Make Your Editing Less Painful. Become a Great Writer.
Editing triumphs in a craft that focuses on writing.
As a professional writer, with various clients and deadlines swirling around me, my keyboard is the source of most danger. I’ve published things with horrifically embarrassing typos that were seen by tens of thousands of people. The typo hangover was real.
For example, the other day I was writing about ducks. Specifically, I was writing about how ducks quack in different accents based on where they’re from. That’s right. There’s a duck out there rocking a hot Aussie duck accent.
I did three full read-throughs on my final draft. I thought, “I think it looks good? I haven’t seen any issues in the last two reads.” I held my finger over the submit button. Then I felt that all-powerful tingle in the back of my mind.
“Alright. One more read.”
And in this third and final read-through, I saw it. Right there, straddling the front of the piece, carrying a flag with my name on it, was this:
“F — k Fact about Ducks”
Thankfully, I caught the error and corrected it (“Fun Fact”).
Editing sucks. It’s janitorial. But, in many ways, editing is more important than writing. My life as a writer has only further reinforced that fact. If you want to become a great writer, you must not only master editing but also learn to enjoy it.
Perfect the art of ranking your children
A bad writing session is like a doomed marriage. It starts out with so much excitement and promise. Then, it gets ugly, confusing, and you just want a way out.
Your article should have been a masterpiece. But now it resembles a ransom note cut from different magazines.
Take your strongest sentences and move them to the top of the piece. Don’t be afraid to uproot them from their original paragraph. It doesn’t matter if they don’t fit yet. They can sit as individual sentences for now.
This does two things:
- It helps you learn to edit with cold blood. As a writer, you must choose your favorite children
- It helps you lean back from the piece and stop overthinking it (a common problem).
After ranking your sentences, see if you can get more sense out of it now. Should you pivot in a new direction?
If that doesn’t work, walk away from your computer. Go do something else for 20 minutes. You’ll probably know what to do when you come back. I do this constantly. When you do rewrites, it brings a different person to the keyboard for a fresh take. Nothing is more rewarding than bringing order to chaos.
Keep a writing success checklist
There are many parallels between being a writing coach and being a teacher. I’m often reviewing essays. Sometimes I groan at what they send me, “We have a long way to go.”
I also get very frustrated as I see them make the same mistakes we’ve already talked about. Conversely, seeing your clients elevate their game makes it all worth it. But I always worry that my clients will revert back to their old ways.
So I give writers an inward-looking challenge. I say, “ If you were advising yourself on what you need to do for this article to turn out right, what things need to happen?”
Often, top of mind, honest answers come back. I have them write those items down, then I add a few and we print it out as their takeaway. This exercise is important because it helps writers think critically about their craft and bad habits.
I’m as vulnerable as any. The checklist I keep printed out includes things like:
- Open strong
- Focus on lots of active voice
- Kill the lull in the middle
- Have key takeaways for readers
Make a list. Keep it by your monitor while editing. It’ll keep you sharp.
Toxic Waste Dump
Do you know how many great ideas you’ve lost to the void? Editing. Deleting. Falling asleep. It’s more than you think.
Editing, by design, constricts and tightens your piece, killing off the fat. But fat isn’t useless. Just as the body needs it, writing does too.
Create a Word document, a digital sticky note, or a Google Doc (it’s in your Google Drive):
Label it Toxic Waste Dump or any fun name you can think of. Then, as you go through your rounds of editing, rather than deleting sentences paste them into this document.
This document serves two roles:
- You won’t have to worry about forgetting what you wrote.
- This will be an idea bank you can come back to later.
Use your voice without losing it
Yes, reading your piece out loud is an incredibly efficient strategy. I’d argue it’s the best tool in editing. I do it constantly.
But it gets annoying. I get headaches. Talking is tedious, particularly if you’re an introverted writer like me. So I came up with a trick.
I use a website called Natural Readers. It’s (mostly) free. When I’m doing a final edit, I’ll split my screen up and paste the document into this reader.
Then I’ll have it read my document to me at Speed 1. As it reads, I’ll follow along, making edits. It splits the process up and allows me to focus on the actual writing while automation does the talking. It’s super convenient.
Sidehack: Choose English (UK) — Peter voice — it’s classy as hell.
Four Key Takeaways
- Move your strongest sentences to the top of your piece. Master the art of editing with cold blood. Rank your children.
- Create a writing success checklist. Keep it visible by your monitor. Treat it like your marching orders.
- Create a runoff document to save all your deleted but potentially great ideas.
- Use a read-back tool like Natural Readers and make edits as it reads.
The next time you wake up in a cold sweat, worried about accidentally cursing your audience out the door, run through this list. Best of luck.