Be a better writer by being a better editor

Editing equals better posts (Image: mycontentpro.com) Editing equals better posts (Image: mycontentpro.com)
Image: mycontentpro.com
Image: mycontentpro.com

A slight departure for me, as I know many of my readers are fellow bloggers as well as being friends or fellow parents …

There’s no substitute for great ideas, but while there are many resources out there that tell you how to be a better writer, there are hardly any which promote the value of being a better editor. And yet a half-decent edit can be all that stands between a good post and a great one.

When you’ve just written a new blog post, the natural temptation is to hit ‘publish’ as quickly as possible. Why waste time editing?

Well, was the Declaration of Independence created in one go? Did War and Peace flow fully formed from Tolstoy’s pen? Of course not. Even milllion-selling authors constantly rewrite their drafts. If they can do it, so should you.

I run two blogs of my own and am the editor-in-chief of another with six contributors. In total, I write/edit around 900 posts – or about one million words – a year, so I’ve had a fair amount of experience knocking both my own writing and other people’s into shape.

Here are ten practical editing tips I’ve learned that have made me a better editor – and consequently a better writer.

1. Leave your ego at the door

Attitude is everything. If all you’re doing is patting yourself on the back, don’t bother.

The point of editing is to make the reader’s experience better, not to make you feel great about how brilliant a writer you are. (Which, of course, you are!)

2. Don’t do it all at once

An editor has to look out for many things: typos, factual errors, formatting, repeated/missing words, sense and flow. It’s hard to do all of that at once – it’s like trying to thread a needle while running on a treadmill.

To get around this, I edit everything twice (at least). The first read-through is a ‘beauty pass’: a skim for sense, layout and overall flow. Often large swathes of text will be rewritten, moved around or deleted altogether. The second pass is more detailed and methodical: typos, punctuation, fact-checking, name spellings and so on.

It may sound like a drag, but if you’ve spent an hour writing a post, isn’t it worth a little more time to ensure it’s as good as possible?

3. Set a target

800 honed words are always better than a flabby 1,000-word ramble. Like pruning a hedge, it pays to cut back ruthlessly.

Challenge every word. When I edit, my objective is to reduce the word count by 10-15%. I ask myself two questions:

  • What are the key messages/themes? For most posts, there should only be one or two. If it’s more than that, you should consider splitting it into multiple posts.
  • Does what is written directly support those messages/themes? If not, lose it.

Apply the latter ruthlessly, and you’ll be surprised how many words become superfluous.

4. Think about your title

Different people advocate different approaches to post titles. Think about optimising for search engines. Use witty wordplay. Be simple but descriptive.

In truth, it’s up to you. But bear in mind that, for a new or occasional reader, your headline is your first selling tool. Have a title that is relevant, enticing and not too long. The actual style is up to you.

5. Make a good first impression

Like any piece of writing, the best blog posts have a clear beginning, middle and end. The most important of these is your beginning. Why? If your first paragraph doesn’t draw the reader in, they won’t go any further.

Read the lead paragraph of any newspaper or magazine article. It rarely dives straight into the guts of the story. Its objective is to hook you in, to make you want to read more.

I think of my lead as being ‘paragraph zero’. It’s not the first paragraph of the post at all – it’s the executive summary. Make it short but powerful. It’s worth investing a disproportionate amount of time to get it right.

6. Be punchy

It’s hard on the eyes to read lots of densely packed text on a screen. Long sentences and paragraphs are your enemy. White space is your friend.

Don’t be afraid to use sub-headings for navigation. Split up long paragraphs. Break up long sentences. If your posts contain lots of commas, semicolons, dashes, parentheses and conjunctions (e.g. and, but), replace them with full stops. Give your readers a chance to breathe.

7. Avoid over-use of flowery language and acronyms

It’s great to use a variety of different words in your writing to add colour and reduce repetition. They help set your writing apart from others.

However, don’t use lots of long and obscure words for the sake of it. If your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying, why should they want to read on? Readers come to your blog for what you have to say, not for an English lesson. Edit with plain English in mind.

For the same reason, replace any trendy acronyms or text-speak. You’re writing a blog, not a text message or a tweet.

8. Recognise common mistakes

90% of typos and grammatical errors fall into a handful of categories. Some of the more common ones are:

  • Incorrect use of apostrophes. Honestly, its’ its it’s not that hard.
  • Duplication. So, for instance: ‘he repeatedly crashed his car over and over again’. Unless you’re talking about New York, New York, there’s no need to say something twice. (Is there an echo in here?)
  • Unnecessary adverbs. For instance, something cannot be very unique – it’s either unique or it isn’t, there are no shades of uniqueness. Equally, why say ‘she ran quickly’ or ‘he sat lazily’ when you could say ‘she sprinted’ or ‘he slouched’? Adverbs have a place in writing – but like anything else should be used in moderation, or else they just slow the reader down.

9. Being the grammar police is okay, being a grammar pedant is not

Good grammar is like good manners: a little goes a long way. However, there comes a point where a lot of additional effort makes little real difference.

People will forgive the occasional slip-up – it’s a blog, not a legal contract. It’s when a post is peppered with errors every other sentence that it starts to grate.

10. Most importantly, there is no definitive ‘right way’

The above set of rules is one I have developed over time. It works for me. Other editors have different methods.

What matters most is that you find a process that works for you. The simple act of reviewing your work with an open mind will automatically improve your writing. The aim is not to achieve perfection, but to help make your work better.

Like good writing, good editing is an art form, not a science.

What about you? What are your top tips for turning a rough draft into a polished final article?

(Editor’s note: Just to demonstrate the value of a good edit, I’ve spent 15 minutes doing two passes of the text. I corrected five typos and cut the word count from 1,350 to under 1,200. See, it can be done!)