25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy

Writers: Learn to edit your work
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Writers rarely spit out their best copy on the first draft. (If you meet a writer who claims to have the secret for doing so, please let the rest of us know.) First drafts — and second drafts and sometimes thirds — exist to hash your ideas out on paper. After you’ve revised your book, story, blog post or article until you can revise no more, you just hand it off to your editor to clean up, right?

Well, that’d be ideal. But most of us don’t have the luxury of hiring an expensive editor to review our personal blog post. And since procrastination is the writer’s best friend, you probably don’t have time to even ask a fellow writer pal take a quick peek for errors.

And so, it falls to you to be your own editor. Is it really possible edit your own work when all the words you just finished writing are so precious? Yes! It can be done — and for the sake of making your writing stand out, it must be done. Grab your red pen, pull up your most recently saved draft, and get to work with these 25 tips to tighten your own copy.

1. Cut long sentences in two

I’m not talking about run-on sentences. Many long sentences are grammatically correct. But long sentences often contain several ideas, so they can easily lose the reader’s focus because they don’t provide a break, leading readers to get stuck or lose interest, and perhaps the reader might get bored and go watch TV instead.

See what I mean? If you spot a comma-heavy sentence, try to give each idea its own sentence.

2. Axe the adverbs (a.k.a. -ly words)

Adverbs weaken your copy because these excess words are not truly descriptive. Rather than saying the girl runs quickly, say she sprints. Instead of describing the cat as walking slowly, say he creeps or tiptoes. The screen door didn’t shut noisily, it banged shut.

Find a more powerful verb to replace the weak verb + weak -ly adverb combo.

3. Stick to one voice

Sometimes it’s necessary to use both first and second person, but that can be jarring for readers. For example, you might start your introduction talking about yourself, then switch halfway through the piece and start addressing the reader. Try to stick to “I” voice or “you” voice throughout one piece of writing.

And if you must switch, start with one and finish with the other. Don’t move back and forth between the two. Your readers will get lost.

4. Remove extra punctuation

A powerful hyphen here and a thought-provoking semicolon there can be effective. But a piece of writing littered with all sorts of punctuation — parentheses, colons, ellipses, etc. — doesn’t flow well.

Oftentimes, you can eliminate these extra pieces of punctuation with commas or by ending a sentence and starting a new one — and that makes your writing that much stronger.

5. Replace negative with positive

Instead of saying what something isn’t, say what it is. “You don’t want to make these mistakes in your writing” could be better stated as “You want to avoid these mistakes in your writing.” It’s more straightforward.

If you find negative statements in your writing that contain don’t, shouldn’t, can’t or another such word, find a way to rewrite them without the “not.” That will probably mean you need to find a more powerful verb.

6. Replace stuffy words with simple ones

Some people think jargon makes their writing sound smart, but you know better. Good writing does not confuse readers. If they need to grab a dictionary to finish a sentence, your writing has room for improvement.

To get your point across, use words people are familiar with. The English language has thousands of words. You can certainly find a shorter or more common word in your thesaurus than a jargony one.

7. Remove redundancies

You don’t need to say the exact same thing with two words. Did you catch the redundant words in that sentence? Here’s a better version: you don’t need to say the same thing with two words.

Brand new, advance planning, basic necessities… the list of these common phrases is longer than this blog post. Check out About.com’s 200 Common Redundancies and then start snipping!

Sometimes sneaky redundancies are separated by an “and.” If you say your sentences are straightforward and to-the-point, they are neither. You don’t need both words. Your sentences are straightforward. Or, your sentences are to-the-point.

8. Reduce prepositions

Though prepositions (of, in, to, for, etc.) are helpful little words, they make sentences more lengthy because they cannot stand alone. Prepositions need lots of friends. By cutting the preposition and the words that follow, you can cut three, four or even five words. Sometimes a prepositional phrase can be replaced with just one more direct word, or cut completely.

An easy way to cut prepositions is to look for opportunities to make something possessive. The car of your neighbor is really just your neighbor’s car.

9. Cut “in order to”

You never need it. If you’re going to the kitchen in order to make a sandwich… Your sentence could be tighter. Because you’re really going to the kitchen to make a sandwich.

That “in order to” makes it take a millisecond longer to arrive at the meaty part of the sentence, which means your story is dragging more than it needs to.

