9 Must-Read Tips to Improve Your Editing Skills

What makes someone a great writer?

While it’s true that some are naturally gifted with a command of the English language, you might be surprised to learn that some of the best writers in the business have first drafts just as ugly as your own: Scattered ideas, half-finished thoughts, bad grammar — and yes, even typos. LOTS of typos.

What makes someone a great writer is often their ability to take a mess of words and edit it into something spectacular. Whether you’re a seasoned writer or you’re just venturing out into the world of writing copy that other people will actually read (you hope), everyone could use to improve their self-editing skills.

Here’s just a few ideas that will help you improve:

1. Accept That Editing Takes Time

Time is something few of us feel we have enough of. It can be a bit of a buzzkill to hold off on slamming that “Publish” button, especially when you’re excited about what’s been created. Come to grips with the fact that editing is a necessity that will take time out of your day. If it’s any consolation, editing comes with a few sweet benefits:

  • You’ll become a better writer
  • You won’t look foolish for making an obvious mistake
  • Your audience will appreciate it
  • Your work will be stronger, more credible and more convincing

Hard to argue with that.

2. Do Something Else First

Editing usually gets skipped over because there’s just no time. You need to give yourself the time and space to make editing a part of your writing process and account for the time you need to do it as part of the deadline. After writing a piece, you’re still in the frame of mind that you wrote it in — and your brain is likely fatigued. When you’re tired or too close to your ideas, it can be very difficult to recognize errors.

I’ve found the best time to edit is in the morning, when I’m full of energy and my mind is fresh, usually at least 24 hours after writing the original piece.

3. Have an Answer For: “What’s the Point?”

The first thing to know when you set about editing your work is what you intended for that work to accomplish. Is the writing supposed to entertain? Persuade? Is it a client report, or an interview transcript?

Different writing formats come with different conventions and expectations. Reports, for example, should get right to the point and the meat of the discussion. A blog post, on the other hand, can spend a little more time being conversational.

When you know the purpose of what’s been created, you can better edit it towards that purpose.

4. Approach Editing in Phases

There are a lot of different things to be on the lookout for when you’re editing, from bad grammar and typos to jumbled ideas or gaps in information. It doesn’t make much sense to try and watch for all of those things at once. Instead, I recommend a three-pronged approach to editing, watching for different things each time you read through:

The first time, edit for content and cohesion. Read the piece looking for gaps in information, or ideas that don’t naturally flow together. Often, we write in our heads, operating with knowledge only we have. One way you can identify jumbled ideas or a lack of flow is to read the piece out loud to someone unfamiliar with the subject matter and listen to where they start asking questions or looking for clarity. That means you haven’t explained something well enough, or your train of thought zigged when it should have zagged.

The second time you edit, edit for formatting and structure. Are paragraphs large and intimidating? Are there run-on sentences that obfuscate ideas? Have you used headings to make sections clear and easy to scan? Circle back to the purpose of your writing — does the format flow out of that purpose? This is your opportunity to make sure your content is readable and easy to digest.

The third time you edit, go for the jugular — the typos and the grammatical errors. Chances are good that you’ve already found some of these by reading your work twice before. Don’t rely on mechanical spellcheckers — these cannot account for misused words, one of the most common and plaguing mistakes writers make.

And finally, take one more sweep through everything, marveling at your finished product and watching for any tiny issues that might have snuck through, like missed apostrophes.

5. Change Mediums & Read Out Loud (Slowly!)

If you wrote the piece digitally, don’t be afraid to print it out (please recycle) and read through a physical copy. Even switching devices, like going from your desktop to a phone can put you in a new perspective for editing that forces you to pay attention. It’s a bit of a change in the environment of the writing that raises alertness.

Reading slowly out loud will make you sweep your eyes over the text, again giving you the opportunity to spot problems, but also helping you realize how you will sound in other people’s heads. This is especially useful when you’re editing for content, as reading out loud will reveal leaps you’ve made in information without attaching the bungee cord first.

6. Track Your Bad Habits (Don’t Just Correct Them)

If you want to improve your writing, and not just your editing, keep track of the common problems you make and your bad habits. Commonly misusing a word? Write it on a sticky note and stick it to the wall in your office to remind you not to use it. Fluffy up your content with a bunch of filler? Learn to watch for those moments you start going off on a tangent or using flowery language instead of getting to the point.

By tracking your mistakes (and not just correcting them), you have a frame of reference as you build a portfolio of past pieces to learn from.

7. Try Reading it Backwards[!]

This is a weird trick, but once again, it raises your awareness of the content at hand. Start with the final sentence and move backward from there (you can say the words frontwards, don’t worry). As for why this works, it has to do with expectation. When you write, your brain already knows where you’d like the next sentence to go; but when you edit backwards, a familiar piece becomes foreign and your focus improves. Strange, but true!

8. Improve Your Command of English

You had to know this was coming — but it sucks nonetheless. Sad but true, the best way to improve your writing is to improve your understanding of English. You’ve got to come to grips with the notion of understanding what a colloquialism is and why you should avoid using too many of them.

One of the best and most actionable posts on the subject I’ve come across can be found here. In it, you’ll learn how to:

  • Avoid using grammar expletives (filler words that waste space and time)
  • Use visceral action verbs (instead of wimpy, passive ones)
  • Shorten up weak phrases (e.g. “Huge” instead of “Really big”
  • Cut out colloquialisms (no more, “The matter of fact is”)
  • Avoid nominalization (get to the point faster)
  • Ignore punctuation rules (because some just don’t matter — and some REALLY do)

And more great tips that will make your writing better and more succinct.

9. Forgive Yourself

People hate editing because it makes them confront their drawbacks and shortcomings. Listen, kid — nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes — talented writers included. Editing is a necessary evil, but it needn’t discourage you from writing at all. If anything, it should feel a bit like polishing your Lamborghini.


Originally published at positionly.com on May 20, 2014. Written by Joel Klettke