The 15 Best Editing Tips to Craft Clear Content
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It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I never set out to become an editor.
I always loved to write (I recently found an anthology of literature I published at age 10), but I didn’t fully understand the weight of an editor’s role until I had already been editing for a few years.
You see, everyone has their own editing processes and their own tricks, so I never knew whether my way was the “right” way.
In fact, most people use one trick in particular: Let someone else do it.
That’s because it’s easy to have great ideas. It’s not so easy to write them down in a way that others can understand them.
It’s not worth putting your ideas down on a page if you can’t edit your own work or can’t get someone to do it for you. And in today’s content-driven universe, you can’t afford to be both a bad writer and a bad editor.
This is why the role of the great editor is paramount.
Whether you use these tips for yourself or pass them along to your favorite college intern, I encourage you to keep your editing chops in tip-top shape. In today’s world of more, more, more, it’s not always the longest or most timely content that wins—it’s the best.
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1. Put Yourself in Your Audience’s Shoes
First and foremost: Audience, audience, audience.
You may not see this as a traditional editing tip, and I get that. But after you write your first draft (which should always be for yourself, by the way), it’s time to read through the entire thing and pretend you are someone else—namely, someone in your audience.
That “someone” might be a persona: an avatar of a particular segment of your audience with unique interests and problems. Ask yourself, would that person find this piece valuable? Does it answer a question relevant to their interests? Would they click this headline? Is this writing above or below their experience level?
Your answers to these questions will help you tailor future drafts to better serve your audience’s needs.
2. Read Your Writing Out Loud
No, this isn’t about admiring the sound of your own voice or keeping your pet hamster occupied. Reading your work out loud will draw attention to clunky turns of phrase, misused words, and convoluted sentence structures. It’s a great way to revisit your work with fresh eyes (or ears) after hours of writing.
Reading out loud doesn’t just help your syntax, either. 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.
Grab a glass of water, close that office door, and give this tactic a try. As a bonus, you may even want to consider recording yourself reading aloud so you can listen back and see how you really sound.
Don't want to read your own work out loud? Get an app to do it for you. Read&Write is a helpful Chrome extension that can do just that:
3. Kill Your Darlings
Brace yourself: Ten to fifteen percent of what you’ve written likely needs to be cut. If that percentage seems daunting, don’t despair! Taking a hatchet to that first draft will only make your writing leaner, meaner, and more effective.
As you trim, look for repetitive sentences, weak transitions, unnecessary anecdotes, and clichés. Cut or revise anything that hikes up your word count without delivering value in return.
Yes, search engines (and many humans) prefer longer and meatier content. But never prioritize quantity over quality when it comes to your words.
4. Quell Your Writer Ego
Skeptical of these editing suggestions? Struggling to find anything to trim or change? Your writer ego might be the culprit.
Ego should take a backseat when editing. Remember that first tip, where you put yourself in your audience’s shoes? That shift in perspective helps you serve your reader, rather than yourself. Editing is part of that service.
Clinging to your writer ego leads to slimy self-promotion, clouds your ability to see opportunities for improvement, and obstructs your development as a writer. Prioritize what you’re giving your reader, and stronger writing will follow.
5. Make Paragraphs Smaller and Sentences Shorter
We tend to pontificate on the intrinsic value of the language we explore through the written word while sipping our steaming cup of tea and baring our souls to the world around us to the sound of the raven’s caw outside our—
Gah. Gross. I can barely make sense of sentences like the one above, much less learn from them. And I’m not alone—English-speakers find shorter paragraphs and sentences easier to comprehend. The human brain looks for natural breaks in the text and uses those pauses to interpret what it’s just read. Ramble on for too long, and you’re likely to lose your reader.
Most of your sentences should fall comfortably inside the 20- to 25-word range. Publishers disagree on the ideal length of a paragraph for web content—some feel two sentences is long enough, while others insist on a minimum of five sentences. Whatever rule you obey, limit yourself to one idea per paragraph.
You may need several words to elaborate on an important point or frame an idea in colorful language to emphasize its power. Go nuts! Just be sure to break those ideas into concise, comprehensible chunks.
6. Vary Sentence Length and Structure
I may sound like I’m contradicting the point I made above, but hear me out: Your sentences can vary in length while still being succinct.
Cap the majority of your sentences at 20 words, but don’t be afraid to mix it up. Throw in a short, emphatic statement here and there. Step outside that 25-word maximum every so often.
These variations create rhythm, control pace, and help hold your reader’s attention to the very last word.
7. Avoid Adverbs
Take it from Stephen King himself: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
“But,” you say, “I write content for a martech publication, not fiction! I never use adverbs. When would I use a word like ‘angrily,’ ‘playfully,’ or ‘indubitably?’”
