The time to begin an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say. —Mark Twain
Editing is just as important as writing—maybe even more important.
If you can edit your work effectively, your rough draft might look like chicken scratches, but that won’t matter. As long as you have a fairly solid piece of writing that makes an interesting point, you’re in good shape if you have good editing skills.
But if you don’t know how to edit, writing can be more frustrating than necessary, at best. At worst, nobody will read those chicken scratches.
Check out this list of tips you can start using right away. Tuck it away in your writer’s toolbox, and remember to use it, especially if you’re a beginner.
1. Editing refers to structural changes (the big stuff) and rewriting sections of the manuscript, article, or blog post.
Editing also focuses on changes at the chapter, section, and sentence level. Examining and correcting content, organization, style, and logic as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and more are all part of the editing process.
2. Proofreading, on the other hand, is about little stuff that’s hard to see.
Proofing does not include changes beyond spelling errors or typos, minor punctuation errors that don’t require text changes, spacing, format, numbering, or stylistic matters such as italics and underlining.
3. Set aside separate time blocks for the editing and proofreading stages to maintain focus.
You should allow time in between writing and editing. A few hours is good. A few days is even better.
Thorough editing should be done before proofreading (even though they do overlap a little). You shouldn’t do any rewriting or rewording during the proofreading stage. If you do, you’re still editing, and you risk losing your focus and introducing mistakes.
4. Make sure your writing contains the basic elements of a “5-point essay” even if you don’t use an outline to write or hate outlines.
This means an introduction with your main point, 3 supporting points (this can vary widely from one main point with multiple sub-points to 50 or more items in a list), and a conclusion or summary. Almost any type of writing follows this basic structure though it varies.
5. Consider additional elements that might expand the 5-point outline and check that they’re in logical order.
Variations include an opposing opinion and evidence against it, comparisons to other ideas that support yours, and background information to support your opinion or advice. Your main point might even be revealed as a surprise at the end rather than at the beginning.
A novel or short story generally includes similar points: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.
6. Check that the subsections of an outline are clear and orderly.
If you present examples A, B, and C to support Point 1, be sure Point 2 also has several examples. If you’re offering solutions to problem X, don’t go off on a rant about related problem Y if you’re not going to develop it.
And remember, if you introduce a gun at the beginning of your article or story, make sure it goes off—or doesn’t and why. In other words, follow up with any big concept mentioned early on and give it weight that’s approximately equal to similar concepts.
7. Be certain your supporting points clearly reflect and support the main objective.
It’s easy to go off topic even in lists. If your blog post is called 20 ways to keep love alive, don’t include a tip on how to find your true love or how to survive a breakup. Save it for another list.
If your subject is personal and emotional, you might find it very difficult to stay on topic. Consider avoiding the subject until you have some emotional distance.
8. Examine your supporting points to make sure they’re accurate and convincing.
This sounds similar to #7 but it’s a separate step.
Make sure you know your topic inside and out. Do research and check facts. Be aware of cultural myths, stereotypes, and urban legends that are often passed along as “fact.” For example, popular arguments against monogamy claim that wild animals aren’t monogamous when, in fact, some are.
9. Ask who, what, when, where, why, and how and make sure each is answered if applicable.
What questions would a reader need answered in an article about pruning roses? Who might mean the type or age of rose bush. Did you explain when this is best done (time of year)? What branches should the reader trim and why? What tool should he use? Where should he cut them? How should he cut them (at an angle or straight across)? How should he protect himself from the thorny branches?
10. Use transitional devices between sections and ideas.
These are words or groups of words that guide the reader smoothly from one idea to the next. In this case, as in the previous example, however, furthermore, even though, and finally are some examples. And and but are often used as well as on top of that, plus, don’t forget, and on the other hand.
11. Cut the fluff.
Slash prepositional phrases (CEO of the company becomes company CEO) and minimize adverbs, adjectives, and other modifiers. Use strong verbs (sprinted instead of ran fast) and precise nouns (cottage instead of small house) to avoid lengthy descriptions and create sharper, more focused writing.
12. Remove off-topic items.
This includes opinions that don’t add value to the main point, sidetracks, rants, why I haven’t posted on my blog for three months, references to the article or blog post itself (this is short, but…), and unnecessary statements like in my opinion (anything you write is your opinion).
13. Slash everything in each paragraph and sentence that’s not strictly needed.
Less is more, as the saying goes. You’re better off writing a tight, 500-word blog post than rambling on for 1000 words with every thought that comes to mind. Refer to tips #4, #5, and #6 about outlines.
14. Set a word count limit and stick to it.
Then cut it all down by 10-20% or more. Forcing yourself to stay within set boundaries helps to keep your focus. Plus, reducing word count means you’ll work harder to remove verbiage that detracts.
