? Is there a simpler word that would communicate the same idea?” If so, use it.

9. Passive voice is not needed. Avoid passive voice.

Identify instances when the verb acts upon the subject. For example, in the statement, “This article was written by me,” the subject (“this article”) receives the verb “to write.”

You could recast it to active voice by swapping “this article” with the noun performing the action. Your new, active-voice sentence then reads, “I wrote this article.” It’s more direct and concise.

Automated grammar-checking software doesn’t always detect these kinds of errors. Scan your sentences to find and correct egregious uses of passive voice.

10. Nix non-essential words.

Words and phrases such as “that,” “in order to” (instead of “to”) and “may possibly” (instead of “may”) clog your sentences without adding meaning. Aggressively excise nonessential words—though not at the expense of clarity.

11. Take your time.

Some writers spend upward of six hours writing a 1,500-word blog post. That’s not due to laziness or poor time management. Their writing process takes six hours because they don’t rush any stage of their work.

Editing is often viewed as an afterthought, but it’s crucial to block off plenty of time for edits. Don’t just fly through your copy and call it a day. Take your time, and methodically streamline and clarify your prose.

12. Use a copy editor.

Don’t be afraid to call a professional.

If you can’t afford a human editor, consider a tool such as Grammarly. Its grammar robots scan for errors as you type, wherever you type—even inside emails.

Grammar checkers are great tools, but trained editors can elevate your work with an irreplaceable human touch of context and creativity. To distinguish your content from the mediocre middle, pony up for professional editing help.

13. Throw out weak verbs and adjectives.

Look for qualifiers that weigh down sentences.

Weak verbs include linking verbs or verbs that describe a state of being. In the sentence, “Marketers seem to want to know if this is true,” the phrase “seem to” conveys uncertainty. “Marketers want to know if this is true” preserves the meaning. “Marketers want proof” is even more direct.

Weak adjectives can sneak in as redundancies, such as “exact same” and “current trend.” If a noun tells the same story without the adjective, leave out the extra word.

Looking for stronger words to spice up your writing? Steal some from this list:

Image via CoSchedule

14. Embrace your writing tics.

Obeying the rules of grammar and style makes your writing stronger, but don’t let rigid structures smother your voice.

Maybe you’ve got a cheeky sense of humor. Perhaps you like to kick off your content with an anecdote or a provocative claim. Embrace your creative tics, and fine-tune your inimitable voice.

Personal, memorable writing attracts returning readers and builds your following. If readers enjoy and trust your voice, they’ll choose your content over an unknown the next time they need an expert opinion.

It’s your job to make every word count. Your readers don’t have time for fluff. Serve them prime content, even if it means brutal editing before you hit “Publish.”

What’s your top content editing tip? Please share it in the comments.

Jess Ostroff Tyson is an author, speaker, writer and musician. A version of this post first ran on the CoSchedule blog.

(Image via)


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