Writing is a skill, but editing can be your superpower.
The New York Times points out “[if] writers are able to appear smarter or wittier than readers, it’s only because they’ve cheated by taking so much time to think up what they meant to say and refining it over days or weeks or, yes, even years, until they’ve said it as clearly and elegantly as they can.”
You don’t need to send out a hurried first draft. Editing your writing gives you a second chance at making your first impression.
A first draft is exactly that – a first draft.
It will rarely be your best work.
Try these top tips for editing.
Don’t edit as you write; it’s better to pour all your thoughts onto the page and worry about mopping up the mess later. The more ideas you write down, the greater resource you have to pull from when it comes to selecting the best bits.
And then… make sure you only select the best bits.
Don’t include 3 different versions of the same sentence because you couldn’t choose the strongest. Be ruthless with yourself.
Jonathan Wilcock (copywriter and purveyor of rare word combinations) says:
“When stuck writing a headline. Write it out longhand – exactly whatever it is you want to say (a recapitulation of the brief). Now write that same message 50 different ways. Have a break. Sift, tweak, sift, tweak… bingo!”
Give it time
If possible, try not to write and edit on the same day. Writing one day and editing the next means you come back to the text with fresh eyes and you’re more likely to spot errors or things to improve.
I’ve also heard people say ‘write tipsy, and edit sober’ but I’ll leave that up to you.
First come, first swerved
Go back and make sure you haven’t started every sentence or paragraph the same way.
This is a big one to look out for on your CV, for example. I have:
- done this…
- worked here for…
- always enjoyed…
- my achievements include…
- working here for xx years taught me…
- with any free time, I like to…
Mix it up
Change the font, size, and/or the colour of your text when editing it.
If you wrote it on screen – try printing it out.
Making your copy look physically different means you’re less likely to skim-read it and assume it says what you meant it to say.
Even better if you can read it to someone else.
Reading your text out loud prevents you from scanning over it, so you can assess how it really sounds to the reader. Reading it to someone else is ideal, because you’ll find yourself rushing over parts that aren’t that interesting, or are a little clumsy. If in doubt – cut them out.
Mel Barfield suggests using Word’s Read Aloud function, “It reads your copy out in a natural voice, complete with intonation. This helps you identify where your writing is clunky/awkward, where you’ve missed out a word, or repeated the same word too close together. When we read our own work our brains sometimes tell us what we want to hear. The Word robot lady reads the copy with brutal honesty. And I love her for it.”
Keep it simple
People who really know what they’re talking about don’t need to hide behind industry jargon and buzzwords. Imagine you’re talking to a seven-year-old, and be as clear as possible.
Don’t alienate potential customers by using technical terms they won’t be familiar with.
Try asking ‘So what?’
Imagine someone asking ‘so what’? Or ‘why should I be interested in that?’ at the end of each paragraph. It will highlight details that won’t interest, or don’t benefit, your reader. Keep your audience in mind and make sure your text earns their attention.
If you’ve included exclamation points, chances are you can take the majority of them out. You don’t want to sound childish or too excitable.
Check the final, final copy
I recently helped to write a 70-page company magazine. I wrote it, checked it at least twice, and then sent it to design. And yet, once I saw it in the layout I still spotted a couple of typos and a few word repetitions.
These become much more obvious in the finished design – so always make sure to check the final proof, not just your completed word doc.
Last top tip
Put it in reverse.
A proofreader once told me you should do your final check backwards. Read the text from bottom to top, or right to left so you examine each word in isolation, rather than skimming over it, to make sure it’s definitely correct.
And if you don’t edit your work? ProCopywriters shared this blog post from Alison, explaining why error-free work is so important to avoid embarrassment, and worse.
Just a few of the 100s of edits made to this blog post:
- swapped ‘a super power’ for ‘your super power’ (more relevant to the reader)
- changed ‘Spill all your words onto the page’ to ‘Spill it’ (more interesting as a heading)
- reduced “so always make sure to proofread” down to “always proofread” (more concise)
- ‘It will help you see where you’ve included details’ became ‘It will highlight details’ (more direct)
- I wrote the section about removing exclamation marks… and then went back and deleted 3 of them. (!)
First published on no16pr.co.uk