10. Don’t use “start to”

Did you start to walk the dog, or did you walk the dog? Is the car starting to roll down the hill, or is it rolling down the hill? “Start to” is a more difficult phrase to deal with than “in order to,” because sometimes you do need it. But more likely than not, you don’t

Rather than making “start” the active verb, use the verb that’s actually more active — like walking or rolling — to tell your story.

11. Nix “that”

In about five percent of your sentences (total guess from the grammar police), “that” makes your idea easier to understand. In the other 95 percent, get rid of it! “I decided that journalism was a good career for me” reads better as “I decided journalism was a good career for me.”

12. Replace “thing” with a better word

Usually when we write “thing” or “things,” it’s because we were too lazy to think of a better word. In every day life, we may ask for “that thing over there,” but in your writing, calling anything a “thing” does not help your reader. Try to replace all “thing” or “things” with a more descriptive word.

13. Try really hard to spot instances of “very” and “really”

This is a very difficult one to remember. I almost never get it right, until I go back through my copy, and the word jumps out at me, and then I change the sentence to “This is a difficult one to remember.” Because really, how much is that “very” helping you get your point across?

It doesn’t make the task sound more difficult. Same thing with “really.” It’s not a “really” difficult tip to remember. It’s simply a difficult tip to remember. Got it?

14. Make your verbs stronger

“Make” is sometimes used in the same way as “start to,” in place of what could be a stronger verb. For example, I first titled this post, I wrote “25 ways to make your copy stronger.” When I re-read it, I realized the verb wasn’t strong. I’d used “make” as the verb, when it doesn’t tell the reader much at all. So I changed the title to “25 ways to strengthen your copy.” Eventually I realized “tighten” was an even better verb.

15. Ditch the passive voice

As this UNC handout explains, using the passive voice isn’t really wrong. But whenever you have the chances to make your writing clearer, you should  — and avoiding the passive voice is one of those instances.

I know the passive voice when I see it, but I’m bad at explaining it, so I’m going to leave that to Grammar Girl. Explaining grammar is her specialty.

16. Refer to people as “who” not “that”

John is the guy who always forgets his shoes, not the guy that always forgets his shoes. It’s easy to make this mistake because that has become acceptable in everyday conversations. But it’s more noticeable when it’s written down.

17. Avoid “currently”

“Currently” is virtually always redundant. Don’t write: “Tom Jones is currently a communications director.” If Tom Jones is anything, he’s that at that moment; you don’t need “currently” to clarify. Just get rid of it.

18. Eliminate “there is” or “there are” at the beginning of sentences

This is often a symptom of lazy writing. There are lots of better, more interesting ways to start sentences. Oops. See how easy it is to make this mistake? Instead of starting a sentence with “there is,” try turning the phrase around to include a verb or start with you.

For example, replace the sentence above with “Start your sentences in a more interesting way.” If your copy includes a lot of phrases that begin with “there is” or “there are,” put some time into rewriting most of them.

19. Match up your bullet points

Bullet points are a popular and effective way to organize complex ideas. Just make sure your bullets correspond to one another.

Too often, writers mix and match mistakes with what you should do or make transition to shoulds halfway through the post — which only confuses the reader.

If your piece is called 3 Career Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make, here’s a bullet point that works:

  • Forgetting to tailor your resume each time you apply for a job

Here’s one that doesn’t work (because it’s not actually a mistake — the writer inadvertedly switched to what you should do):

  • Make sure you tailor your resume

Often you can turn any idea into a tip by adding a verb. For example: “Remember that sitting on your head helps you write better.” Make your bullet points consistent and your writing will read more smoothly.

20. Use contractions

Which sounds more personable: I am heading to the market that is close to my house, or I’m heading to the market that’s close to my house? Contractions make your writing sound friendlier, like you’re (not you are) a real person. And that makes it easier to connect with readers.

Contractions can also make your post easier to read and comprehend. So go out of your way to include them in your posts! Your editor will thank you.

21. Steer clear of the ing trap

“We were starting to …” or “She was skiing toward …” Whenever you see an ing in your copy, think twice about whether you need it — because you probably don’t.

Instead, get rid of were or was, then eliminate that ing and replace it with past tense: “We started to …” or “She skied toward …” Pruning excessive “ings” makes your writing clearer and easier to read.

