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15 top tips to help you edit your copy (or anybody else's)

Cutting, summarising and tweaking. And knowing when to stop.

[Image courtesy of Benson Kua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve always tended to dodge copy-editing jobs, as they can be frustrating.

In case you’re unclear on the difference between copywriting and copy-editing, the latter involves taking somebody else’s writing and giving it the once-over to make sure it’s in the best possible shape.

The trouble is, it’s often like trying to fix a dress that’s been badly cut, sewn or finished. Or taking a decorating or building project that’s been handled by an enthusiastic DIY-er, who just wants you to check that everything’s OK. Except it isn’t – wonky walls, mismatched colours and shaky foundations mean it would be better to start all over. 

Only starting all over isn’t an option. The budget’s been spent (or near enough) so it’s a case of pressing forward and making the best of it. 

It reminds me of the joke about the tourist who asks a local for directions. “Now if I were you,” says the old man learning on the wall, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

But sometimes you have to start from here. So how do you get to your destination?

Here are my top tips for knocking that copy into shape – whether it’s yours or somebody else’s:

  1. Get to the point sooner rather than later. Don’t waste the reader’s time with long, detailed intros. Think about how you react when you’re looking for a quick solution on the web and find a page that gives you three long paragraphs of background info. It may well have the solution further down, but that doesn’t much matter, as you’ve already clicked on the ‘back’ button.
  2. Go shorter. The last thing you want is for your reader to get lost in an interminable sentence, or a paragraph that packs in too much content. So don’t ‘do a Proust’. Instead, cut your sentences down and make sure each paragraph contains one idea. 
  3. Don’t chase the numbers – if you’ve written to a word count, you’re almost certain to have padded out your copy. So check each sentence and make sure it actually adds something to the story. If it doesn’t, be brutal and get rid of it – because quality always trumps quantity.
  4. Decide what the most important point is. Prioritise that and make all other points subservient. And if they’re really not that crucial, cut them out entirely.
  5. Read fast, then slow (aka zoom out before zooming in). It’s best when you’re trying to get a sense of the copy to skim first for an overall impression. Then do a second pass more slowly, to see if your impression is confirmed – and to identify what can be changed.
  6. Eliminate circumlocutions (aka long ways of saying something short). This goes for all copy, but especially copy that you’re trying to cut down and tighten up. So replace in spite of the fact that by though. Do the same with at this point in time (now), in the near future (soon) and time and time again (repeatedly, or often).
  7. Include more headings (and subheadings). They break up the copy and allow you to break your story into manageable chunks. And they give the reader visual stepping stones
  8. Bullet-point content. This is a really easy way to transform copy and make it more readable. Make sure that your bulleted or numbered points have a consistent approach – such as starting with a verb, as this list does. Readers may not even realize what you’re doing, but the consistency creates a rhythm that makes it easy to move from one point to the next. 
  9. Look at the copy as if it were a picture. So you’re not seeing words, but shapes. Is here enough white space? Are the paragraphs balanced? Is there enough variety to make the copy appealing?
  10. Read it backwards. This is an odd approach – and it really works best if you print out your copy – but I’ve used it on many occasions. Start with the last paragraph, and then read the one before it and so on. (If that feels to odd, then read section by section backwards.) It’s a bit like looking at a painting in a mirror, which is a trick artists use to see where they’ve gone wrong.
  11. Make your point and move on. Too often, when we’re speaking and writing, we repeat ourselves to ensure we’ve been understood. You may have heard of the term mansplaining – what men do when they patronise women with over-detailed explanations. Make sure you’re not writersplaining.
  12. Summarise everything. Everybody is time-poor and overwhelmed by inputs these days. Ever heard of ‘bounce time’? It’s how long somebody will spend on your web page before clicking somewhere else. Same goes for printed copy if you waffle. So summarise and make it easy to read.
  13. Act as if you’ve never seen it before – which is easy if it’s somebody else’s copy and you really haven’t. But I mean more than that: look at it as you’ve never seen an example of this type of copy (web page, brochure, blog post, report, white paper, case study) before. Forget your preconceptions and look at it with fresh, innocent eyes.
  14. Read it out loud. I’ve been using this tip (and banging a drum about it) for years, but recently an amateur Thespian friend give me a new spin on it. Be an actor, he said. Adopt a voice that suits the tone of the copy. Now do you like the person you’ve become? Do you like the way your copy speaks to your clients? You’ll be surprised at how effective this technique is.
  15. Print it out – and edit with a highlighter pen. Don’t make a first pass on screen, as you’re bound to miss something. In an age when everything has gone virtual, having a hard copy in one hand and a pen in the other creates a sensory perception that fundamentally changes the way you interact with the words.

And lastly, when you’ve done your best, call it a day and move on. There’s no such thing as perfect copy, and good enough is good enough. 

And there’s always something else that needs your red pen.