10 tips for editing your work - The Collative
Content creation

10 tips for editing your work

It may not be what gets you out of bed in the morning, but writing could still be a big part of what it means to run your own creative business. No matter what field you’re in, when you consider blog posts, newsletters, Instagram captions, client welcome packs, sales pages and everything else that comes along with creating / promoting your offerings, there’s a good chance you’ll be called to write for your business on a regular basis.

Today, pretty much anyone with a computer, an internet connection and the right mindset can start a blog, publish a book or launch a business – and this has fuelled the creation of many wonderful things. But the reality is much of the content we read today hasn’t been through a proper publishing process: this could mean no fact-checking (and ain’t that the truth), no editing, and not even a quick proofread takes place before a piece of content goes live.

With the way things are going, I believe readers will become increasingly discerning. And that’s a really good thing, because it means no matter how crowded the online space becomes, learning how to share your message in a concise and compelling way can help set you apart (for the right reasons).

Understanding the basic principles of editing is a great place to start!

What is editing?

OK, I realise this may seem obvious, but editing is often mistaken for proofreading, which (in the world of traditional publishing) is a separate thing:

Proofreading means looking for surface errors on a piece of work that’s already been edited. This includes looking for spelling and grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies in style – for example, if you had ‘nine’ written in one paragraph and ‘9’ in another.

Editing is so much more than this. This is where you pay attention to the language you’re using, the vibe you’re creating and the overall structure of the piece. Does it make sense? Are you expressing yourself clearly? Do you need to add context or examples? Will the words you’re using resonate with your intended readers or turn them off?

With this in mind, here are 10 tips for editing your work and sharing your message clearly.

1. Keep the purpose in mind

Understanding the purpose behind the piece of work you’re creating, as well as how it fits into the wider story of the work you’re doing, is essential for the editing process.

In the initial stages of getting our ideas down on paper, sometimes we can get sidetracked and veer off course. When it comes to editing, it can be tempting to keep bits in because we like a turn of phrase, even if it doesn’t add a huge amount of value to the overall story.

The phrase “kill your darlings” has been attributed to many great writers over the years as advice to fellow wordsmiths, and it’s a good reminder to cull the bits of your work that are more self-serving. This isn’t always easy. However, staying rooted in your overarching purpose can help give you the confidence to make these calls, as well as giving you more direction and focus overall.

2. Know your audience

You can also use the editing process to go back over your work with a more critical eye and consider who you’re creating for.

The language you use helps set the tone for your brand. It can attract the people you can serve best, as well as working as an initial filter for those who aren’t a great fit. Will the words you’re using speak to your readers? Are you using words they use and relate to?

For example, if you want your tone to be relaxed and conversational, you might decide to abbreviate phrases like ‘I am’ to ‘I’m, ‘do not’ to ‘don’t,’ ‘it is’ to ‘it’s’, etc, where it makes sense to do so. Or you might decide to use ‘while’ and ‘among’ rather than the more archaic ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’.

If you want your tone to be more formal, you might decide against using contractions in this way, or to avoid using exclamation marks and more trendy phrases.

The important thing is not to base this on assumptions. Get to know the people you’re looking to serve; find out where they hang out and study the language they use (and think about the terms they would search for / respond to).

Also, it usually pays to be yourself as much as possible, rather than putting on a persona that feels forced or unnatural. Sometimes this can work, but it’s a lot harder to develop a voice people can relate to.

3. What words won’t you use?

Whether writing, design, home decor or fashion, identifying our ‘style’ can be challenging. Knowing what we like when we see it is one thing, but defining why or translating this into a set of guidelines is another story.

Sometimes, we have more clarity around what we don’t like, and this can be a useful starting point. Having a sense of the words that don’t fit in with the vibe of your brand can help you create a more consistent voice, which won’t alienate the people you’re looking to serve.

For example, some of mine include: ‘‘mumpreneur’, ‘on fleek’, ‘girl boss’

That’s not to say those who use these words are wrong to do so; they just don’t resonate with me. It all comes down to your own preferences and what your people will relate to.

For more inspiration, check out Mollie Makes’ list of banned words and phrases, from Blogtacular 2015.

Mollie Makes' banned words and phrases, from Blogtacular 2015

L-R: Lara Watson and Jessica Bateman, then editor and production editor at Mollie Makes, speaking at Blogtacular 2015

No matter what your niche is, the editing process is a good opportunity to look out for clichés in your writing; too many can prompt readers to glaze over and feel like they’ve heard it all before.

