Editing copy: an idiot’s guide in five points

17.01.2018

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way."

Ernest Hemingway

The first draft of everything I write is utter garbage - unfocused, rambly and riddled with unforgivable errors. Thankfully, I’m the only one who ever gets to read my first drafts, and my second, third and fourth drafts become progressively less shitty.

As far as I can tell, the same is true for pretty much every piece of writing: it starts out bad and embarrassing - it only gets better when you go back and make it better. The best novels, the best articles, the best bits of web copy: they probably all started life as shit. They got better because, as it turns out, you can polish a turd - actually, you have to if you want to end up with something good.

 

So, here are five tips to make your polishing more effective.

1. Do a few passes

Once you’ve got your crappy first draft, commit yourself to taking at least a few separate runs at your writing.

Even if you wrote the thing, start by reading it through. Don’t make any changes; just make a mental note of anything that’s not working (that’s Pass 1). After that, do another pass just for spelling and grammar (Pass 2, more below).

Then the fun starts: playing with structure and style to turn the mess you started with into a functioning bit of work (Pass 3, more below). Finish with one more pass holding your scissors: cut every inessential word, sentence and paragraph (Pass 4). Save, send (Pass Out, if you like).

 

2. Correct your spelling and grammar

Another maxim usually attributed (probably apocryphally) to Ernest Hemingway is write drunk, edit sober. Probably not a smart tactic for an employee (it’s not the 90s anymore), but the principle holds. When you’re writing, throw ideas at the page in whatever form comes most naturally to you - do whatever you can to get what you’re trying to say out of you and onto paper/ screen. But when you’re editing, it’s time to be sober. Turn the document into something your English teacher could read without vomiting: correct typos, check dubious spellings, and rewrite any sentences that don’t feel right. 

If you don’t have a physical dictionary, Google is your friend - just watch out for discrepancies between UK and US English.

 

3. Watch your style

Beyond the nuts and bolts of your spelling and grammar, there are a few knobbly questions of writing style that it’s worth getting right. Should it be 5 or five? The 90s or ‘90s (or, God forbid, 90’s)? Less or fewer?

For these questions, cosy up to a good style guide. In the UK, a good place to start is The Guardian Style guide. It’s designed for journalists, so some of the finer points might skew towards the journalistic, but I find it almost completely reliable. Just click on the letter that the word or topic you’re having trouble with starts with and search for that word on the page.

If you’re looking for something physical, the classic is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. If you’re in the US, you’re probably still best off with William Strunk Jr’s The Elements of Style. Garner’s Modern English Usage is also absolutely wonderful. 

For detailed style questions, the most important thing is consistency - no one really cares whether you write five or 5, but it looks sloppy if you mix them up. Stick to one rule in your piece, and maintain consistency across your site or publication by building your own in-house style guide, if you don’t already have one.

 

4. Spare a thought for structure and argument

You might not think that your piece of writing has anything to do with an argument, but it does: you’re using your writing to convince your readers of something, or make them feel something, or encourage them to do something. You should be able to say what it is you’re trying to do in a sentence or two - if you can’t, think about whether what you’re saying is really best said in this one piece; you might be better off splitting it in two.

Then think of the piece of writing in front of you as an argument to that conclusion. That doesn’t mean it should read like an essay - but it does mean that you should try to (re)shape what’s in front of you to have a structure that always pulls in the right direction. For long pieces, your thoughts and ideas should lead naturally into one another - a new paragraph should be, wherever possible, a therefore or a however, not an also (but please don’t use the words therefore or however). Even if you’re writing a humble list article, it can help to think of each paragraph or entry in the list as an argument of its own. Reshape ideas and sentences to support your argument. if you can’t, cut them.

 

5. Don’t bury the lead

This relates to structure too, but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning in its own right. The lead (sometimes lede) of your piece is its key message. For a news story, it’s the top-line event (Draw Group wins major award).

Journalists have an easy image to help you with this: the inverted pyramid (it’s just an upside-down triangle, but whatever). At the top of the triangle, the fat bit, is your lead - the most newsworthy information (the name of the award, when it was awarded). Then, a little thinner, are important details relevant to the lead (the projects that earned the award, the names of the individuals involved). At the bottom, thin end of the pyramid are other pieces of background info (what Draw is, the award’s history). The thinking behind it is obvious: your bored, busy and lazy readers can stop reading after any paragraph and understand what you were trying to get across.

Some of the pieces you could find yourself editing will benefit from having this structure - press releases, for example, have their own house style but this exact form. Clearly, though, you’d be insane to apply it to all of your product descriptions or your narrative blogs. But the principle holds: remember that you might be the only one who has enough time to read your piece to the bottom, so if you want your readers to go away having understood its message, put the most important stuff up top.

 

Happy polishing. 


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