How to edit your writing like a pro

Learn 3 steps to effective self-editing of your novel or web copy

by Greg Perkins

Editing is important. Scour the archives of written English and you’ll find plenty of texts that would benefit from a revision or 666.

Exhibit 1: the Wicked Bible of 1631, which — thanks to a teensy tiny typographical error — told devout Christians:

“Thou shalt commit adultery”

As slip-ups go, that’s pretty huge. And from advocating cardinal sins to inadvertently insulting your readers, sloppy editing can be pretty costly.

Although some Editors just want to watch the world burn. // Source: Reddit

You’re smart (or you at least read the headline), so you know where this is heading: tips for editing your own work, whether it’s web copy or your latest attempt at National Novel Writing Month.

As a first-time #NaNoWriMo trier (and winner!) who has been writing and editing professionally since 2012, I thought I’d share some tips on how to edit your own work accurately and swiftly.

You’re basically looking at three key approaches to tackling the task:

1. Prepare yourself
2. “Know thyself”
3. Check your work in sweeps
…And We Didn’t Want To Pay It” // Source: The Huffington Post

Prepare yourself for the editing process

Fact: proofing and editing are different to writing. You need a lot of concentration but critical thinking…not so much. Focus is crucial, so:

Don’t edit on an empty stomach. Nobody excels at article checks while they’re fantasising about pizza. If you’re editing a large piece, try using the Pomodoro technique. Set achievable 25-minute goals, like “edit 500 words” or “do a typography article sweeps” — more on those shortly — and then use your 5-minute breaks for cups of tea or bathroom trips.

Avoid editing with a full bladder. Sorry for being explicit, but ‘nuff said (I hope).

Choose some music (but not music with lyrics). Most writers I know find singing hugely distracting, but instrumental music lets you block out ambient noise. If you never had a progressive house or drum ’n’ bass phase, like I did, try soundtrack music or Spotify’s Music for Concentration.

Edit with fresh eyes. Wait until the next day to self-proof your work. A night’s sleep can often give you a whole new perspective on something you wrote. If you’re on a tight schedule, your last resort is quickly reading something else entirely. This could be a few pages of your latest book or a couple of articles on Medium. Your brain will appreciate fresh reading material.

Pro editing tip: if you’re short on time, an editing tool like Slick Write can flag issues for you. This app catches problems including preposition-heavy writing and phrasal repetition — particularly useful for catching granular tendencies in your own writing. Which brings us to…

Know thyself

Personally, I’m not sold on their whole “slavery is fine” ethos, but the ancient Greeks knew their stuff in other ways. And “know thyself” has a certain timeless appeal. Know the mistakes you make, and own them.

My editing mentor clued me up to this early in my career:

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been copywriting for three weeks or three decades, you will resort to crutch words and phrases.”

Add our natural human flair for making the same type of mistakes repeatedly — see ‘history’ for details — and we have a collective issue.

But knowing your limits isn’t a weakness if you make it a strength.

Take notes on any errors or issues flagged by your proofreaders or editing apps. Seek out feedback. Research your grammar and syntax blind-spots. And go after them hard.

Plan ahead and you can proactively tackle your issues.

Pro prep tip: a well-timed CTRL+F check of your crutch words and phrases will make your writing fresher and less repetitive.

Novice error #3 is relying on Microsoft Word or Chrome to check your work.

Check your work in sweeps

In any walk of life, there’s an easy way to do a bad job: just try and do everything at once.

But it’s not hard to avoid. Get systematic and edit in sweeps. I’d suggest these seven stages:

1. Sweep for glaring errors
2. Sweep for formatting and typography
3. Check structure and flow
4. Sweep for headings and section titles
5. Review grammar, usage and punctuation
6. Sweep for fact checks and formatting
7. Sweep for deal-breakers

1. Sweep for glaring errors

Use spelling and grammar checkers — but only to catch clear mistakes. Novice error #3 is relying on Microsoft Word or Chrome to check your work. (Novice error #1 is making assumptions, but more on that later.)

Why am I dissing spell checkers?

Firstly, these tools often only flag unfamiliar words. For example, a lot of my work involves checking travel copy, and Word will flag “Quarteira” as readily as it will flag “Qkmijiybbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb” if you happen to fall asleep on your keyboard.

Secondly, spelling checkers may only catch typos and certain misspellings, not homophone and usage errors— and there (/their/they’re) is potential to make an elementary blunder as a result.

