Although I'm frequently asked about my writing process, the bulk of my work is in editing. For me, writing means getting a draft ready for the editing stages (yep, stages). It’s the prewash at the barbershop before clippers, combs, and razors shape the hair.
Writing a draft is still hard work. But we need to get away from the common tendency to judge our work based on the first draft if we want to learn how to edit like a professional. Instead, we can apply our critical thinking to the editing process and come out with polished results.
Whether you are a business owner looking for a framework to train employees or an entrepreneur seeking to improve your writing skills, this process will help you produce written work with more confidence.
Just knowing what to look for will boost your confidence immediately, and your writing will sound more elegant and professional.
How to Edit: An Overview of the Process
Whether you want to edit your own work or someone else’s, I’ve broken the process down into five steps, each with a set of questions you should be checking.
If you're new to self-editing, I recommend going through each step individually. Avoid the temptation to correct too many types of errors at once. Only edit what the section you’re on assigns you to. For example, if you’re fact-checking, stick to flagging accuracy issues rather than worry about correcting spelling errors.
Of course, do what works for you - if you’re short on time, or familiar with the steps, you can definitely multitask.
The Five-Stage Editing Framework
1. Initial Readthrough
Instructions: I recommend reading the entire piece aloud once. The goal of reading the piece out loud without editing is to get a sense of the structure, style, and scope of the piece. This is all about getting a bird's eye view before getting down to the nitty-gritty.
What is the territory of the piece?
What is the purpose of the piece?
What are the individual points? Separate the piece into its individual ideas
2. Content Edit
Instructions: Before looking at the structure, style, and issues of grammar and spelling, I like to go through the individual points one at a time to see if I can flag redundancies or missing information. This way I have less to worry about when I look at the structure, style, and layout. by catching those details, adding missing information, and removing redundant or irrelevant points.
Does every point make sense in and of itself? (If it doesn’t, make a note to clarify meaning)
Is every point relevant?
Is every point unique?
Are all the facts correct?
Is anything missing (given the purpose and territory of the piece)?
3. Structure Edit
Instructions: The structure edit looks at the organization of the piece. In other words, are the ideas presented in a way that best communicates the core purpose to the reader, in a way that will make the most sense to the reader?
What is the “angle”?
What are the key sections?
Does the order of points make sense?
What is the narrative structure?
4. Style Edit
Instructions: The style edit turns an otherwise bland, robotic presentation of information into something engaging. In this stage, we check for a narrative flow, eloquent writing free of “fluff”, and an engaging introduction and conclusion.
Is there a narrative definition?
Does it read well?
Is there any clutter?
Are the paragraphs in good shape?
Could it start better?
Could it end better?
Can we make it more evocative?
Is every person and entity correctly introduced?
5. Presentation Edit
Instructions: The presentation edit is meant to catch any smaller edits like typos, grammar, or punctuation errors. A final readthrough should catch any discrepancies in the flow, structure, or coherence.
Is the spelling, grammar, punctuation respectable?
Do the headlines and text square up?
Is everything consistent?
Read aloud once final time
One Final Tip
As you practice these questions, you will become more intuitive at editing, which will make the entire process faster. You will need practice and patience, so really put yourself into it and give yourself more time than you think you need.
And that’s it! You’ve made it!
If you take your draft through all of these five stages, you should have a professional-sounding piece. I hope this framework helps you feel more confident on the journey to better writing.