The best way to edit content

Editor's pen

When people need the skills of an editor, they generally fall into two camps.

  •  They want someone to fix grammatical mistakes and improve the overall flow of their writing.
  • Or they have content that isn’t fit for purpose.

Making a positive change

In both cases, there’s a valid need for an editor, but the work required is quite different.

Let’s start with grammar and flow.

This is what most people think of when they ask someone to edit content. It’s the process of taking an existing draft and improving it. There are many reasons for this. It could be to reduce words to meet a strict word count or maybe it’s to break up long paragraphs into more bite size chunks.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same – transform the unreadable into a coherent piece of content. Ta da!

There must be something to work with

Having said all this, an editor isn’t working as a copywriter. They can only work with what’s in the draft. For example, editing for grammar and flow doesn’t take into account who the audience is or what the purpose of the communication is.

If you want someone to rewrite content or further research a topic to enhance the level of information, then you’re really asking for a copywriter.

6 classic grammar tips

When checking content for good grammar, these are the first things I always look for.

1. Remove “that”
A quick way to cull a wordy document. “That” is probably the most overused word in the English language. Nearly everywhere it’s used you can remove it and the meaning of the sentence won’t change. I even found one in my blog when I was proofreading it!

“Look for words that spell check doesn’t recognise.”
“Look for words spell check doesn’t recognise.”

2. Bullet points

I’m so passionate about the correct use of bullet points, I wrote an entire blog about it – The secret to using bullet points effectively.

When you write a list of bullet points everything in the list should agree. Try writing your list of bullets as a whole sentence. If it doesn’t flow, look at how you’ve started each item in the list and make it consistent, eg use a noun or adjective.

And once you’re happy with your list, write the introductory sentence to match using either a colon or full stop.

When you’re drafting content, you need to do the following.
Research the chosen topic
Write a couple of drafts
Talk regularly with the client

3. Over qualifying

Think about whether words are essential or nice to have. I read many examples where additional words are used to add emphasis but all they really do is add clutter.

9pm at night (doesn’t the pm indicate it’s night time?)
End result (is there a result that’s not at the end?)
ATM machine (the M in the abbreviation means machine so it’s unnecessary)

4. Question adverbs

Words ending in “ly” are common in fiction writing to add colour and build a story. But in the business or academic world, a stronger verb has more impact.

“He replied quickly” vs “He responded”

5. Lack of commitment

If you’re going to say something, say it. Be bold. Be assertive. And others will believe what you’re telling them. Words like “might” and “potentially” don’t resonate confidence, making it more difficult for your reader to believe you.

6. Be active

It’s surprising, but it’s easier to write in the passive voice. Most people do this without thinking. But it’s far more compelling and attention-grabbing to write in the active voice and be present.

“The payment can be made by direct debit or BPAY.”
“Make the payment by direct debit or BPAY.”

Fit for purpose

Let’s think about the second reason people need an editor – to make sure content does what it’s intended to. This could be to inspire, to sell, to educate, to entertain.

It’s content that compels the reader to act or feel differently.

To achieve this, there’s a few essential things an editor must know.

  • Who is the audience?
  • What do they already think or know about you/your company/product?
  • What’s your unique difference?
  • What do you want your audience to do when they’ve read your content?

And from here, the process begins.

3 steps to get started

1. Get the red pen out

By knowing who you’re writing for and what you want them to do, it’s straightforward to cross out anything that’s not relevant. It may seem a harsh way to start, but by getting rid of anything you don’t need, it’s easier to make the rest of the content work harder.

2. Look for structure

Everyone knows you need a clear beginning, middle and end, but so often it’s just not there, and it’s the editor’s job to fill the gaps.

  • Beginning – tell the reader what you’re going to tell them. Hook them in.
  • Middle – tell them. Build the story.
  • End – tell them what you’ve told them. Recap and inspire action.

3. Become a jargon buster

It can be hard to identify jargon. What’s everyday language to some people is nonsense to others. And there are times when it’s appropriate to use official terms or names – a little bit of jargon can be a good thing. But a good starting point is to look for abbreviations and words spell check doesn’t recognise, then decide whether they’re going to disrupt the reader’s flow.

4. Stop and think

If you’re reading a sentence and you have to stop and think about what it means, or you have to go back and read it again, this is a major red flag. If you don’t understand it, it’s unlikely the intended audience will either. So, it’s always better to find a different way to write the sentence.

  • Use more descriptive or shorter words.
  • Consider whether additional punctuation will help with the flow
  • Remove unnecessary sentences that sound intelligent but don’t provide additional information.
  • Add more linking words (known as conjunctions), such as “but”, “if”, “so”, “however”.
  • Think about including sub headings.

5. Check the specifics

Headings and sub headings are where some of the biggest typos appear. They’re the parts we skim over but are often created as part of the initial draft structure and failing to revisit them can create errors. If the heading promises a list or an answer to a question, make sure it’s actually in the paragraph below.

Job done

So, once you’ve ticked off everything in my lists above…you’ve proofread the content to check for spelling mistakes and typos…and you’re happy with your new draft, the editing is complete.

All that’s left to do is send it back to the client…

If you have any examples where you’ve been given a really tough editing job by a client, or you have a raging success story, I’d love to hear about it.

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