“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” - Mark Twain
In my experience, editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process.
It makes writing clearer, sharper, and smoother, more concise, more coherent, and more compelling. In other words, editing takes good writing and makes it great.
And once you know how to do it, it’s actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process, too. (Few things are more satisfying than sitting back after a good round of editing and thinking, “Okay. We’re good to go.”)
Whether you’re writing for clients, your company, or yourself, honing your self-editing skills is a quick and easy way to improve your writing. For freelance writers, it’s an essential skill and can help you land higher-paying clients.
In this article, we pulled together advice from Eleven’s team of professional writers, editors, and account managers to create a short, practical, powerful guide to self-editing. You’ll learn what to watch for, how to fix common mistakes, and how long it should take.
Some tips before you start
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t edit immediately after writing. Unless you’re on a very tight deadline, be sure to take at least a few hours away from your first draft before editing it. Go for a walk, watch an episode of Friends, make yourself a cup of tea, work on something else—whatever. Your brain needs time to reflect, reorient, and regroup. You’ll spot more, move faster, and enjoy it better.
- Don’t edit when you’re tired. You’re more likely to miss or introduce errors if you try to edit while you’re tired, whether mentally or physically. If possible, edit in the morning, when your mind is clear and alert.
- Read your work out loud. Reading your work out loud will help you spot awkward sentences, logical inconsistencies, spelling and grammar mistakes, and more. You’ll have an easier time assessing flow, brevity, and tone, too.
- Focus on the 20% of effort that gets you 80% of results. Ask any author and they’ll tell you, It’s never going to be perfect. We all have deadlines to keep. Focus on the big picture and getting better each time, rather than spending hours and hours picking over individual words and phrases.
How to self-edit your writing
We recommend self-editing in three, short “passes.”
The first pass looks at high-level issues and takes about 10 minutes for a 2,000-word article. The second pass looks at sentence-level issues (30-40 minutes), and the final pass is a last check for grammar and spelling (10 minutes).
After completing these three, quick passes, you’ll find your article is clearer, more coherent, and more enjoyable to read. And knowing this, you can hit the Submit button with confidence.
Plus, you can use an AI like ChatGPT to simplify and hasten the process. We’ve provided prompts you can use throughout this article to make it even easier.
First Pass: User Intent (5-10 minutes)
Put down your pen, and read through your article start to finish. Does it:
- Answer the reader’s question (i.e., user intent)
- Stay focused and avoid tangents
- Provide practical value
- Speak to a specific audience
If the answer to any of these is “no” or even “kind of”, highlight the sections that need adjusting and rewrite them accordingly.
As a general rule, ChatGPT is decent at spotting high-level issues but not fantastic. You should still carefully consider each of these points yourself. Use ChatGPT to quickly catch the most obvious issues, then trust your writer’s instincts to refine it further.
Second Pass: Structure and Tone (30-40 minutes)
Now it’s time to dig into the nitty-gritty. This is where we rewrite individual sentences and tweak words and phrases.
You can ask ChatGPT to assess each of these individually or all at once. You’ll get better results checking them individually, but it takes longer. You’ll find individual prompts below.
Here’s what to watch for:
Brevity is the soul of wit—and great writing, it turns out.
As you edit, do your best to identify and remove superfluous words.
- Words implied by context: I recently edited an article for a client entitled How to open a window washing business. The words “as a window washing business”, “for a window washing business”, “of a window washing business,” appeared several times. In most cases, this wasn’t necessary—the reader knows the article is about window washing, so we needn’t repeat it each time.
- Redundant Adjectives/Adverbs: "Absolutely essential" → "essential"; “Completely unanimous” → “unanimous”
- Redundant Phrases: "End result" → "result"; “Past history” → “history”
- Empty Phrases: "It goes without saying" can usually be removed. So can “for all intents and purposes” and “in order to” (replace with just “to”, as in, “He ran down the stairs in order to open the window.”).
