I love writing, but I’m just no good at that whole grammar thing. No one cares about that, right?
Have you ever said anything like that? Well, I’m here to set the record straight and provide you with the editing tips you need to ditch that thought. Not everyone will be able to define the distinctions between there, their and they’re or clarify when to use shoe’s or shoes. (Most likely shoes. Unless your shoes own a lot of things.) But most people will notice when you regularly get it wrong. And they’ll think that you’re not very smart, or that you don’t care. Or maybe both.
Here are the four most important (and easiest) editing tips for non-editors. We’re not going to worry about splitting infinitives or addressing excess adverbs or debating serial commas. Not only because I’m still totally torn on that last one. But those things can be overwhelming and confusing and then you have to start parsing your sentences into word types and that just sounds way too much like a high school English class. (If a high school English class sounds like a great time to you, stick around. We’ll dive into some of those edits later.) But for you, my friend who just wants to make sure her writing is clear and professional, these are your four areas—and a few tips to help you get them right.
- Too many words.
- Basic grammar and punctuation.
- Sentence structure.
Use this quick list of editing tips before you publish your next blog post, write your next Instagram caption, or prepare your next magazine pitch. I’ve also put together a downloadable checklist. You can print it out and check it off old-school style, or open it in your PDF reader and check it off digitally.
Too many words
1. Get to the point. Go through the whole piece of writing and define what’s most important. Try explaining the point of the post (or chapter or article) in one or two sentences. Have you left anything out? If there’s content that’s not your main point does it add value or colour? If not, toss it.
2. Wordiness. Avoid unnecessary phrases (in order to, I think that) or redundancies (totally comprehensive, absolutely certain). Check out this list for more examples.
3. Basic words. Are you using lists of basic words when one descriptive word would do? There’s a lot to be said for clear and simple writing, but sometimes the effect of one appropriate word is much more powerful than a list of vague ones. For example, “she said quietly” or “she whispered”. Check out this post for more tips.
Basic grammar and punctuation
4. Spelling. Most of the time you’ll be able to catch spelling mistakes with the help of those red squiggly lines and an extra minute of time. An editor’s tip is to read your work backwards. Because your brain isn’t filling in the blanks as quickly, you’re more likely to catch anything weird or words that you’ve repeated.
5. Common misuses. (Your. You’re. They’re. There. Their.) Now I know you’re doing your best to get this right and I just want to say: there, they’re, their. (I’m really sorry. I had to.) Here’s a good resource for remembering the differences.
6. Apostrophes y’all. Today’s online content has about 86% more apostrophes than are necessary. If you’re just talking about more than one of something (plural), you don’t need it. If something belongs to someone (possessive), you do. If you’re taking two words and making them into one (contractions), you do. Another good resource.
7. Commas. Are there any sentences with more than one comma? Take another look; do all the commas feel necessary? Do you have any sentences with a comma right in the middle? If you can separate the two halves into separate sentences, you don’t want a comma. Use a semicolon, make it two sentences, or add a conjunction (words like and, but, or).
8. Variety is the spice of life (and writing). One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to add variety to your sentence structure. When we first learn to write, we are taught the simplest sentence structure. Subject + verb. For example, “I jump” or “The dog barks”. Then we start adding more detail, including objects and maybe piecing two sentences together to form a compound sentence.
But it’s not until our reading and writing skills become more sophisticated that we start playing with placement. That’s why our most natural starting place is the simple subject and verb composition. That can get monotonous when you start stringing a lot of those sentences together.
Go back through your writing and take a look at how the sentences are structured. Try placing the subject in the middle of the sentence or joining two simple sentences together. Getting this to sound natural will take a bit of work, so if you feel like it sounds awkward, don’t force it. Eventually varying your sentences will start to become a habit. I have distinct memories of deliberately practicing different structures and now it’s not something I think about that often.
9. Check your words. Does your writing sound like you? Are you using words in your writing that you’d never say?
10. Write like you talk and embrace the first draft. When in doubt, write it exactly how you’d explain it to a friend if you were talking to them and then go back and trim out the excess. Think of your first draft as the talking version. When we’re talking we start with the first thing that comes to mind. Then we expand on that with more sentences. The benefit of writing is that we can go back and include the information from those subsequent thoughts right into the first sentence. But you don’t have to do it all from the beginning.
11. Keep it simple. The saddest thing to do is over complicate your writing. Write as naturally as possible and then use these tips to fine tune. At the end of the day, good grammar and punctuation are only there to enhance your voice.
Now, are you always going to get things right? I don’t. But that’s the beauty of creating. You learn the rules so you can break them. And following these quick editing tips will convince anyone reading your work that you’re smart and you care. Because you totally are and you totally do.
Download the editing tips checklist and get access to a ton of other creative resources!