Not so fast. Comb your sentences for common adverbs like “very,” “totally,” and “really”—you may find a few have snuck into your writing. And while you might think you need certain adverbs for clarity, look for more specific ways to create emphasis without relying on empty adverbs like “extremely.”
8. Develop an Allergy to Jargon
“Jargon” includes both industry-specific colloquialisms and vocabulary used by experts to talk precisely about high-level concepts, and it’s essential to understand the difference.
To an outsider, any industry-specific terms might sound like gibberish. This kind of jargon can be useful when writing for your peers—provided you match your language to your audience’s experience level.
The other flavor of jargon, however, muddies your writing. 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 I can use here to communicate the same idea?” If the answer is “yes,” you’ve got some jargon-slashing to do.
9. Passive Voice Is Not Needed
What’s passive voice, you ask?
(Hint: I included an example in the title of this section.)
To identify passive voice in your writing, look for any sentence where the subject is acted upon by the verb. For example, in the statement, “This article was written by me,” the subject (“this article”) receives the verb “to write.”
You could rewrite this sentence to be in active voice by swapping “this article” with the noun performing the action. Your new, active voice sentence then reads, “I wrote this article.” You now have a more direct sentence using fewer words! Like magic.
Remember, automated grammar-checking software doesn’t always detect these kinds of errors. You’ll need to scan your writing yourself to find and correct any egregious uses of passive voice.
10. Check Your Gerunds
Make sure you haven’t padded your word count with unnecessary gerund phrases—passive verbs followed by “-ing” words. Gerunds often sneak into your writing like this:
“If you’re wanting to try our service . . .” (Rather than, “If you want to try our service”)
“In this episode, she is asking . . .” (Rather than, “In this episode, she asks”)
If you find a gerund attached to a passive verb, swap out the phrase for a single active verb. Voila! You just created a stronger sentence.
Isn’t editing fun?
11. Take Your Time
Take your time in all stages of writing, not just the editing stage. Take time to formulate an insanely powerful idea. Take time to flesh out an outline that will keep your piece focused. Take time to write when you’re feeling inspired. And of course, take time to work through edits.
Some writers I know spend upwards of six hours writing a 1,500-word blog post. No, they’re not lazy. They’re not newbies. They don’t need an emergency intervention on account of their time management skills. Their writing process takes six hours because it involves thorough research, brainstorming, execution, and editing. They don’t rush any stage of their work, and neither should you.
Need a way to track your time and make the most of it? Try using Toggl:
12. Use a Copyeditor
Don’t be afraid to call a professional!
Copyeditors are trained to spot errors faster and with greater accuracy than the average content writer. Unlike most grammar-checking software, they apply context to your writing and distinguish between grammatical errors and harmless quirks in your writing voice.
If you can’t access a human copywriter, consider a tool like Grammarly. Its grammar robots scan for errors as you type, wherever you type—even inside the bodies of emails.
13. Throw Weak Verbs and Adjectives Out the Window
Now that you’ve weeded out the unnecessary gerunds, jargon, and adverbs, turn your focus to those weak verbs and adjectives weighing down your sentences.
“Weak” verbs, this case, 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” describes a state of being. “Marketers want to know if this is true” preserves the meaning while removing the weak phrase. “Marketers want proof” is even more direct.
Weak adjectives often sneak into your writing as redundancies. Phrases like “exact same” and “current trend” apply weak adjectives to words that don’t need further clarification. If a noun tells the same story without the attached adjective, leave it on the cutting room floor.
Looking for stronger words to mix up your verbiage? Steal some from this list:
14. Nix Non-Essential Words
If all these cuts have you in a sweat, don’t panic—you’re almost there! It’s time to review your writing for remaining non-essential words. These words often lurk in your transitions and use two or three words when one will do. Words like “that,” “in order to” (instead of “to”), and “may possibly” (instead of “may”) clog your sentences without adding meaning. Nix ‘em!
15. Embrace Your Writerly Tics
Yes, you do have to standardize aspects of your writing. Obeying the rules of grammar, structure, and style makes your writing stronger. However, everything else—your voice, your point of view, your process—should come from you.
Maybe you’ve got a cheeky sense of humor.
Perhaps you like to kick off your content with an anecdote or a provocative claim.
Maybe your quirks are more process-oriented—you work from an outline, or you always write your first drafts in a single, frenzied sitting.
Embrace these habits!
They’re what set your content apart.
Personal, memorable writing attracts returning readers and builds your following. If readers enjoy and trust your voice, they’ll choose your content over an anonymous contributor the next time they need an expert opinion.
Meeting your word count is only half the battle. Once you’ve got your words on the page, it’s your job to make each of those words count. Your readers don’t have time for fluff—serve them content that is worth their time, even if it means a brutal and bloody editing process before you hit “Publish.” Take it from a managing editor: These tips will make it all worth it.
January 19, 2018