Polish your chapters (and other content) like a pro, with these 7 simple editing steps that will supercharge your writing.
You’ve had a stroke of inspiration for your book (or a blog, article etc), and all of the ideas have spilt out onto the page in one glorious writing frenzy. But what now? How do you get it from first draft to ready to publish? Well, you’ve got to edit it, and knowing how to edit your own work is one of the most valuable skills you can learn as a writer.
I know how overwhelming it is to look at a collection of paragraphs or pages and try to work out how to wrestle them into a finished piece. That raw copy almost certainly contains gold, but at the moment it’s not quite shining quite as brightly as it could be. When you don’t know how to edit your own work this often leads to one of two scenarios: 1. putting it out there before it’s ready and therefore it never quite meets it’s full potential. Or 2. Never putting it out there at all because you know it’s not quite there yet.
In fact, not knowing how to edit your work is so often the sticking point
that puts your blog posts, articles and books into eternal draft mode.
But what if you think it’s already good enough?
Perhaps it is! But if someone’s going to take the time to sit down and read what you’ve written, it’s only common courtesy to make sure it’s as good as it can be. Particularly if you want them to read more of your stuff.
But what about if you’re really pleased with what you’ve written and think it’s already perfect?
Again, it could be. But I would say it will still need an edit. As someone who’s edited hundreds of articles, blog posts and a few books, if you already think what you’ve written is brilliant, that’s usually when you most need to sit on it for a few days then return to it with fresh eyes later.
I don’t think I’ve ever written anything the first time round that I’ve not wanted to go back to after and tweak, change (or even completely annihilate). My social media posts are a great example of this. Often written on the fly, they rarely get more than a quick once over with my editing eye. But so often I’ll come back to something I’d been happy with an hour before and delete whole paragraphs, swap out the intro and tweak the close.
So what is editing exactly?
Well to explain this, let’s look at the process of writing a finished piece in a very simple way. It goes like this:
- WRITE IT. This is the moment inspiration strikes and the ideas (hopefully) just pour onto the page. This is your 1st draft.
- EDIT IT. This is where you take the raw material, your first attempt at getting it written, and craft it into a finished piece. This is your final draft. If it’s a social media post it might be your one and only draft which you’ve just lightly edited before pressing share. If it’s a book, there will probably be several drafts before this one.
Self-editing makes you a better writer
You may be avoiding learning how to edit yourself at all costs, but if you love writing, learning how to edit yourself makes you a better writer. There’s a couple of reasons for this. Obviously it makes your finished piece so much stronger and more powerful, but it also is an amazing tool for helping you hone your voice, style and technique.
What about hiring an editor?
You’re very unlikely to be using an editor for your own content marketing, but if you’re creating something one off and signature like a book or keynote speech you may be planning on hiring an editor. For something like this, it’s a great idea, but you still want to make sure your manuscript or speech is as polished and good as you can get it before you send it through. This will not only save you money, but also ultimately give you greater editorial control over how it all turns out.
Editing doesn’t have to be scary (or hard)
The thing is the more you do it, the easier the editing process becomes. And actually it’s not as complicated or stressful as most people think. A few basic editing skills can improve your writing ten-fold, and ensure that every blog post, article, social media post or book you write, is as polished and powerful as it can be.
So, if you’re ready to start practising some simple but powerful editing skills, here are 7 basic steps to editing your own writing.
- Write hot, edit cold.
When I have time I always write something and then put it away for a little while before I start a proper editing process. To be honest, I don’t always have time, but for books and articles that I’ve been commissioned to write, this pays dividends.
You see, good writing comes from the heart, and the heart shouldn’t be hindered by things like sentence length or structure. If you’re editing your writing as you write your first draft, you’re blocking the creative flow. It’s kind of de-basing the raw material you have to work with. That’s why separating creation mode from editing mode whenever you can, always makes the end result so much better. A gap of a few days or even just a few hours between writing and editing, will help you look at what you’ve written with fresh and objective eyes and help you build on and improve what you have.
“Editing comes from the heart, and the heart shouldn’t be hindered by things like sentence length and structure…“
- Get clear on your one message.
Whenever you’re writing something keep in mind the rule of one. Your first question when you’re reviewing a piece to edit should always be what is the one message I’m trying to convey?
If it’s a blog post there should be one message in the blog post. If it’s a book, stick to one message per chapter or section (you will also have one overarching message that the book answers).
