How To Edit Your Writing in 3 Passes
A guide to consistently producing clear, dense, and solid writing
It’s the single biggest drawback of writing online: your work lacks the forced scrutiny of an editor, yet editing remains the best tool to improve your writing.
The ideal process is simple enough:
That’s called deliberate practice. To critique your work once it’s done, find mistakes and fix them. It’s what the pros do. But not us. We stop at the first step. Because it’s urgent. Always.
Right when I started writing, I learned how Neil Strauss edits:
“The first draft is for you, the second for the reader. The third draft, and a lot of people don’t do this, is for the hater.”
Of course I didn’t take his advice back then, because one, who has time for self-editing and two, that sounds vague. It’s hard for me to read my own work imagining I’m my biggest fan, let alone a hater.
What I can do is look for themes. Finding it again years later, I translated Neil’s advice into the following three:
- Clarity, to ensure your writing is free of clutter.
- Density, to keep your reader curious.
- Solidity, to make your argumentation sound.
For the past four weeks, I’ve been using these themes to edit my writing in three passes. I call it the CDS approach. Today, I’d like to share that process with you. You can use it to improve any initial draft.
Let’s get you set up.
Of course you can edit in your preferred setting, whether that’s a print with marker and pen, your favorite word processor or right on Medium, but here’s the version I’ve used to create the example for this article:
- Grab a screenshot of the whole text using Fireshot.
- Open said screenshot in Skitch.
- Make edits in the document.
Here’s a how-to:
With that in place, let’s look at what makes a good, first round.
First Pass: Clarity
When Neil says the first draft is for you, what he really means is it’s okay if it sucks. Mostly because any first draft is full of clutter. Too verbose and driven by ego. That ego needs to be taken down.
What I write might not hit home, but it better hit hard. It’s what I expect of myself. To be clear.
The goal of the first pass is to replace words with better words or cut them, explain what’s not yet explained and remove what needn’t be. That’s why it’s usually the one that takes the longest and has the most edits.
Mark all clutter, jargon, vague expressions and missing context.
Answer these questions, again and again:
- Is this necessary?
- Is there a better word for this?
- Can I make this easier to understand?
- Is this really necessary?
- Have I said this before?
- Am I using as few words as possible, but not fewer?
Let’s look at a section of my latest article, ‘How To Fight Anxiety,’ as an example:
The subhead was flawed, because the post is about dealing with anxiety, not insecurity. I also hadn’t mentioned detachment a single time before. The first section completely lacked explanation, so I rewrote it entirely. ‘More often than not’ is weak, ‘most days’ is stronger. Relatives can just be missing, so ‘that’s gone’ was gone.
I made 45 changes in a 1234 word article. I added two paragraphs and rewrote two more.
The second pass is a bit easier.
Important: Take a new screenshot of your second draft before you start the Density pass.
Second Pass: Density
If clarity is about getting your readers past the intro, density helps them finish the rest. Translating Neil’s “for the reader,” you can think of it as reminding your fans why they’re here: because you keep them curious.
In Seth Godin’s words:
“Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.”
What I look for in the second pass is the density of insight. Lines to make you go ‘aha!,’ ‘hmmm,’ ‘whoa’ or ‘that’s interesting!’ Your reader needn’t agree with your insights. They’re notions. Ideas. But they need to be balanced.
As readers, we want to breathe. Rollercoasters aren’t all screaming either. Are you giving people time to process your observations? Or do you fire one bullet after another? Repeating the same insight in different words doesn’t count. That’s just explaining and that’s a good thing.
How much of your insight is borrowed? If it’s none, no one will believe you, if it’s all of it, no one will need you. Some insights from credible people, however, make it easier for the reader to trust your own.
Therefore, on the second pass, mark all your insights.
- Find incomplete ones and mend them.
- Look at the density of color in the document. Are you happy with it?
- Do you explain your ideas enough? Too much? Too little?
- How much are you quoting?
- Do you end on an insight? Or do you force a belief on your reader? Let them come to their own conclusion.