Pro editing tip: check every item that’s flagged by spelling and grammar checkers, including unfamiliar proper nouns like “Pollensa”. Once you’ve confirmed the correct spelling and formatting (as in, capitalisation — side-eyeing you, iPhones and smart cars), either right-click and “Add to Dictionary” or “Ignore All”. This lets your spelling checker catch any genuine mistakes. You might be surprised how often you mistype names and locations while you’re speeding towards a deadline or word count target.

Awkward. // Source: Reddit

2. Sweep for formatting and typography

Now, scan back up the document, looking for effed-up fonts and weird instances of white space. This is the point where you want to catch any sprawling paragraphs or odd line breaks.

Try to ignore the actual words entirely — focus on how the document appears on the page.

Pro editing tip: a timely CTRL+F search for double spaces (<space><space>) will catch arguably the most frequent hidden typographical slip.

Kill irrelevant sentences with fire.

3. Check structure and flow

Now back to the words — make sure both the essence and logic of the text make sense. Use the inverted pyramid principle for web copy. Does the piece make its point straight away? And do the rest of the sentences (and paragraphs) either support, modify or counter that point?

Pro editing tip: consider deploying “the finger test”. Scroll through the text (or leaf through the print-out, you retro hipster, you), and drop the mouse cursor or your finger on any one sentence. If it doesn’t back up the central premise, expand on it, or provide a counterargument, ask yourself “what is this sentence doing here?” Kill irrelevant sentences with fire.

4. Sweep for headings and section titles

It’s time to scan back up the document again, focusing on all headings, section titles or chapter names. Novice error #8 is “letting your attention be dominated exclusively by the body copy”. The last thing you need is a GLARING MISTAYK IN A HUGE SHOUTY FONT.

WRITE CAPTION HERE. // Source: Know Your Meme

Pro editing tip: check your headings are deployed in the correct case. Novice error #6 is “using inconsistent case protocols in headings” . So, learn your title case from your sentence case, and your APA style from your Chicago style. It’s a small but strong indicator of professionalism and attention to detail. And you can get help using this tool.

5. Review grammar, usage and punctuation

Here we are: what most people think of as “proofreading their work”. And you’re only five steps into the process!

The grammar and punctuation sweep is important. Everyone has their own way of checking written work, but they should incorporate at least one of the following techniques:

  • Read slowly with a mental “voice” — sound the words in your mind to catch awkward repetition, clumsy alliteration or outright gibberish.
  • Read the words aloud (quietly, unless you’re alone) — catches the same issues.
  • Read each word individually, using your finger or mouse cursor to follow the text — you’ll be less likely to skip past small words or usage errors.
  • If possible, read backwards to check spelling you won’t accidentally intuit the next word using page context.
Sorry about the Comic Sans, but we’ve got previous for it.

Pro editing tip: really look at the little words, like “a/an/and” “to”, “of/off/or”, “if/it/in”, “the/he/she” and “up”. They’re all easy to skip over and all prone to the odd mistake.

6. Sweep for fact checks and formatting

Don’t be like Don the Con — check your facts to two decimal places. Use official sources wherever possible. If you’re writing about Apple tablets, check how “iPad” is formatted using Apple’s website. If you’re writing about small hybrid city cars, confirm how “smart fortwo” is formatted using the manufacturer website.

Double-check statistics and dates, and make sure numerals are deployed properly.

Pro editing tip: be hesitant to use Wikipedia facts — the pages are still open to abuse. If possible, check the page’s citation sources for confirmation. Encyclopædia Britannica can often be a good alternative if you need certainty.

7. Sweep for deal-breakers

This last one is key — once all else is done, go in and make sure you’re not committing any cardinal errors. In professional terms, “deal-breakers” are things that are going to upset major stakeholders (I’m so corporate right now). But the logic applies across all kinds of writing:

  • Website copy —using off-brand words, deploying a typo in a client’s company name, misspelling the CEO’s name, or displaying the wrong opening hours.
  • Fiction — spelling a major character’s name wrong, using the wrong tense or perspective, or attributing dialogue to the wrong character (#NaNoWriMo writers — this one’s for you).
  • Religious texts — accidentally telling 17th-century people to cheat on their husbands and wives.
“Well met, Pastor. My Goodwife really liked thy sermon, last Sabbath…”

Pro editing tip: know your deal-breakers. Review briefs, style guides and publisher feedback, and make a list of major non-nos. That list is the basis of your final sweep.

Finally, check your assumptions

Here’s some life wisdom for you: the biggest mistakes are often made when people leap to conclusions. Check your assumptions, and double-check your edit revisions. Don’t turn a mistake into another mistake.

If you found any of these ideas useful, please give it some 👏 to share the wealth.


Greg writes for us at Caliber, the Smart Organic Marketing agency. We take a methodical, data-driven yet creative approach to all our work.