22. Check your commas with that and which

When used as a descriptor, the word “which” takes a comma. But the word “that” doesn’t. For example: “We went to the house that collapsed yesterday” or “We went to the house, which collapsed yesterday.” Confused about when to use “that” vs. “which?” Grammar Girl offers a great explanation.

23. Replace “over” with “more than” for numbers

Over 200 people did not like your Facebook page — more than 200 people did. Of course, everyone will know what you mean if you use “over.” But using “more than” is one of those little details that will help your writing shine.

24. Hyphenate modifiers

Whenever you modify a noun with more than one word, you need a hyphen. Lots of people don’t follow this rule, so it’s a great way to show you actually walk the walk. That means you need a hyphen if you’re writing about full-time work.

But you don’t need one if you’re working full time. Got it? The exception: No need to hyphenate modifiers that end in “ly.” Those are OK on their own. So your newly hired employee doesn’t need that hyphen.

25. Identify your tells

No matter how good of a writer you are, when you sit down to write a first draft, you have a tendency to spit out sentences in a certain way or use certain words. The more familiar you become with editing your own copy, the more quickly you should be able to pick up on your tells. And, the more ruthless you can be to eliminate them from your writing.

“Start to” plagued me while writing my book; I made the “start to” mistake again and again. But once I knew to look for it during revisions, I was able to correct it. (Hint: If this is a problem for you, try using Word’s search function to look for “start.” You’ll catch each one, so you can evaluate them individually.)

Some of these tips originally ran on Copyblogger and AlexisGrant.com.

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Comments

  1. Awesome advice! Ironically, #5 contains a duplicate word. 🙂

  2. MaryBeth Matzek says:

    These are great tips & reminders. I teach a writing class at the local college and will share these with my students.

  3. Useful reminders. I started off reading the list feeling quite smug (I know that etc) then gradually became more and more downhearted as I realised how many ways there are slip up … And I’ve even used started off in this brief comment!

  4. This post is bookmark-worthy! Thanks for the great tips, TWL!

  5. Great advice!!! Not only will I use it, I will pass it on to my students.

  6. Thank you for this informative post! It is an excellent tutorial to improve my writing by making it more concise and readable. You’ve offered great tips I will refer back to and study.

  7. Brilliant! Thank you.

  8. Kristi Duarte says:

    What a great post! I’m on the second draft of my book, and read heaps of books and articles on self-editing. This article had a few points I haven’t seen before. Thanks a billion.

  9. This is a great resource! And I clearly have ALL THE THOUGHTS on it. 🙂

    I’d add:

    1. Don’t use as well as when and will do. Or perhaps “simplify” would be a better tip.
    2. Don’t be afraid to end your sentences in prepositions. The original “rule” is for Latin, not English. And the “[preposition] which” construction is wrong at least half the time, if not more.
    3. Use indefinite adjectives with caution. Words like some or any can generally be dropped.
    4. Read out loud. Our brain processes language differently when we read out loud, and this is an excellent way to spot mistakes we might otherwise miss.

    Redundancies are often the sign of an insecure, unsure, or verbose writer; it’s an over-compensation. If you have a phrase that makes you say, “Well, duh,” you’ve got redundancy. e.g. “I thought in my head.” Where else are your thoughts?

    The UNC passive voice link leads to a 404 page. As a passive voice champion (it’s overused, yes, but more because we don’t understand it, not because it’s wrong), I recommend this passive voice infographic for a quick and easy look at what it is and does.

  10. Hi guys,

    I’ve never read an article on editing I found useful. My writing’s quite bad and I publish every blog post at first draft. This article and the resource URLs has increased my confidence level. I’m certain to improve my writing skills. Thanks for sharing these valuable tips with your readers.

    Regards,
    Eddie

  11. This is really interesting. I enjoy learning new grammar rules and learning more concrete ways to engage in writing in order to make it better and stronger. And I’ve heard of the “don’t use too many adverbs” rule in the past. They’re everywhere!! haha.

    Thanks for this list!

  12. Great advice! I just scanned my WIP for “start” and got rid of a bunch. I found “Perry and I together” too. What IS that?!? *highlight, delete, rewrite*

    Thank you!

  13. Thanks for these tips! I have been revising and editing my book for a few days now, and reading this post has given me a better way to target my editing efforts. It’s easy for me to edit other people’s work, but I have always struggled with editing my own (mainly because I procrastinated and didn’t leave time to edit while in school). My struggles are with “really,” “the fact of the matter is,” “so,” using “that” when it’s not necessary, and changing voice. I will be returning to this post again before I’m ready to publish!

