There are plenty of challenges involved with writing about an idea, but the editing stage is what really differentiates an article or essay. Having a great editor helps a ton, but in a pinch, there are also plenty of ways to detach yourself from your own writing to make sure everyone reading it can understand your message.
I did a short presentation about editing at the Wistia office a week or so ago, so this seemed like a good time to write about my own editing tools and processes.
While machines can’t do everything, they’re definitely handy assistants. Here are a few tools I’ve found useful for editing:
This one’s almost too obvious to bring up, but as a starting point, Google Docs are the perfect tool for collaboration. If you’re unsure about any aspect of your draft, whether it’s clarity, structure, or simply how to make it interesting for other people, having someone else look it over and leave comments is indispensable.
If Google Docs overwhelms your senses, allow Medium’s editor to soothe your woes. Medium built all of their tools specifically for writers, and their gorgeous editor makes writing and editing a pleasure. You can invite friends or collaborators to leave comments on your draft privately, even if you don’t plan to publish your article on Medium in the end.
I’ve seen Hemingway posted a lot in writer circles recently, and while I’m a bit skeptical of its inhumanity, it’s helpful for pinpointing problematic patterns. Paste your draft into Hemingway and the app will detect excessive adverbs, run-on sentences, and more.
I’m guilty of developing transitory word crushes for stints of about a month or so. These crushes, not content to sit quietly on the verbal backburner, have an annoying tendency to make themselves known in my writing. Wordcounter ranks the most repeated words in a draft so you can thesaurus away the words you use too often.
This Title Capitalization tool has saved me a lot of time looking up weird rules for when to capitalize things in titles. It uses the Chicago Manual of Style, if that’s something you wonder about. We obviously did not use it for this post, and look what happened.
Drawing from the Associated Press Guide to News Writing, the Cliche Finder detects journalistic cliches so you can make sure not to overuse them.
The Passivator browser plugin does a pretty good job detecting adverbs and passive voice in writing that’s already been published on a web page. However, as the page itself notes, “Although the Passivator is a useful tool for flagging potential offenders, it could be pretty misleading for those who don’t understand the distinction between passive and active voice,” so, you know, trust your instincts and study up.
TextSoap is an awesome tool for automating out your stylistic pet peeves. For example, I get livid just thinking about double-spaces after periods (looking at you, Ezra!) and curly-quotes, and TextSoap fixes them in a single click. TextSoap’s built-in formula has worked fine for me, but you can also build your own formulas for custom needs.
I often find myself repeating these suggestions as friends edit their work:
Yes, you might feel a little bit crazy reading out loud to yourself. Yes, it is worth it. There’s no quicker way to figure out that a sentence is awkward or confusing.
Here at Wistia, we also do “workshops” around each major blog post. In each of these workshops, three or four of us sit down and read a post aloud together to tweak it to perfection (or as close as we can get it).
Adding headings can help readers, and it also serves as an editing tool! Once you have a draft down, experimenting with how your article would look broken down into “sections” gives you a better idea of how it’s structured — and how it could be structured better.
Pay a lot of attention to repetition and redundancy. If one paragraph or sentence is saying the same thing as another, cut it ruthlessly. Don’t allow yourself to get too attached to particular sections of your writing, even if it means taking a day or two away from the piece. Don’t write something long for the sake of writing something long. Make every word count.
I usually incorporate two separate editing phases: one for grammatical nitpicks, and another for structure and message. During the grammar phase, I get an idea of what the article is trying for and get rid of minor, distracting errors that would otherwise drive me nuts. This way, when I enter the next phase of editing, I can focus more on giving deeper feedback about higher-level concepts.
A few short tips for keeping articles legible that are always worth repeating:
- Break up long paragraphs.
- Strive for short, simple sentences.
- Help skimmers by repeating pronouns in new paragraphs and adding explanatory headings.
- Don’t make people feel stupid when they’re reading your work! Define any jargon or cultural references (even if it’s just by linking the source).
- Make long text feel more readable by incorporating images or lists.
This isn’t a be-all-end-all guide to editing, and as a whole, I think the most important thing is to practice! Practice editing your own writing. Offer to edit others’ writing. These efforts will add up to being a better writer and communicator as a whole.