A reader recently asked, “What is your best advice for editing?”
I was about to type up an email in reply, but then I realized that I’ve never shared my editing process here on the blog. Since this might be of interest to all of you, today I’m sharing the seven steps I follow to edit my work along with the editing advice I’ve gleaned from various famous authors over the years.
This post focuses on editing nonfiction, but I follow a similar process for editing both my fiction and nonfiction writing. You can adapt this advice according to your own writing projects. Read on for my editing tips.
When I have an idea for a new article, I spend time jotting down notes, researching (if necessary), and thinking of different ways I can approach the topic. Before I begin writing the piece, I gather all of those notes together and construct an outline. (If I were writing fiction, this would be the plotting stage.)
You wouldn’t begin building a house without construction plans that carefully measure the foundation, how big each room will be, and other precise details. Otherwise, you might end up with a house that looks like this. (Bonus points if you know what movie that’s from.)
Similarly, I find when I don’t outline my piece beforehand, the first draft ends up a tangled mess. That’s because I’m developing my ideas as I go. If I outline first, the piece usually ends up not requiring as many revisions.
Here are two tips for outlining your piece:
First, summarize what your article is about in one sentence. This sentence should present the main idea or argument of your piece. You might end up including this sentence in the introduction of your piece, but even if you don’t, it will be a helpful guide as you write. If a paragraph doesn’t relate back to that original theme or support your argument, delete it.
After you’ve written down your one-sentence summary, you can plan out the main points of each section of your piece. Organize your thoughts into a logical and chronological structure.
See my guide here on how to structure compelling blog posts.
2. Write Your First Draft
The next step, of course, is to actually write your piece. John Steinbeck advised,
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
I try hard to follow Steinbeck’s advice, but I am guilty of rewriting whole paragraphs as I work on my first draft. So don’t beat yourself up too much over this. Every writer has their own unique way of working. William Zinsser observes in his book On Writing Well,
Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.
If a paragraph is giving you trouble, however, remember that you can always skip it and come back to it after you have gotten the rest of the piece down on paper. You might end up discovering that the paragraph wasn’t necessary after all.
3. Substantive Edit
A substantive edit (also known as a developmental edit) means analyzing the structure and flow of your piece.
Once I’ve finished the first draft, I step back from it and try to examine it as if I were the reader. I highly recommend reading your piece out loud at this point.
Ask yourself these questions as you read:
- Do the paragraphs flow logically and chronologically?
- If not, do you need to rearrange them or rewrite them?
- Do you have smooth transitions between each paragraph and from one idea to the next?
- Is there anything you need to explain in more depth?
- Are there any parts of the piece that need more context?
- Any sentences or sections that are repetitious?
- Any sentences that are vague and could be enriched with more detailed examples?
While editing, check back with that original pitch and see if you’ve done what you promised to do. What did you set out to illustrate? Have you fulfilled your obligations?
Maybe the direction of your piece has changed or evolved as you wrote the first draft. In that case, you might need to delete whole paragraphs, no matter how beautifully you’ve written them. Kurt Vonnegut advises,
Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
4. Have Someone Read Your Piece
Another set of eyes is always helpful at this stage of the editing process. You want to make sure that your piece is easy to read, that there is a logical flow within your paragraphs, and that you’ve effectively communicated your message to your readers.
Usually, I’ll ask my dad to read my nonfiction pieces. He’s frank in his criticism, and he’ll tell me if there are vague paragraphs, confusing sentences, or others that wander without getting to a point.
For my fiction pieces, I’ll turn to my brother, Michael, or my fellow fiction writing friends. Since they write fiction too, they can tell me if one of my scenes isn’t working or point out if I’m guilty of info dumping.
Another benefit of having someone read your piece is that they can prevent you from falling into the trap of perfectionism and over-editing.
While you shouldn’t be concerned with editing grammar at this point, I do recommend running your piece through a grammar and spelling checker to catch any typos or other errors (Grammarly is helpful for this). This is just a way to ensure that grammar errors don’t distract your volunteer editor.
If you don’t have a friend who can read your piece and give you feedback, I recommend putting your piece aside for at least a day. When you read a piece after a day has passed, you are usually able to examine it more objectively. This is a tip I learned from Neil Gaiman,
The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.
5. Edit for Grammar and Style
At this point, I’ve probably rewritten the piece several times. Now it’s time to evaluate the style of the piece, correct grammar and spelling errors, and strengthen the sentences and paragraphs.
Here are several things to look for:
- Are there any long-winded sentences that you can shorten or divide into two sentences? Any long paragraphs that you can separate into multiple paragraphs?
- Do you have any passive sentences? See here for how to spot passive voice.
- Are you peppering your writing with cliched phrases? Use the cliche finder.
- Any spelling or capitalization errors? Misplaced modifiers? Misuse of commas? Other punctuation errors?
- If you’re writing a blog post, are there places where you can use contractions to make your writing sound more conversational?
- Have you eliminated unnecessary adverbs? Are there any difficult words that you could replace with more commonly known ones?
William Zinsser notes,
…The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
You can use an application like Grammarly to help with this process, but it might not catch all errors. The Hemingway Editor is another useful tool to determine if you have sentences that are difficult to read (copy and paste your text onto the homepage to use the free version of the app).
And, remember, that you can always brush up on your grammar knowledge by reading a book like The Elements of Style. I’m planning an upcoming post sharing several of my favorite books that teach how to write well.
6. Have Someone Read Your Piece Again
Now I’m nearly ready to publish the piece. Since I’ve been reading the same lines over and over, my brain is usually exhausted at this point and will be less likely to notice typos. I try to find someone who will read my piece again to spot anything I might have missed.
Hopefully, your volunteer editor from step #4 is a really, really good friend and doesn’t mind reading your piece a second time. Or you might want to find a different person for a new set of eyes and fresh perspective. If you can’t find anyone to read your piece, however, I recommend printing it out and slowly reading it aloud during step #7.
7. Proofread One Last Time
The finish line is finally within sight. It’s time to give the piece one last read through.
If you’re working on a blog post, check for these things:
- Do all of your links work and open in new windows? Have you linked to other articles on your site?
- Do you need to tweak your headline to make it stronger? Try out the headline analyzer here.
- Have you properly attributed all of your quotes?
- If you’re using photos, have you included alt tags?
- Are your subheadings consistently capitalized?
- Have you previewed your post to make sure there are no formatting errors?
- Do you have a call to action at the end of the post that asks readers to comment, share, and subscribe?
If you have a WordPress blog, I highly recommend installing the Yoast SEO plugin as it will remind you to do many of these things. It also evaluates your post’s readability and points out passive sentences.
And, hurrah, we’re finished and ready to publish the piece!
The Takeaway (and a free PDF guide!)
Getting your words down on paper is only half the struggle of creating a story or a blog post. Imagine that writing is like planting a garden. Editing means pruning your bushes and pulling up the weeds in your flower beds. You can’t fully appreciate the beauty of the garden until after you’ve done lots of hard work.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bernard Malamud once said,
…First drafts are for learning what one’s fiction [or nonfiction] wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.
Keep in mind, though, that you shouldn’t obsess so much over the editing process that it prevents you from sharing your writing with the world. See my post here about the dangers of over-editing.
Of course, some pieces of writing might take longer to edit depending on the subject matter you are tackling. But by following an editing process like this one you will become more efficient at editing your work.
I’ve turned this blog post into a PDF guide that you can follow the next time you need to edit a writing project. You can get the PDF below.
What’s your editing process like? Let me know in the comments.
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