In an ideal world you’ll have this one message clear in your mind as you write your first draft. Often however, we write ourselves into a completely different direction. And that’s fine. But when you go through and edit, you need to make sure there isn’t more than one message muddying the waters, confusing your reader and diluting what your piece is really about.
So let’s say for example you decide your one message is, “Follow your heart.” But as you’re writing a new potential message pops up: “Big dreams are achievable when you take tiny steps.”
When you go through and edit, your job is to decide which message is the dominant one for this piece. And then whether the secondary message needs to be relegated to just a small idea in a paragraph, removed completely, or given its own separate blog post, article or piece.
- What is the journey?
Everything you write should take a reader on a journey. Whether it’s the big overarching journey of a whole book, or a small incremental step within an article, chapter or section.
For example, this journey could be:
Point A: Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of editing your writing
Point B: Having a simple set of guidelines to help you get started editing your own writing.
Or your journey could be less practical and more emotional.
Point A: Believing big dreams are unattainable.
To Point B: Realising that big dreams are achievable if you break them down into small manageable steps.
Getting clear on the transformational journey of your piece of writing is helpful for a couple of reasons. It ensures you understand where your ideal reader is when they start reading your piece which allows you to tailor the piece directly towards their current struggles, view point or desires. Plus it ensures that what you’ve written has a benefit-driven outcome for the reader.
- Finalise your structure.
Structure is basically the scaffolding that makes your writing robust and keeps your reader engaged. The thing is while you can have an idea of your structure when you outline your piece of writing, you can’t really finalise it until you know what you’ve written.
A basic structure for a non-fiction piece of writing might go like this:
This is the opening that’s going to grab their attention, spark their interest. Get them to start reading in the first place.
This is where you give them an overview of your chosen topic. It’s a good opportunity to paint a picture of the problem you’re trying to solve, what it might look like in their life and agitate it a bit: “here’s what could happen if you don’t sort this out.”
If you’re familiar with the Problem Agitate Solution writing formula, this would be the Problem and the Agitate bit. You’d then move on to the Solution part, in your body copy.
The Body copy
This is the main chunk of your piece, and it’s where you detail your key points. When you did an outline (if you did an outline) these were probably jotted down as points you wanted to cover. Now you need to decide which order these should go in. It might be obvious, as in a step by step process. If not, you need to decide how you will order (and if necessary) connect each point.
The summary: This is the danger zone, because you don’t want it all to just fall off a cliff after all that hard work You want to end strong. A summary or conclusion is usually where you just tell them what you’ve told them. But you also ideally want to close with a powerful sentence that’s either inspiring, insightful, motivating, thought-provoking or perfectly sums up the piece. Either way you’ve got to make sure it ends on a high.
- Ground your ideas
When we’re writing a first draft, we often write in concepts and ideas. And that’s fine, but concepts and ideas are hard to grasp for a reader. So where can you illustrate your concepts in a more tangible way? Is there a specific example, a story or an anecdote that will help them catch your drift.
- Make it easy on the eye
The biggest crime against readers? Not including enough white space (closely followed by not even bothering to format it). Dense, wordy writing rarely gets read. And if your writing’s not getting read, you’re wasting a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Here are a few no-write edits you can make to ensure your writing is easy to read.
– Use subheads
– Keep paragraphs short
– Don’t be afraid of one word sentences (or even one word paragraphs)
– 123456789 &£$% – don’t forget to use them!
– Emphasise words with italics & use bold to make things stand out
– Lots of info? Bullet points, indents and lists are your friend
- Cut the word count in half.
I know this sounds brutal. It is brutal. You’ll likely have to get rid of whole sentences and even paragraphs that are not only well-written but that you also love.
But as you start to realise how much better your writing gets the more you cut it, cutting copy becomes addictive. The truth is, flabby copy dilutes the potency of your message, so when you get rid of words it’s a bit like pruning a fruit tree. When I say cut it in half I’m just trying to emphasise just how much people tend to over write. So, aim for half, and if you only manage a quarter it will still be so much better for it.
That’s it seven easy steps to self-editing your work. And after a while you won’t even have to think about what these steps are, because they will just become second nature.
I’m planning on sharing more practical writing tips here on the blog to help you improve your writing skills and get your projects done. In the meantime, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter where I share all the best bits.
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