25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy (Plus an Editing Checklist)

25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy (Plus an Editing Checklist)

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 It might even be hard to spend the money for a book editor. And since procrastination is the writer’s best friend, you might not even have time to even ask a fellow writer pal take a quick peek for errors.

And so, in some cases, it falls to you to be your own editor.

How to edit: Follow these copyediting tips

Even if you don’t want to become an editor, you’ve got to learn how to edit. 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.

So pull up your most recently saved draft, and get to work. To make it easy for you, we’ve added to the bottom of this list a downloadable and printable PDF that summarizes these copyediting tips into a checklist.

Here’s how to edit your own work.

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

Passive voice sticks out to editors, but it can be difficult to notice in your own writing. Learning how to identify it and fixing these instances will make your writing stronger.

Here’s an example of passive voice: “The door was left open.”

To change that sentence to active voice, it would look like this: “Someone left the door open” or “He left the door open.” The idea is to be clear about who or what is executing the action.

If you want to get good at this, Reedsy has a solid post explaining passive voice.

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”

Pro copywriting tip: “Currently” is  always redundant.

Don’t write: “Tom Jones is currently a communications director.” Tom Jones is a communications director 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.

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 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 accidentally switched to what you should do):

  • Make sure you tailor your resume

You can turn most 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.” In fact, the AP Styleguide, which many journalists follow as the bible of style, announced a few years ago that “over” is now acceptable in place of “more than.”

But if we’re being really nit-picky, using “more than” instead is still one a little detail 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 or Google Doc’s search function to look for “start.” You’ll catch each one, so you can evaluate them individually.)

Bonus: An editing checklist for how to edit your work (it’s printable!)

Since we first published this post back in 2013, so many of you mentioned bookmarking and sharing the post that we whipped up a pretty editing checklist to go with it. It’s available to download and print.

Pin this baby up on the wall above your desk, whip out your red pen, and get to work! Your blog post, feature article, or novel will be tighter and stronger in no time as you learn how to make edits.

If you want to download or print the editing checklist, click on it to bring up the full size.

A printable and downloadable editing checklist that summarizes 25 editing tips

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Some of these tips originally ran on Copyblogger and AlexisGrant.com. These tips were compiled with the help of Betsy Mikel. 

Photo via Lamai Prasitsuwan/ Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft

163 comments

  • Bianca Barrozo says:

    Nice!

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Angela says:

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

  • Billie says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • Sofie says:

    “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?

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

  • 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.

  • DianeG says:

    “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.

  • 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.

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.