An editor’s job is to make you, the writer, look good. A good editor does just that—pruning here, clarifying there—so that you sound like you, only smarter and more polished.
But sometimes it’s a luxury you can’t afford, so how can you do the work of an editor yourself?
If you need an editor but are on a shoestring budget, here are some creative ways to make your blog posts, product copy, or press releases sound more polished.
1) Understand Your Task
Business writing is all about clear communication.
Good writing is a tool, and good editing helps you use that tool most efficiently. Done well, editing minimizes distractions so that your voice and your brand come through in a way that resonates with clients and customers.
When editing your own work, it’s likely you’re performing the roles of four kinds of editors, in addition to that of writer.
Developmental editors look at the big picture. They’re reading for structure and logic, making sure that the piece as a whole hangs together. Line editors pay attention to tone and structure. Copy editors ensure consistency in things like capitalization, grammar, and stylistic choices, while proofreaders make sure the copy is clean and ready to print.
When you’re working as a developmental editor on your own work, you’re combining the roles of writer and editor. As you write and re-write, try to avoid getting hung up on finding the perfect phrase, especially in early drafts.
If you do get stuck, one trick is to talk it out, literally.
Imagine that you’re describing the idea to an intelligent non-specialist, someone like your smartest friend. Avoid the jargon, and get straight to the heart of the matter.
Once you have a draft, go through it section by section and identify the main point of each portion or paragraph, checking that there’s a logical flow from topic to topic. Often, I’ll jot down each main idea on scratch paper—or include a comment to myself in the document—just to make sure I’m on the right track.
Then check these comments against your copy. Is the progression of ideas clear? Is there too much repetition? Are there areas that need to be expanded? Can someone outside your head follow your logic?
Once the structure is under control, you’re ready to deal with the details of language. Before you do that, though, I recommend taking a break from the piece.
2) Take a Break
To think like an editor, step back from your work.
One thing that makes editors so helpful—and that makes editing your own work so hard—is that they bring fresh eyes to your copy and to your overall story as well.
The best way I’ve found to do this is to write a draft and then put it aside. To do this well, you’ll need to build extra time into your writing schedule, but it’s the single easiest thing you can do to improve your work.
Once you come back to the piece, you’ll be able to assess it with clearer eyes.
3) Know Your Quirks
This next phase of work is what editors call line editing. Just like it sounds, you’re paying attention to your work, line by line, looking at the tone and sentence structure. This is also a good time to cite sources and check facts, if you haven’t already done that.
Check the transitions between paragraphs and between ideas. To do this, make sure the last sentence of each paragraph ties in with the first sentence of the next paragraph. Include guideposts, such as section titles or transitional phrases, that help your readers follow your train of thought.
As you start this phase, it’s helpful to understand your own writing style. Review what you’ve written, even if it’s just looking back at emails or past Facebook status updates.
I guarantee you that you’ll see a pattern. Know it—and use that to get rid of all the stuff that sounds repetitive.
For example, I love to include extra words. When I edit my own work, I look for those “extra” phrases, such as “we offer a way to help” instead of “we help.”
I then ruthlessly delete the vast majority of them.
If you know you tend to use a certain word, do a document search and either delete or change specific instances of that word.
As you’re thinking about word choice and sentence structure, pay attention to readability. Ideally, your writing will balance longer sentences to flesh out ideas with shorter phrases for emphasis.
At this stage, I find it helpful to read portions out loud. Good writing has rhythm, and reading aloud will help you find the places where ideas don’t flow. If things sound choppy, combine some of your shorter sentences with longer ones. If you run out of breath while reading, break some of those long phrases into two or even three sentences!
Think about who’s likely to be reading this piece—your ideal reader—and under what circumstances.
Explain unfamiliar concepts or words, and break up long paragraphs and sentences. Include bullet points or one-sentence paragraphs. Most word processing programs can apply a readability score to your work, letting you know if your copy will sync with your target audience.
If you’re writing product copy, read through each section in a pattern that imitates the reader’s experience. Although you’ll probably have the sections organized in a way that makes sense for your business, such as alphabetically, understanding how your readers will interact with the copy will give you the best sense of what their experience will be like.
When in doubt, make things clearer.
Even if you expect your readers to be specialists, most people are busy, and busy people will appreciate that you took the time to explain steps and concepts in the clearest way possible.
If you know that spelling and typing don’t come easy for you, search your document for commonly misspelled words, especially if they are often overlooked by spell check. If you’re talking about public schools, for example, do a search for “public” and “pubic,” to avoid potential embarrassment down the road.
No, not literally.
But we all have those turns of phrase that ring so pleasantly that it’s hard to get rid of them. Sometimes it’s hard even to see that they don’t belong.
Editing is no place for sentimentality, however. If something doesn’t fit, get rid of it.
As I’m editing, I move those lovely-but-unnecessary sentences to another spot. Cut and paste feels easier than delete, even if I rarely retrieve anything.
In the end, good editing minimizes distractions. Typos and grammar or spelling errors are distractions, as are clunky sentences, jargon, and disconnected ideas. By reducing this kind of clutter, you’ll convey your ideas more clearly.
5) Cheat a Tad
And finally, cheat and call in favors with a friend.
I enjoy writing and editing enough that I do both for fun, but rarely do I send something out for publication without having a trusted friend read it over first.
To minimize the burden, ask your volunteer editor for comments on specific things, such as if a particular section reads clearly or if the tone seems right. Again, this is where knowing your quirks comes in handy, because you can ask your volunteer editor to take a closer look at those spots.
Editing your own work is hard, and it certainly isn’t foolproof, but these strategies can help you write cleaner, clearer copy, hopefully with less stress in the process.
Have some self-editing tips of your own? Share them in the comments below.