Helen browses her draft articles.
It’s time to clear up her archives.
Why did she never finish these posts?
Surely, she thinks, one of them must be almost ready for publication?
Excited, she opens her documents, one by one. She reads an opening here and scans the subheads there.
But slowly she loses her sense of optimism.
These articles are no good … Why is she such a bad writer?
Actually, that’s the wrong question.
We’re all bad writers. Even Nobel-prize winning authors write crappy first drafts.
And as legendary copywriter David Ogilvy suggested:
I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft.
Writing a crappy first draft is normal. You just need to know how to turn it into shiny content.
Shall I explain?
What is good editing?
Editing is an essential part of the writing process.
While some people edit while writing, it’s often faster to make editing a separate stage.
To write a first draft, focus on getting your thoughts on paper. Next, revise your content to check for flow. Is the order of the sections logical? Are key arguments missing? Are some parts redundant?
Once you’re happy with your content—it’s complete and in a logical order, it’s time for editing sentence by sentence. Polish each sentence to make it concise, vivid, and human; and fine-tune the rhythm and tone of your writing.
Editing our own writing can be tricky as we read a text through our own eyes as the author of a text. We know what we want to express so we read that meaning between the lines—even if it’s not actually written.
To become a better editor, try to step into the shoes of your reader, and read your draft through their eyes. Read what IS written, not what you think is written.
1. Paint vivid imagery
We often write in abstract language.
But that’s a problem because abstract language makes it hard for readers to visualize and understand our ideas.
For instance, in their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath explain the difference between an abstract and a concrete goal in weightloss. Abstract is:
losing 20 pounds
A concrete goal is more motivational, such as:
fitting into my sexy black pants without gastrointestinal distress
Notice how that sketches a clear picture?
Making abstract language concrete requires some effort but it’s well worth it because it makes your writing more vivid and engaging. Readers will more quickly grasp your advice.
Editing tip for writers:
Read your text through your reader’s eyes. Can you visualize your advice?
To make your writing more vivid, it often helps to add an example—just like I did above. I used the snippets from Chip and Dan Heath’s book to show you the difference between abstract and concrete language.
2. Fine-tune the tone of your writing
When writing a first draft, we often forget who we’re writing for.
We write for a faceless crowd.
And that makes it sound like we’re lecturing. Our writing seems distanced or even robotic.
So, one step in the editing process is to make your writing feel more human.
Start by reviewing where you can engage your reader so it feels like you’re having a conversation. Address your reader directly using the word you and ask a question.
Have you tried that?
Next, pay attention to when your reader may feel a little stupid or down. Perhaps they feel like they’ve made a mistake. Or they wonder why they’re struggling to achieve their aims. Here’s where you can add a note of compassion. For instance:
We’ve all wrestled with crappy first drafts. It takes time to learn how to edit but take it step by step, and you’ll get better.
Lastly, when does your reader need a little nudge to implement your advice or to buy the product you’re selling? Here’s where you can get a little bossy:
Come on. Start editing your text. It’s more fun than you think.
Adjusting the tone of your writing is an essential part of editing. It’ll help shape your voice and make readers feel like you’re writing for them, personally.
Editing tip for writers:
Imagine your favorite reader and read your text as if you’re them. How does your writing make them feel?
Where can you engage them with a question? When do you want to put a virtual arm around their shoulders? When can you encourage and nudge them into action?
3. Cut wordiness
Wordiness slows readers down.
They have to plough through more words to get to the meaning of each sentence. The more excess words, the more exhausting reading becomes.
So, if you want to let readers glide through your text so they can grasp your ideas more quickly, make your writing more concise.
To practice concise writing, I like the Flip-Flop technique. Instead of scrapping weak words, you focus your attention on meaningful words. Here’s how it works:
- Read a sentence slowly
- Highlight the most meaningful words
- Rewrite your sentence by using the meaningful words
Here’s an example of a wordy sentence:
When I started my own business, it has given me a whole new perspective to see the bigger picture when it comes to finding a work / life balance.
And here’s the concise version:
Starting my own business has given me a new perspective on work / life balance.
Cutting wordiness is like sculpting your sentences. You remove any excess so your words can shine more brightly.