15. Check for parallelism in lists.
Use all nouns (flowers, tables, vases) or all verbs (arrange flowers, position tables, polish vases) to start each item in a list. Other parts of speech are fine too, such as infinitives (to plus verb: to arrange the flowers you should…) but be consistent.
16. Perform the steps in a process to make sure you’ve included them all.
Make sure all questions that apply are answered clearly, at every step. This applies, in particular, to “how to” articles and blog posts. If you don’t make things very clear, and if you’re not thorough, readers will get frustrated.
Ask someone not familiar with the process to perform the steps exactly as described, evaluate the process, and check the result.
17. Check all facts.
Names, places, dates, numbers, mathematical computations, names of companies, titles, authors of books or articles, and all factual information should be checked for accuracy.
Keep in mind that a lot of incorrect or misleading information goes around, especially on the Internet, so be careful with what you think is fact and what you’re presenting as fact. This is why Snopes.com exists, but double check what you read there, as well. Question everything.
18. Check quotations for accuracy and give appropriate attribution with quotes or italics.
Lists of quotations are popular and plentiful, but they’re not always accurate with the quote itself or the author. Don’t assume what you read is always 100% true.
In addition, don’t plagiarize by changing a few words around in someone else’s writing. If it’s not common knowledge found in numerous publications (Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926, for example), provide a name and a source. (Follow guidelines in a style manual; see tip #25.)
19. Don’t trust grammar or spell check in your word processing application.
That includes online grammar checkers, too, unless they’re human. A word processing spell checker can be useful to clean up the worst of typos and mistakes, but it will never catch homonyms (for example, they’re, their, and there) and misspelled words that are, in fact, words: donut truss spiel chick gets through just fine.
20. Take breaks.
Staying alert is important during the editing process. Go for a walk. Stretch. Rotate wrists and shoulders. Briefly do something different (but mindless) if you’re losing focus, you start daydreaming, or you start checking Facebook and Twitter. Get active for a few minutes every 30-40 minutes or so.
21. Edit for one type of issue at a time. For example:
- Check for an outline framework
- Slash irrelevant content or add missing elements
- Review paragraphs and divide by topic, if necessary
- Check for transitions between sections and paragraphs
- Combine similar paragraphs/sentences and delete anything repetitive
- Examine sentences for grammar and punctuation
- Check for rhythm and flow
22. Take notes when you notice issues other than the type you’re working on.
Rather than break your focus on transitions, for example, make a note to return to some other problem you noticed along the way.
Use the “Track Changes” feature in your word processing application for comments. Highlight, bold, or change the color of a word or sentence so you remember to go back to it. Circle or underline if you’re working with a printed page. Then just keep going with what you were originally working on.
23. Check for gender, racial, national, sexual orientation, and other bias.
Bias and stereotypes might also concern age, hair color, weight, income, life situation, and anything that assumes personality characteristics or qualities based on outward appearance and other factors. What you assume or believe is true (even if you just haven’t thought about it) may be offensive to others.
This can be subtle. For example, don’t describe someone or something as “cute” or “adorable” unless you’re talking about a puppy or a baby, a toddler’s scribbles, or baby booties someone knitted. Don’t say someone is “surprisingly smart” or “unusually emotional” if that group is generally looked down upon as less-than-intelligent or unemotional.
24. Check for rhythm.
Read out loud. Does it flow smoothly? If you hesitate and stumble, the section may need reworking. Check subject-verb agreement, try varying sentence lengths, reword awkward phrases or sentences, or eliminate too many “little words” like to, of, it, at, in, on, off, for, and or by condensing a long description.
25. Use a reputable style manual consistently.
A respected, authoritative style guide or manual provides a set of standards for writers and publishers. It’s like a dictionary for grammar, style, and formatting, and it’s all you really need. The Chicago Manual of Style, the New Oxford Style Manual, and the AP Stylebook are all good choices, but it’s best to stick with just one. Online style manual subscriptions are great—your best friend next to Google.
Many experienced writers edit as they go along, but they still go over their writing once again when it’s finished and before a final proofreading. Plus, some editing steps can be eliminated just by developing good writing habits.
If you’re just starting out, though, or if you want to improve your writing, keep the steps separate. It really helps to focus on one thing at a time and do each task well.
And be sure to keep this list handy and use it. Practice and get comfortable with unfamiliar steps. Look things up that you don’t understand. Ask questions, read widely, and notice the strengths and weaknesses of other writers.
Your writing will improve by leaps and bounds, guaranteed.
I’ve intentionally broken one of the rules in this list. Can you find it? Do you agree that it’s inconsequential? Or do you think writers should stick hard and fast to that rule regardless of the reason? Share your thoughts in the comments.