    • I’m glad it helped, Erica! I agree, it’s always harder to edit your own work. Good luck with your revisions!

      Heather
      Assistant Editor
      The Write Life

  14. Bookmark-worthy!!! I hardly thought this topic could make me laugh, but you managed it! Nice work!

  15. Alice Grimes says:

    #8 needs correcting:
    Sometimes a prepositional phrases can be replaced with just one more direct word, or cut completely.

    Otherwise, this was a good post-well written and practical. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Superb! I’ve bookmarked this page. You can be sure I’ll read it 25 times every day.

  17. “No matter how good of a writer you are” made me cringe.

    • Hey Diane! Why? It *is* pretty informal, but that’s the voice we shoot for with blogging. How would you phrase it? Always great to hear other opinions!

      Cheers,
      Alexis, managing editor of TWL

      • Natalie Morisset says:

        I would have written “No matter how good a writer you are.” The ‘of’ does seem odd to me, but I’m not sure if it’s a matter of preference.

  18. You want to know a writer who does a close to finished first draft? Fine. You just met one.

    “First drafts — and second drafts and sometimes thirds — exist to hash your ideas out on paper.”

    No. Just no. My ideas are hashed out long before I start my first draft. My first draft is to write the story to the very best of my ability. Does it need a copy edit and a proofread? Yes. Is it a bunch of random ideas thrown out? No. Just no. No. No.

    A novel with nothing but short sentences is going to be choppy and unpleasant reading. A variety of sentence lengths is best. No, do not chop up all of your long sentences.

    Saying to remove all adverbs is absurd advice. All parts of speech have a use and forbidding one is like deciding that a carpenter shouldn’t use a claw hammer because sometimes another hammer is a better tool. Don’t overuse any part of speech, and don’t exclude any if it serves your purpose.

    And that you should replace “over” with “more than” for numbers is nothing but a grammatical myth.

  19. Thanks for sharing! Bookmarked and gave a mention on twitter. Lots to take in!

  20. “11. Nix “that”

    In about five percent of your sentences (total guess from the grammar police), “that” makes your idea easier to understand. In the other 95 percent, get rid of it! “I decided that journalism was a good career for me” reads better as “I decided journalism was a good career for me.””

    >>> In your example you say that it’s better to use ‘that’, while you want to make the point that you shouldn’t use it?
    Or am I misinterpreting?

  21. A great list of tips. Very insightful. The last tip about not “telling” is not really true in the realm of copywriting. We have to make things efficient and tell it like it is or tell people what to do. However, it is true that you need to watch your balance between telling and inviting the reader in.

  22. Absolutely brilliant information!

    Because English is not my native tongue, I think I made a lot of grammar mistakes. I will go through my old blog posts with this page next to it and will change whatever is wrong.

  23. I reckon I’ll open this post whenever I’m editing my work. Super helpful stuff here! Thanks 😉

  24. Recently read Ernest Hemingway’s advice on editing: “First draft is always sh*t.” and “Write drunk, edit sober.”
    Agree with the first, haven’t tried the second.

  25. Great comprehensive summary of practical, quick fixes for drafts! I’ve found it wonderfully easy to do many of these corrections in documents using the “Find” tool on my Word program. In fact, I consider this Word tool essential for revising.

    Most authors probably already know about this tool, but if you haven’t heard about it or used it yet you can learn how here: http://office.microsoft.com/en-ca/word-help/find-and-replace-text-and-other-data-in-your-word-2010-files-HA102350610.aspx

  26. Bianca Barrozo says:

    Nice!

  27. In point seven, shouldn’t that be “Avoid saying the same thing with two words”? 🙂

    Kidding. A great list of tips, thank you very much!

  28. I have a checklist I use when editing my work and it already has a lot of these tips, but it looks like I have a few more to add! It’s painful to search through each one (even using Word) because I have about 40 words/phrases on my list, but it really helps clean up my writing. And the more I edit, the better I get so I notice that I don’t use as many of the clunky phrases as I used to.

