5 tips to help (me) edit text

We can do it!I have two degrees in journalism and I run a workshop on good web writing. Yet, I’ve found myself quiver a little lately when I’ve had to put my money where my mouth is and do some serious editing.

Editing is usually daunting, or at the very least, somewhat difficult to many. When it’s your own text, it seems there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying and when it’s someone else’s, well, who are you to say things sound better the way you say them?

The more creative and personal the text is, the more difficult it is to edit. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with poems and diary entries. In journalism, as in web writing, there are some clear guidelines how to craft a “good” sentence.

You can ask yourself some simple questions.

  • Can you understand the sentence with one read?
  • Is there too much background/context?
  • In long sentences, can you take words out without losing the meaning?
  • Does it work better as two sentences?
  • Etc.

But that’s another blog post. For now, I’ve put together a list to try and help others who are agonising over the practicalities of editing.

This list is completely subjective and will definitely not work for everyone. Try it and let me know.

1. Don’t modify the document itself

Not for the fear of losing and never being able to retrieve important text, but simply because it’s more difficult. Especially for texts that need a lot of work.

Print out a copy, highlight important bits and start typing in a new, empty document.

Ok, I don’t do this every time. But at the very least, I push the original paragraph lower down, rewrite or rearrange on an empty line and delete the original after that.

2. Be bold

Save a copy of the original document and go wild. Be ruthless. Just delete things. See if you can make the big text masses breathe by chopping things to pieces.

You might be surprised. When you have peeled away all the unnecessary fluff and only the core of the sentence remains, you won’t even remember what it was originally hiding behind.

3. Always aim to simplify

I have exciting news for you…! If you make a sentence too short, you can always add words. Peel right into the core and add a flourish with one or two big words if needed.

And don’t even think about calling it “dumbing down”. It’s impossible to dumb down something that is inherently intelligent (if it’s not, then you have a different problem). You’re simply making it understandable to everyone. No one will miss the jargon. They’ll be too pleased with themselves that they’ve understood something with just one quick read.

4. Ask for a second opinion

You will quickly become blind to your own writing habits and easily constrained by the way you’re used to constructing sentences.

If you can’t get anyone to give you honest feedback, at the very least, take a break from your text. Do something different. Sleep on it if you can and come back with a fresh pair of eyes and a critical attitude.

5. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it

Not all sentences need changing. And sometimes even the smallest edit will take you a long way.

That’s it. Time to get back to the editing…

Image: iStockphoto