Editing tip for writers:
This editing step takes some practice and initially may feel time consuming so focus on sharpening the most important parts of your writing: Your headline, your opening, and your final paragraph.
How to avoid wordiness
How to write clearly and concisely (on the Flip-Flop technique)
4 types of weak words to eliminate
4. Add zing to your word choice
Playing with words is my favorite editing task.
I like trying to find the best words to express my ideas. Plus, playing with words helps inject pizzazz into my writing.
In my word game, I follow a few simple rules:
1. Avoid difficult words where possible
I’m not writing to impress so I prefer using the everyday words my readers would also use.
This sounds unnecessarily complicated:
His writing is more likely to obfuscate rather than to enlighten readers.
This seems easier:
His writing is more likely to confuse rather than to enlighten readers.
If your readers are professionals or experts who use jargon, then it’s okay to use the same jargon, too. But if you’re using difficult words your readers don’t understand, it’s better to switch to simpler words. Or if no simpler word exists, explain the difficult word to your readers.
Good writers don’t try to sound smart; they make their readers feel smarter.
2. Choose a precise word with the right connotation
For instance, the word emulate has a more positive connotation than the word imitate.
Note the difference between these two sentences:
To find your voice, emulate the writing techniques of your heroes.
To find your voice, imitate your writing heroes and steal their writing techniques.
Using a thesaurus can be useful. But be careful. Synonyms often have different connotations. Choose the word that has the right connotation and expresses your meaning most precisely.
3. Weave a few sensory words into your writing
Readers experience sensory words as if they can touch your silky-smooth words, as if they can hear the creaking of your braincells, as if they can taste your pork tenderloin with double mustard and tarragon sauce.
To add a little pizzazz to your writing, sprinkle a few sensory words. For instance, instead of:
Unfortunately, I’m currently too busy to take on new projects.
Unfortunately, my schedule is jam-packed; and I’m unable to squeeze in new projects.
Sensory words can be used to spice up any writing, even business writing.
Editing tip for writers:
To sharpen your word choice, pay attention to the words your favorite authors use. Which words make you feel something? Which work resonate more strongly? Which words spark joy?
Next, nurture a sense of play, and have fun trying different words in your writing.
How to choose words
How word choice shapes your voice
5. Let your words dance
Have you ever listened to music during a workout?
And did you notice how you vary the speed of your workout depending on the tempo in the music?
The rhythm in your writing influences readers, too. A higher tempo with shorter sentences gives energy. Medium-length sentences can add a sense of calm. And long sentences can accelerate a story or leave readers gasping for air.
A mix of short and long sentences creates a pleasurable reading experience.
Editing tip for writers:
Read your work aloud, and notice how the rhythm comes across:
- If the rhythm sounds too choppy, include a few longer sentences.
- If your writing lacks energy, try to chop up a long sentence and include a few shorter sentences. Broken sentences can work, too.
- If you stumble over your words, rewrite a sentence.
- If sentences don’t seem to follow each other logically, rewrite for clarity and add transitions.
Watch out for unhealthy perfectionism
I remember writing my first guest post for Copyblogger. It was early 2012.
I had read 6 books as well as numerous blog posts about writing, and I had summarized the main tips in a list with 58 tips. I had edited my text with a sharp knife. I had removed each redundant word.
Still, evening after evening, I was swapping one word for another to see whether it sounded better. I moved a tip up or down. I added a comma.
At some stage, editing efforts don’t make a difference anymore. It’s the law of diminishing returns. The first changes you make are big changes and make a big difference, but later changes? Your readers won’t notice the difference.
Knowing when to stop editing was a tough lesson for me. But if I wanted to publish more, I needed to get more pragmatic, overcome my publishing anxiety and understand when my text was good enough.
Understanding your inner perfectionist when editing can help you speed up.
Editing is fine if you’re enjoying it and improving your text.
Editing becomes a problem when you keep dithering because you’re nervous to hit publish, and you’re afraid of what others may say.
So, find your balance. Edit to improve your text. Have fun.
Then let go, and start your next piece of writing.
Recommended reading on editing:
An example of how to self-edit your writing
How to write clear and concise sentences
How to revise one sentence: An example
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