- Redundant Categories: "Unexpected surprise" → "surprise"; “New innovation” → innovation”
- Tautological Expressions: "Repeat again" → "repeat"; “Free gift" → "gift"
- Verbose Constructions: "Due to the fact that" → "because"; "at this point in time" → "now"; “Despite the fact that” → “Although”
You’ll find many other cases as you go hunting for unnecessary words. Be ruthless in cutting these out.
You can follow Stephen King’s Rule of 10%: after editing, your content should be about 10% shorter. For example, a first draft of 1000 words should result in a final draft of 900 words.
- Be sure to check out these tips to eliminate fluff from your writing, too.
The urge to be as clear as possible can lead to over-explaining. That is, saying the same thing two or three times in slightly different ways.
Most of the time, this isn't necessary. In fact, your readers may even find it tedious or confusing.
Instead, try to explain concepts in simple terms and just once.
Likewise, you may find you’ve said the same thing multiple times under different headings. If this is the case, combine sections or adjust them to be more specific and focused.
Qualifiers and hedging words
Qualifiers are words or phrases that modify or limit the meaning of another word, such as "some," "many," "most," "often," and phrases like "to some extent," or "in certain conditions."
Hedging refers to the use of cautious, non-committal language. It involves using phrases like "can be,” “may be,” "sometimes," "one of," and "potentially" to avoid making definitive statements or claims.
Both should be used sparingly. They reduce impact and can make your writing seem vague.
Instead, write with confidence and state concepts clearly. The reader understands this is your opinion as an author.
In technical terms, passive voice is when the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence. For example:
“The cake was eaten by Mary.”
It always involves the use of a helping verb (“is eaten”, “was eaten”, “will be eaten”, “has been eaten”, etc.).
By comparison, active voice is shorter and generally more impactful. For example:
“Mary ate the cake.”
Clarity means expressing ideas in a simple, straightforward manner, using simple words and “plain language.”
Here are some tips:
- Eliminate fancy words. Everybody likes to flex their vocabulary muscles now and then. Just make sure it’s not at the expense of clarity. Keep your audience in mind, and write in a way that requires minimal effort on their part.
- Avoid complex sentence structures that involve multiple clauses. These are often signaled by lots of commas or semicolons. You can use a tool like Hemingway or Readable to help you spot long, complex sentences until you’re able to do so on your own.
- Vary sentence length to keep readers engaged and create rhythm. Use short sentences for emphasis and longer ones to provide detail and context. (Check out our article here on how to vary sentence length.)
- Check logical flow with an AI. Logical flow refers to the coherent and meaningful progression of ideas in writing. Unsurprisingly, AI is great at spotting issues here. Paste your article into ChatGPT and ask it to “identify sentences or paragraphs with poor logical flow.”
Vague, generalized statements will add very little value to your article and leave your readers feeling frustrated or confused.
If the reader is left asking, “why?” or “how?”, we haven’t done our job.
- Mexican restaurants are great for going on a date. They have some of the best things to do for people who like to go out.
This is too vague—why are Mexican restaurants “great”? What kind of “things” are there? We haven’t said anything to separate Mexican restaurants from restaurants in general.
Instead, we could write:
- Mexican restaurants feature bold, fresh food. Plus, they often have lively music and an upbeat atmosphere—just what you need for date night.
Since they’re so prevalent by nature, it’s easy to let clichés slip into our writing. Generally, though, they add very little to your writing. They may even make it seem insipid or uninspired.
Common clichés include:
- Think outside the box.
- Like the plague.
- A picture is worth a thousand words.
- Dime a dozen.
- At the end of the day.
- Better late than never.
- Killing two birds with one stone.
- Last but not least.
- Bite the bullet.
- Call it a day.
- Every cloud has a silver lining.
- It's not rocket science.
- Let the cat out of the bag.
- Reading between the lines.
- Once in a blue moon.
- The real deal.
- Take it with a grain of salt.
Tone refers to the attitude or emotion conveyed by your writing. This could be casual, professional, fun, irreverent, humble, or helpful.
It’s important your tone (a) matches your audience and (b) remains consistent.