Here’s the same section, after the changes I made in the clarity pass, with new highlights:
The subhead is an insight, but it doesn’t give away the entire section. That’s good. The density is okay, but the last thought might catch you off guard. It’s true we turn to social media in times of anxiety, but why? There was no reason, so I added one.
You can also see some red marks because I made more clarity edits. That pass is never really done.
Seven edits and three clarified insights later, the post is ready for the last round.
Important: Time to take one last screenshot of your third draft before you start the Solidity pass.
Third Pass: Solidity
Neil says he tries to hater-proof his books, but I don’t think it’s about convincing them to become fans. Instead, a rock solid line of argument allows your readers to self-select into either camp.
If they’re a hater, the faster they know, the better for you. But if they’re a fan, you wouldn’t want your argumentation to fall apart at their first glance with raised eyebrows either. Especially then.
That’s why in the last pass, look for statements without reasons. It’s the least fun and the easiest to skip, which is why it’s so important. Technically, everything is a statement, so don’t overdo it and focus on the ones carrying your writing.
You’ll find quite some overlap with your insights and that a few fundamental statements feel self-evident to you. They’ll do for your target reader as well and needn’t be backed up too much. Via the great Alan Watts:
“Only doubtful truths need defense.”
Others, like facts, new ideas you introduce and claims borrowed from others can’t afford to have holes in them.
Mark your statements in one color and the arguments backing them in another. I also like to add arrows between them and put check marks next to the statements with at least one argument or a credible source.
- Why is this section here? What’s its core? Is there one? Does it hold?
- How solid is your line of argument against counter arguments? Which ones could you make?
- Where does it need to be? What’s subjective?
- Which statements are self-evident to you and should be for your target reader?
Here’s the same excerpt one last time:
The first statement had no argument, the second, which said the same, did, which wasn’t ideal. “Part of life is that life sometimes sucks” should feel self-evident to my readers. I strengthened my final argument about social media by adding a note about their highlight-reel nature.
Yup. More clarity edits still.
I found two flawed arguments, one questionable one and a huge, gaping hole, which I addressed in a new paragraph.
Then, it was finally ready to publish.
The 80/20 Of Editing Your Own Writing
The post we talked about took six hours to write and another six to edit. Did I overdo it to have a good example for this guide? Yes. But it’s not uncommon for the editing to take longer than the drafting.
Ryan Holiday wrote the first draft of Ego is the Enemy in 5 months, then edited for a year. Neil Strauss prefers the word incarnation over draft, because each new version is painstakingly crafted in several passes with the same theme.
There’s an 80/20 to editing, but editing is the 80/20 of writing. How long you spend on each piece depends on its purpose. It’s the act of taking time that matters.
None of this will make your writing go viral overnight, but it will make you a better writer in the long run. If writing is your end game, then you now have a process you can use to see it through.
All you have to do is hire the world’s best editor at no cost: yourself.
The Semantics of Semantic Editing
When most people hear the word ‘editing,’ they think of syntax: correct grammar, punctuation and using the right word at the right place in the right tense. That’s one way of looking at it.
The other, more important aspect of rearranging your words is semantics, the branch of linguistics dedicated to meaning, not structure, of the written word.
Good syntax is a must, but since any app can ensure it now, it’s merely a deal-breaker if you don’t have it, not a value-add if you do. Semantics is where you get to stand out and there are two kinds:
- Lexical semantics, which deal with word meanings and their relations amongst each other. They’re what we’ll focus on in the first pass.
- Logical semantics, which concern sense, reference, presupposition and implication of your writing. These are what the second and third round are for.
Hence, I like to think of the CDS approach as semantic editing.
How To Remember The CDS Approach
If you want a mnemonic device, this’ll help: The 2008 financial crisis was primarily caused by bankers overloading on Credit Default Swaps, which is jargon for betting on whether other people will default on their loans.
What’s the abbreviation for Credit Default Swaps? CDS. Clarity. Density. Solidity.
To really make it stick, here’s a guy explaining the term using toys: