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Is your inner editor trampling your content?

Great content is more the result of good editing than anything that occurs during the first draft.

For evidence, look no further than author Vladimir Nabokov, who said “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” (An original Nabokov manuscript proves his point.)

One might say that good content begins with a solid idea. But writers often don’t know exactly what they want to say until they put words down on the page. Their initial ideas, however promising at first glance, can morph and merge into something quite different (and usually better). That refinement process—the practice of taking copy from “so-so” to spectacular—occurs during the editing stage.

This method might sound counterintuitive, but that’s how great writers really work.

Still, there’s a right and wrong way to edit. Here are some tips to help keep your inner editor from short-circuiting your marketing content:

Write first, edit later

First, recognize that editing is the stage in the writing process where you should exert the most time and energy. Editing begins after you’ve completed a quick and dirty first draft (it’s usually so rough, I call it “draft zero”).

Please resist the urge to correct your spelling, punctuation and word choices as you write the first draft. That’s like trying to fill potholes in the road while you’re driving—it will only slow you down and prevent you from finishing a piece quickly.

Before editing your own work, set it aside for a day (or at least a few hours if possible) to gain some distance and allow yourself a more objective view of your writing.

Look at the big picture

Once you’re ready to review a first draft, don’t sweat the small stuff (that comes later). Take a 20,000-foot view of the piece by doing some macro-editing. Put your pen away and keep your fingers off the keyboard (sit on your hands if you must). Read through the entire piece and focus on big-picture questions like:

  • What’s the main point?
  • Is there enough information to support the main point?
  • Are there any weak areas that need bolstering?
  • Is there any unnecessary information?
  • Is the piece well-organized or does it need restructuring?
  • Is the tone appropriate?
  • Does the piece leave the reader with unanswered questions?

There’s no sense in focusing on details like whether or not to use a semicolon if there are problems at the macro level.

Get after the nitty gritty

After ironing out any big picture issues, it’s time for micro-editing. You might be tempted to edit on-screen, but it’s much easier to mark up a printed page. Our eyes often gloss over mistakes on a screen that stand out when printed.

Now it’s time to consider spelling, grammar, punctuation and word choice. Some writers are resistant to using a thesaurus when they edit. But the thesaurus is one of the most important tools in a writer’s arsenal. As Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” I use the thesaurus available in Word and at merriam-webster.com.

Before declaring a work “finished,” run a spelling and grammar check including Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics. Correct any lingering issues like passive sentences and look for ways to shorten and simplify the text.

Run your copy by a colleague who can offer informed feedback before the piece is published. Another set of eyes can identify trouble spots that might not be obvious to you.

Great writing rarely appears on the first key stroke. Master the art of editing and your content will surely rise from “meh” to “marvelous.

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