If you’re not sure how to adjust your tone, you can paste your article into ChatGPT and ask it to assess the tone. Describe your audience and ask if it matches and what changes you could make for a better fit. Remember to evaluate ChatGPT’s suggestions on a case-by-case basis, as AIs are prone to mistakes, just like humans.
Knowledge and reading level
It’s important your article matches the reading level and knowledge of your audience. If the reading level is far too high or you’ve made too many assumptions about what your audience knows, your article will be difficult to read. If it’s too low or basic, it will be boring.
For example, expert photographers will know what “contrast ratio” means, but beginners might not. Likewise, anything more than a basic description of “shutter speed” in an article for expert photographers will lose their interest.
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes; are there terms they’re likely to be unfamiliar with? Be sure to define them.
Final Pass: Spelling and grammar (5-10 minutes)
Proofreading is best saved for last, as you may end up rewriting large chunks of your text in previous steps.
Use a spell checker like Grammarly to avoid missing silly mistakes.
Watch for these common errors that spell checkers sometimes miss:
- Punctuation: Make sure you understand semicolons, dashes, and commas. Watch for apostrophes (“it’s” vs “its”) and inappropriate use of commas.
- Compound words: When I first started writing, I’d often mix up “set up” and “setup.” Many compound words also work as two separate words, so they’re easy to mix up. For more help with this, read our article One Word or Two?
- Parallelism: When writing a list or joining elements with “and”, be sure to use the same sentence structure. For example, “To get ready for bed, I brush my teeth (conjugated verb), putting on my pajamas (gerund), and to read for a bit (infinitive).” → “To get ready for bed, I brush my teeth, put on my pajamas, and read for a bit.” (All conjugated verbs.)
- Pronoun agreement: Spell-check rarely catches correct pronouns, so pay attention to them. For example: “When describing your work and experience, make sure it reflects your strengths.”—it’s likely “they” would work better than “it” here.
For more tips, check out our blog for articles on common grammar mistakes and style questions.
Never before have there been so many tools at our disposal as writers. Books offer a comprehensive look at subjects like style and finding your voice. AI simplifies and quickens tedious and even complex tasks, and checklists help ensure nothing gets missed.
AI is the most powerful tool in the modern writer’s toolbelt.
In addition to the uses given above, AI also works great as a reverse dictionary (“What’s a word that means ‘done with great effort’?”), a thesaurus (“Give me ten alternatives for ‘challenging’.”), and for satisfying the Rule of Three (“Finish this sentence: ‘AI works great as a reverse dictionary, thesaurus, and ______.’”)
In fact, you can use it to fill in just about any blank in your writing. When I can’t think of a word, I just put _________ and come back to it later. If I still can’t think of it, ChatGPT can give me three options, and they’re usually spot-on.
One important caveat: Treat AI as a collaborator, not an infallible expert. It may miss errors or hallucinate (say things that aren’t true).
To dive deeper into self-editing, books and style guides are your best resource:
- Willian Strunk’s The Elements of Style is considered a bible for many writers and editors. Published in many updated editions over the last 100 years, it concisely explains what to pay attention to when writing and editing, with tons of examples.
- Style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style and the APA Style Guide are valuable for consistency and answering style questions.
- Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit will help with expressing your unique voice in writing and editing—something just as important as technical knowledge.
The editing process is long, and checklists can help you stay on target. We’ve made a free, downloadable checklist based on this article. Download it, save it, and use it to make sure you don’t miss anything when self-editing.
- Click here to download our official editors’ checklist.
Editing is all about refining. The best way to self-edit is to make three passes:
- A quick, high-level read-through for user intent
- An in-depth edit for structure and content; and
- A final once-over for grammar and spelling.
For the best results, leave time between when you finish your first draft and start editing. Focus on big-picture issues, read your work out-loud, and don’t edit when you’re tired.
Use AI as a collaborator to help spot issues, rewrite awkward sentences, assess tone and reading level, and more.
Photo by Vlada Karpovich
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