  29. Karan Katheta says:

    It was a great help. ..!!!
    Thank you so much …

  30. Do not ever throw in ‘of’ in sentences like this: He had too good a time at the party. Never say too good OF a time.

  31. Thank you for your great advice. It helps me to make my writing better.

  32. Thank you for this; much of it was helpful, but I have some good-nurtured criticism:

    1. A lot of this is really helpful, but I suspect it is undeniably an attempt to over-simplify writing for an ever lazier and lazier population of ADD-oriented population. ‘Use contractions’ for example is good advice for–yes–when you want to sound personal, but formal writing avoids it for a reason: to be formal, which has a place and style and affect all its own. a young writer could read this advice and think it is always wrong to use ‘I am,’ or ‘it is.’

    2. Some of your writing is so non-standard, the question begs, ‘do you advocate no standards?’ For example, had you written the previous sentence, you likely would have left out the quotes, as in when you wrote ‘identify your tells.’ What in hell is a ‘tell?’ And when you write in an obscure fashion, you especially need the quotes around the obscure references.

    3. You contradict yourself: ‘Get rid of ‘started to’ and then later you say use ‘started to.’ which is much the same thing. I understand you mean that the context is the key, but you do not say that, so you can confuse readers wanting to improve their writing. And furthermore, there are good reasons why we use started to, but you did not illustrate that; I understand where we shouldn’t (such as in instances showing simultaneous events), but you do not delineate these differences. And ‘was + ~ing’ as well as ‘were + ~ing’ are important structures for the same reason I just mentioned.

    4. You are right; excessive use of punctuation is heavy, but writers need to know how to use em and en-dashes as well as commas, semi-colons, and colons, because these marks help us write the way people really talk. I am not a fan of the AP over-simplification of the English language.

    Before you know it, our language will be conveyed in damn pictures.

  33. Great tips!

  34. Mark A. McLemore says:

    I like #12 and how it can be applied in #13, where towards the end there is this sentence: Same thing with “really.” By following #12 this becomes: Same with “really.”
    I was also applying another tip not mentioned here I like to use- omission of the “be” and the accompanying “could, should, would” to get to the point. For instance, in tip #5- “…could be better stated as…” = “…is better stated as…” and in #25- “…the more quickly you should be able to pick up…” = “…the quicker you’ll pick up…” Notice how more tips are applied here too; replaced “quickly” with “quicker” and used a contraction (you’ll), and if I am not mistaken, I also turned it passive (?). I am not nit picking, just showing another tip and also, maybe, showing how easy it is to forgo some tips unintentionally.
    Thanks for the great tips, I will begin using them immediately.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy […]

  2. […] 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy – by The Write Life: “Writers rarely spit out their best copy on the first draft. (If you meet a writer who claims to have the secret for doing so, please let the rest of us know.) First drafts — and second drafts and sometimes thirds — exist to hash your ideas out on paper. After you’ve revised your book, story, blog post or article until you can revise no more, you just hand it off to your editor to clean up, right? Well, that’d be ideal. But most of us don’t have the luxury of hiring an expensive editor to review our personal blog post. And since procrastination is the writer’s best friend, you probably don’t have time to even ask a fellow writer pal take a quick peek for errors.” […]

  3. […] I found an interesting blog post over the weekend – 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy by The Write Life.  It is definitely well worth reading and printing […]

  4. […] I found a helpful post on thegreatlife.com today, “25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy.” I’m all about sharing, so here’s the link: http://thewritelife.com/edit-your-copy/ […]

  5. […] Writers rarely spit out their best copy on the first draft. (If you meet a writer who claims to have the secret for doing so, please let the rest of us know.) First drafts — and second drafts and sometimes thirds — exist to hash your ideas out on paper. After you’ve revised your book, story, blog post or article until you can revise no more, you just hand it off to your editor to clean up, right? Click here to read more. […]

  6. […] TheWriteLife.com – http://thewritelife.com/edit-your-copy/ […]

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  14. […] complex words – and their simpler alternatives | Ragan’s PR Daily25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy | The Write Life5 non-existent words that make YOU look a halfwit copywriter | Write […]

  15. […] Use of Adverbs  – Cut out all adverbs and replace them with a stronger, more vivid verb. You use adverbs when you lack the vocabulary to […]

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  25. […] you possibly can. Take the time to edit (one of my very favorite sites for self-editing tips is here. This one post literally changed my blogging life). Even if you feel as though you’re talking […]

  26. […] 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy ~ The Write Life (an extension of the above post on Alexis’ writing blog) […]

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