4. Refer to (or create) your content guidelines

Once you have clarity over your purpose, audience and tone, you can also go a step further by outlining a simple set of guidelines for your content, to help keep you on track.

Sometimes called the ‘house style’, many organisations set some standards for their content (just as you might create a style guide for your brand, outlining your brand colours / fonts / logo use guidelines etc).

Content guidelines come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t have to be extensive to be effective. A simple one-page document, which you can add to over time, will do just fine.

As well as helping you stay focused when you sit down to write for your business, this can be a handy document to share with any contributors creating content for your business. It will give them a clearer sense of what your content should look like, and help you create a more consistent brand.

House styles often include:

  • The overarching mission statement
  • Notes on the ideal reader / target audience
  • Notes on the tone of the organisation / publication
  • The editorial mission and values
  • Any specific guidance around language – for example: we write numbers one to nine in words, 10 and higher in numerals; we write all job titles in lower case, etc.

5. Remove unnecessary words

My GCSE English teacher had a list of (overused) words we weren’t allowed to use in our essays. The idea was to get us thinking more clearly about what we were trying to say.

I can’t remember them all, but I’m certain ‘very’ was on there. The problem with ‘very’, he’d say, is it tends to make us lazy.

Consider the following:

  • I was very upset
  • I was distraught / devastated / bereft  

Each word on the second row has a slightly different definition, and conveys far more meaning in one word than the two above.

With this in mind, a key part of the editing process involves looking for redundant words and sentences. Where are you repeating yourself? Where are you over-explaining? What can you remove without having any impact on the meaning? And, dare I say it, where are you being lazy!?

6. Listen to the rhythm

Writing is a craft; each sentence has a beat. The words you choose can give life to your message or cloud its meaning.

Read your work aloud and listen to the rhythm of your words. Vary the pace. Listen to the stresses in each sentence and see how different words and syllables affect the flow.

If this doesn’t come naturally to you, my best advice would be to read more. Non-fiction books have their place, but poems, fiction and plays would be my first port of call. Read outside your niche and see how new ideas and sounds percolate in your brain and work their magic.

After reading lots of non-fiction books, I recently picked up Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Just soaking up Cheryl’s lyrical style did more to inspire me to get back to writing than the previous five books’ worth of productivity tips!

7. Trust your gut

A great piece of editing advice I received from my former editor Matt is to listen to your gut. If it tells you to cut/change something, it’s probably right. In other words, if your instincts tell you to cut or change something, listen. Save a version of the original before you start editing so you have that to refer back to if you need to (or use something with version control, like Google Docs) but your gut rarely steers you wrong.

With that said, a word of caution: keep in mind that the longer you spend looking at a piece, the more you’ll start to overthink it and second-guess yourself, and the harder it will be to tell the difference between instincts and self-doubt – which can have you going round in circles. And this is where the next point can come in handy…

8. Get feedback

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” – Oscar Wilde

There have definitely been times where I’ve spent hours agonising over a piece only to conclude it was better as it originally was. If you find yourself stuck in a rut, having another set of eyes on your work can be hugely valuable. Ask your reader to tell you whether they understood the main messages and if they stumbled over any sentences.

We can often be our own harshest critics so having someone to sense-check and make suggestions can help you move forward without getting lost in the detail. The most valuable feedback will come from someone who fits the profile of the type of person you’re looking to serve, but at the very least look for someone you trust to give you an honest opinion and who gets what you do.

9. Get some distance

Another option if you’re getting tunnel vision is to step away and do something else for a while. Creative ideas rarely come when we try and force them. However, your unconscious mind will keep working on a problem while your conscious mind is otherwise engaged. This is why breakthroughs often come when we least expect them, and especially when we’re doing something on autopilot, like washing the dishes or showering!

For this reason, while you may well edit as you go (I know I do), I still recommend coming back later, after you’ve finished writing, for the sole purpose of editing.

I always try and leave some time, ideally a day, before coming back to a piece of work. When you’ve been looking at the same piece for some time, it becomes harder to spot errors or make meaningful improvements. A bit of breathing space can help you edit faster and more effectively when you return.

10. Break it up

Finally, when editing, think about how you can highlight or pull out aspects of the story to draw readers in – for example, through imagery, pullquotes or subheadings.

This can be useful whatever format your content takes, but particularly when writing for the web. Like it or not, eye-tracking studies have found many people don’t read web pages. At least not at first. Initially, they scan to gauge whether they want to read on. 

Knowing this, you can think about how to highlight parts of your content to draw people in, and hopefully turn those scanners into readers. 

Image: Death to the Stock Photo

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