Oftentimes the difference between content and good content is that one has seen a thorough edit.
All that effort we put into our content—filling pages with words and banging our heads against our desks trying to get the ideas flowing—could go to waste if we don't take the time to clean it up in the editing process.
Understanding the editing process makes you a faster, more effective writer and, as a result, a better content marketer—not just for yourself but for your team. Content marketing inherently involves publishing, and editing is an essential part of the publishing process. It’s also much more than fixing grammar and spelling.
Bringing the best out of content
Editing is the process of optimizing a piece of writing for its audience, which goes a long way in content marketing where readers fall off, get lost and don’t even make it past the first line of most blog posts.
If you need another reason to refine your editing process, here are four:
- You’ll save time by becoming a more fearless, and thus faster, writer.
- You’ll increase the odds that your content will meet your goals (brand awareness, engagement, conversions, etc.).
- You can potentially turn anyone into an “effective writer”, letting others’ expert insight shine through polished words.
- You’ll consistently look good on paper (and so will the brand you represent).
A good edit improves a piece of content, preserving the voice and intention while polishing the experience for readers. It’s strange, then, that some content creators neglect this crucial step or make the mistake of calling it quits after only proofreading.
Proofreading should be the last part of your editing process. Think of proofreading like the brush at the end of a haircut. The rest of the editing process is the scissors. It’s where the bulk of your efforts go and the majority of changes take place.
In fact, you need to wear a different lens as you read at each level of the editing process to hone in on specific areas of improvement.
So, you’re staring at a rough draft. It could be yours. It could be a colleague’s. Where do you start?
(Optional) Step 1: Walk away
If you’re editing your own work, the first thing you need to do is walk away and try to forget it.
Do whatever helps you put distance between you and your writing so that you can come back with a fresh perspective: Go for a walk, take a nap, go on a bender at a few bars (just kidding).
The hardest work to edit will often be your own, and there’s no real substitute for putting the task in someone else’s capable hands, however capable a writer you may be. If you have someone like that around the office or in your life, get them to edit your work.
But if you’re the one editing someone else's work then you can skip this part and get to the real first step.
Step 1: Fix the big picture
Too many people skip this step and start tweaking sentences right off the bat. That’s a big mistake if you’ve yet to evaluate how the words and ideas are organized. Otherwise, you’re correcting instances of the wrong “their” that might not even be there in the final product.
So take a step back from the document and read it through. Look at the bigger picture before you even consider diving into the details. See the forest for the trees, because that’s the view your audience sees.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this the most effective order for these ideas (at the section, paragraph and sentence level)?
- Is this an addictive introduction? A thought-provoking conclusion?
- Is this the best point of view? Is it better in the opinionated 1st person (I, me, we), intimate 2nd person (you, I), or objective 3rd person (he, she, they)?
- Can I break down sections, paragraphs, or sentences in this content so it’s easier to consume?
- Have I grouped related ideas together and given them descriptive subheads?
This section, for example, was 2 paragraphs before I broke it down and presented the questions as bullet points The order of my ideas is also significantly different from what I initially wrote.
Step 2: Cut the fluff
I’m going to devote an entire section to this because it’s one of the biggest weaknesses in my own writing. Say only what you need to say in however many words you need to say it—no more and occasionally even less. I recommend that you Go through your work with one finger on the backspace key. In the era of content shock, your readers are paying with their attention, so eliminate the excess and get the most bang for your buck with every word.
There’s an economy of words in all writing. Try to avoid diluting the value of each word any more than you have to.
Imagine if Nike’s slogan was Just Perform Your Intended Action instead of Just Do It. Pretty wordy, right? If you can say it in 10 words, do it in 7.
Is it redundant? Cut it
Does it enhance your point? Keep it
Is it wordy? Trim it
If removing a few words or entire clauses doesn’t detract from the work, do it. In most cases, it’ll make a piece of writing stronger. But be careful not to take away from the meaning, argument, rhythm or style of the writer—such as strategic repetition or instances of irony.
Step 3: Polish the meaning until it shines
Chances are the writer isn't going to be standing over the reader's shoulders when they consume his or her content. The writer won’t get to correct how others interpret it and every fumble, every instance in which something isn’t clear to your audience is an opportunity to lose them.
That’s why it’s important to edit for clarity. In this stage, you’ll be rewriting sentences and weighing your words.
Read the work out loud, even if it’s in your head.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this the best way to phrase that idea?
- Is there an adequate transition between ideas or do they jump around?
- Do the words convey the writer’s exact intention?
- Are there any unintended meanings the audience might receive?
- Is there any jargon or internal vocabulary that might be lost on the audience?
I probably don't need to say it, but Dictionary.com will be your best friend throughout this stage.
Step 4: Copyedit/proofread
If the devil is in the details then you exorcise it by copyediting and proofreading. It’s the last step in your editing process because it’s wasteful to make significant changes to a piece of writing you’ve already proofread.
Start by reading through the work at a third of your regular reading speed while considering the items on this checklist:
- Verify the facts and make sure they link to sources.
- Double-check that products, companies, and any branded names are spelled properly—case sensitive with proper spacing (Slide Share vs. SlideShare, Linkedin vs. LinkedIn).
- Apply formatting where it’s relevant (Bold to highlight key information and italicize to demonstrate emphasis/deliberate intention).
- Check the grammar and spelling—be especially vigilant for those elusive typos.
- Ensure you’re applying a consistent style throughout (oxford comma, American spelling, periods at the end of bullet points, etc.).
- Include a relevant call-to-action at the end and internal links in the text where there's an opportunity (technically not "copyediting", but an important consideration regardless).
Attention to detail preserves the professionalism of a piece of writing, but we're not perfect. Despite our best efforts, some mistakes will escape even the most vigilant eyes (especially if you’re editing your own work). Regardless, the piece will be better off than it was to begin with, and that's what matters most.
Editing is a messy job
The truth is that the process I’ve outlined here is rarely so linear. Some writers will recommend tackling these stages in a different order.
You’ll likely jump back and forth between stages as you spot areas to improve, but you’ll eventually develop a more efficient rhythm, keener habits and a sensitivity toward others’ writing.
As a rule, follow up on your second thoughts when you’re editing—it's one of the few instances in which doubt can improve the quality of your performance.
Above all, though, don’t overedit. The most antagonistic relationship a writer will have is with an editor who overwhelms the writer’s voice. A good edit should make the writer smile as they see their work's potential fully realized.
If you’re in content marketing, chances are you’ve had to pick up a red pen and act as an editor. So let’s hear from you. Share some common hurdles or thoughts on your own process in the comments!