How to Do a Quick and Dirty Last-Minute Edit
A manager at my first marketing job once watched me edit a blog post live by following my cursor on a Google Doc. She was appalled. Apparently, it was chaotic and disturbing to watch me jump around in what appeared to be random patterns, cutting a sentence here, changing a word there.
I swear, there is a method to my madness.
I first learned to copy edit at sixteen, from the editor at a local magazine I sometimes wrote for on a freelance basis. God knows why she was willing to employ an angsty teen like me, but I’m grateful for the experience to this day. Under her instruction I learned about how to write strong ledes, conduct good interviews, and keep my work concise. She was a tough editor, returning each draft blanketed with criticism and changes. I learned by writing, then re-writing, then re-writing again.
Then I went to journalism school, where we were expected to deliver that same quality, but much, much quicker under the pressure of same-day deadlines. Once again, my drafts would come back completely saturated with red squiggles, strike-throughs and comments scrawled in the margins (journalism profs love constructive criticism such as what does this mean and ??????). It was brutal but effective way to learn about writing, and it helped me to develop my own editing tricks.
These days I write marketing copy, not news articles — but the editing process is remarkably similar. Whether I’m creating web content, social media copy, email marketing, or blog posts, every draft needs a good pick-me-up. And just like in J-school, I write busloads of content under tight deadlines.
If you have the luxury of a long, in-depth editing process there are heaps of ways you can do it. But if you — like most of us — are writing under tight deadlines, you probably require a quicker method to improve your draft and ensure it is error free. If that’s the case, I have some tips to help you out.
Here are my best strategies for editing long-form copy under the gun.
Vary your sentences
One of the most noticeable characteristics of boring writing? All the sentences sound the same. Usually it’s because they are similar in length, have the same structure, or use the same sentence starters.
Luckily, there’s a quick fix. Identify a handful of sentences throughout your copy — one per paragraph or so — and change their structure without altering the meaning in any way. If it’s a short sentence, lengthen it. If the phrasing sounds like others around it, vary the structure of the sentence to create a perceptible difference. One of my favourite tricks is adding a dependent clause at the beginning of a phrase to change it up (and if that tip went over your head, no worries — brush up on your grammar terms here).
Get everything into active voice
Unless you belong to a few very specific professions, you should always write in active voice. Again, if you don’t know what this is, I defer you to the internet’s grammar gods for more info. The gist is this: write the subject then the verb — not the other way around. Not only is active voice more pleasing to the ear, but it communicates more effectively.
If you’re still getting the hang of active voice, don’t be afraid to go through your piece and highlight the verb and subject in each to ensure they are in the correct order. After doing this a couple times, you’ll get the hang of it. Eventually, checking for active voice should only take a quick skim.
Enhance your word choice
We all get lazy with word choice, especially when writing quickly. Switching out a few words for better ones is one of the simplest ways to improve a piece of writing.
To quickly jazz up your language, identify a handful of words in your copy that seem dull or repetitive. Then, pull out good ole’ thesaurus.com (if you don’t have it bookmarked, do it now) and search for stronger options.
Rewrite the first line
The initial stab at a first line almost always sucks. It’s no one’s fault — the beginning of a piece of writing is the trickiest part. But if you can improve your lede, it will elevate the whole piece.
Here’s my best trick: write a new first line. Then write another one. And another. Write six. Then, take a quick break and go edit a different part of the copy. When you come back to your six lines, pick the one that sounds best to you, without thinking too hard about it. I guarantee it will be more attention grabbing than your original attempt.
Read it out loud
Okay, this one feels dumb, but I swear it works. To catch obvious copy errors — particularly when you’re exhausted and working under a horrendous deadline — your best bet is to read your copy very slowly, out loud.
The key is to read each word deliberately without skimming. Even if you do it at a whisper level, reading each word aloud can help you find tiny, annoying errors. One mistake I make constantly is writing “the” instead of “they.” God knows why I drop the y, but it’s endlessly frustrating because spellcheck doesn’t always pick it up — and typically, neither do I. While embarrassing, actually speaking the words usually catches those blunders.
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To be clear, none of these tips are a substitute for a full, multi-draft, down-and-dirty edit. But in a world that moves so fast, a few fixes to lift your copy might be exactly what you need.