Whether you need to adhere to a word count, or just want to sharpen your piece, here are ten tips for editing.
I know it hurts, but that bit you’re looking at? The paragraph you love? Well, it doesn’t really fit, does it? Sure, it’s good. But far from perfect.
To create an effective piece of text, you must, as William Faulkner put it, “kill your darlings.” However much you may love it, if it doesn’t fit, then it must go. Don’t be afraid: if you don’t cut it, somebody else will.
2. Read it aloud.
The only way to find out if it sounds right is… well, if you read it out. It’s okay, you don’t have to make a speech to hundreds of people. Just read it to yourself. You’ll know which bits sound clumpy, or awkward. You’ll know which bits sound great (“Mental note: never, ever delete that bit”). Cut as appropriate. Remember not to be too critical though!
3. Avoid repetition.
You’ll normally find repetition when reading the text aloud. Unless it’s for a particular purpose, try to get rid of it; replace it, or re-arrange the sentences.
4. Think about your audience.
What is the purpose of your text? Is it to inform, entertain, or persuade? Read your text through. What will your audience think and feel? Will they be informed, entertained or persuaded? What will keep their interest and what will they skip over?
5. Get someone else to read it.
Sometimes you’ll miss something. A tiny little error – a misplaced colon, perhaps – or something a bit bigger – “What does that mean?” Your critical eye might be blind to something, so why not test it on a member of your audience? Someone you trust will critique your work sensitively, while also pointing out flaws, is invaluable.
6. Use the active voice.
Typically, it’s best to use the active voice. That means the subject is doing something to the object. For example:
Active: The cat chased a mouse.
Passive: A mouse was chased by the cat.
Very similar, but there is a difference, I promise. We do this naturally, but occasionally a bit of the passive voice can sneak in. The active voice tends to be more concise, and easier to read, so it’s in your best interests to check each sentence. However tedious.
7. Keep tenses the same.
Past, present, future; clearly all very different. But in a text, we can easily flit between them, particularly the former two. Sometimes it’s really hard to find these little mistakes, but try reading it out to yourself, or ask someone else to read it. It may seem like an amateur mistake, but everyone does it.
8. Check spelling and grammar.
A great tip I’ve recently picked up is to read a sentence backwards. You won’t focus on the actual sentence; instead you’ll see the words themselves, and pick up anything that doesn’t adhere to the rule, “’i’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c’”… unless of course, if it’s the exception that proves the rule. After reading it backwards (surprisingly tough), it’ll be such a relief to read it normally again, and pick up on any grammatical errors.
9. Avoid repetition.
Sorry. It’s a cheap joke.
10. Come back to it tomorrow.
The most important tip? Don’t try to edit the text straight after you’ve written it. Put it in a drawer somewhere, and come back to it sometime later. It’ll seem fresh to your relaxed brain, and you’ll be able to edit much easier.
FURTHER READING: How to work as a Freelance Journalist by Marc Leverton.