Three simple ways to edit your writing

Quick wins for every writer

Good editing makes your writing sharper and easier to read.

This was the topic of our latest Better Words webinar. We revealed the shortcuts we use every day to make our writing sharper.

You can watch the session below. Or read on for three essential editing tips.

1. Lead with the main point

Not everyone is going to read every word of your writing. Sorry.

So put your main point first. That way, even if someone only glances at your piece, they’ll get what matters most.

Think about your writing as a pyramid. Put the main point at the top, and build out from there – in order of importance.

Take this paragraph:

Peter and Pauline are a pair of bald eagles, originally brought to Chicago Zoo in 2016 from the West Coast. We’ve been hoping for months that they might breed successfully in captivity, and just this week we discovered four little hatchlings in our eagle sanctuary! The whole family is now thriving.

What’s the key point here? It’s not that the parent eagles arrived in 2016. Or that they came from the West Coast. (But it can be tempting to start 'at the beginning' like this.) The critical point here is that the zoo ‘discovered four little hatchlings’.

Make that your first point, and even the most casual reader will get it:

We have baby eagles! Our bald eagles, Peter and Pauline, had four healthy hatchlings this week, after months of waiting and hoping by everyone here. The eagles originally came to The Chicago Zoo in 2016 from the West Coast. We’re happy to say the whole family is now thriving.

2. What can you cut?

The short answer is, almost certainly, ‘A lot’. Working out what is the tricky bit. There's more in our video, but here are two key things to watch out for:

  • Unnecessary words – like 'collaborate together' or 'unexpected surprise' or 'I drove to see him in the car.' All the red words are redundant – they can be assumed.Also watch out for over-complex phrases like 'in order to' (to) or 'for the purpose of' (for). Many formal phrases like this can be reduced to one or two simple words.
  • Adverbs – These describe verbs (doing words) and adjectives (describing words). Like 'walked quickly' or 'incredibly helpful.' There's usually one – more interesting – word you can replace these with. Like 'strode' or 'invaluable'.The worst adverbs are 'very' and 'really' – they're the lazy way to emphasise. We say 'very happy' when we mean 'delighted' or 'thrilled' or 'ecstatic' or 'joyous'. All of which are richer, more engaging, more meaningful words.

3. Find five minutes

The most important editing trick is just to do it.

Even if you don’t have long, get a draft down quickly, then go back over it. Editing often just gets forgotten as things get rushed out. But even a few minutes’ checking can make a huge difference.

And don’t worry too much about your first draft. As Hemingway supposedly said, ‘the first draft of anything is shit.’

Don't try for perfection, just get your thoughts onto the paper, like putting clay on the wheel. Then you can start shaping it.

Otherwise you’ll spend a long time looking at a blank page, because you daren’t write anything. And if there’s no clay on the wheel, you can’t make a pot.

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