the author of a weekly syndicated column, I routinely experience two things feared by most writers: a deadline and the need for expedited editing (there’s an oxymoron). The notion of writing an article or short story and letting it sit for a few days or a week prior to editing is not going to fit with my real-life calendar—and probably not yours either. Often, writers don’t possess the luxury of time.
A column written by Monday at 5:00 p.m. needs to be e-mailed to newspapers first thing Tuesday morning. Editors are not fond of typos, grammatical errors, or poorly written copy. Editing Now (with a capital “N”) is a necessity.
Over the years, I’ve developed a step-by-step approach I call Warrior Editing. The steps can be completed quickly; I estimate a person experienced with the method can review a 750-word article in an hour—sans resting time.
We all know the basics of editing; but by putting the steps together in a specific order, we’ve defined a method to the madness. This benefits the warrior/writer in numerous ways.
- Your editing will be consistent. You’ll never miss an important step.
- You’ll save time. A method streamlines a process—providing order and eliminating waste.
- Your writing, prior to editing, will become tighter. With practice, you’ll learn to employ various editing steps from the method as you write your initial draft.
- You’ll gain confidence. Editing in the same way, over time, will prove the method works. You’ll never hit the “Send” button and then cringe when you find a blatant (missed) typo ever again. (We hope.)
I call the method “warrior editing” because warriors are strong and not afraid of the battle. They are not weak. You want your editing to be strong, steadfast, and protected by armor, with an arsenal of weapons at your disposal.
“You want your editing to be strong, steadfast, and protected by armor, with an arsenal of weapons at your disposal.”
A Warrior’s Boots: The Foundation
We begin and end with the subjective portion of the editing process. Because it is subjective, it is the most difficult for a writer (and warrior). It involves the very foundation of your work—its message.
After completing a first draft, step back and take a break from the piece. A long break isn’t always possible. A deadline is a deadline. Even if you leave the computer screen to grab a cup of coffee, try to gain distance from the writing.
While sipping your joe, mull the subject and the article over in your head. Often, certain word changes or sentence revisions evolve during this mental review. After a ten-minute (or ten-hour) break, return to the first draft, make the changes you’ve mentally noted, and print a hard copy.
Read and make notes. Check for:
- The message: You know what you want to say. Are you getting your ideas across?
- Awkward passages: Reading aloud makes these obvious.
- Agreement of time: Is the piece written in past tense? Present? Be consistent.
- Order of information: Do you give the reader the facts he needs when he needs them and in a logical order?
- Generic descriptions: Is the mud brown, or is it more like coffee-colored goo? Does rhubarb sprout in the spring, or do its curled leaves erupt from the ground like a gnarled hand? Avoid generic. Be creatively specific.
- Missing information: Are you assuming the reader possesses information she doesn’t have? Do you need more details to complete the message?
- Too much information: Quite often when we tell a story, we outline the facts just as they happened, including numerous details that have no impact on the story. Identify these unnecessary bits of information and delete. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King suggests an edited and finished piece should be 10 percent shorter than the first draft. For a 1,000-word article, that requires eliminating approximately 100 words.
Review the piece numerous times (at least three, often more), and make noted changes before progressing to the objective portion of warrior editing.
The Shield: Protection From Grammar Gaffes and Other Transgressions
Editing used to be a lonely job. That’s no longer the case—thanks to certain computer software, which serves as a partner in the editing process. I consider editing software my shield—protecting me from injury inflicted by various writing errors.
Helpful Online Resources
Autocrit – Cost is free for 400 words or less (three uses per day). Subscribers pay from $47 per year (for 1,000-word maximum) to $117 per year (100,000-word maximum).
AutomatedEditing.com – Cost ranges from $10 for a one-month trial (for 3,000 words per day) to $75 per month for an Elite subscription (80,000 words per day). You can also test the software by running two reports on 1,400 words for free.
Online-Utility.org – Numerous computer utilities that don’t require any software installation or downloads—all free. Includes a free readability calculator, with the added plus of identifying complex sentences that you can consider revising to improve your document’s readability. Also offers a text analysis tool allowing you to find repeated phrases and words.
Grammarly – Cost ranges from about $20 per month for a month-to-month subscription to about $100 for the year.
BetterEditor – Not a editing site itself, but it offers useful links to relevant sources for editors and writers. And it’s free.
Grammar Girl – Mignon Fogarty hosts this useful site, which provides quick and dirty tips for all things grammar related.
Literary devices – Website dedicated to literary devices and terms.
Redundancies – List of 200 redundant expressions to help declutter your prose.
Urban dictionary – When you can’t find a word in a regular dictionary, but you’re pretty sure you didn’t make it up—find it here in this veritable cornucopia of streetwise lingo, posted and defined by readers.
A number of online services will help edit anything from a sentence to an entire book. They are handy, and they are dandy—and most charge a fee. They may help cut editing time; and depending on your writing situation, you may want to subscribe to one. (See sidebar for possible sites.) I do.
Chances are, though, you already have editing software installed on your computer. It’s a little program called Microsoft Word, and it can help perform many editing functions—for free.
Access the “Review” feature located at the top of the Word screen (this would be the Tools feature in older versions of Word, 2003 and prior). Review comes equipped with a dictionary and thesaurus. It can check spelling, grammar, and word count and give a reading level and reading ease of your prose.
After selecting the test you want to review for spelling and grammar with Word tools, the program will go through the selected text, shielding you from numerous errors. These include: punctuation usage, sentence fragments, passive sentences, misspelled words, verb and subject agreement, word order, and capitalization. Word identifies each possible error and gives the option of making a correction or ignoring it and moving on. Word is not perfect. Not all “errors” need correcting, but it is a tool that allows you to complete an efficient review of potential errors in your prose—for free.
When the spelling and grammar checks are complete, Word gives a summary of information regarding your text:
- Number of characters, words, sentences and paragraphs in the document
- Average number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word
- A readability index, based on the Flesh Kincaid system—this includes percentage of passive sentences, scale of reading ease (zero being very easy to read, 100 being the most difficult), and reading grade level of the piece
“Using the passive voice isn’t against the law, but its application should be a conscious choice.”
The Sword: Slash and Cut
Grab your editing sword. The next step involves slashing certain items from your prose. At first read, this list may seem long, but you’ll find you can zip through it—and you’ll get faster with practice.
The first slashing involves passive sentences. Experts tell us we should shoot for writing that is no more than two percent passive. I sometimes go higher. There are instances when passive voice better suits the message of a sentence, depending on the subject and tone.
Using the passive voice isn’t against the law, but its application should be a conscious choice. You could read through your document checking for passive sentences, but Word can do this for you; and Word does it faster. To review the piece, highlight a couple of paragraphs at a time and select the “Spelling & Grammar” check. If you get a zero percent tally for passive sentences, move on. When you get a hit, scan the offending paragraph to identify the sentence or (on lazy days) have the Spelling & Grammar feature do it for you. When you’ve found the passive culprit, either revise to active voice, or do nothing if passive voice suits that part of your manuscript.
I’ve found I often leave a passive sentence as is because I had a specific reason for choosing the passive voice. Still, I check. (In reviewing this article, I had an initial passive count of five percent. During revisions, I altered three passive sentences, leaving seven intact with a resulting passive score of four percent.) Here’s an example of passive voice: The writer was rejected by the editor. Here’s how to fix it to active voice: The editor rejected the writer.
After modifying any passive slip-ups, do a search for overused words—more slashing with your sword. Click on “Edit” or “Editing” (depending on your version of Word) at the top of the program’s screen. Then, click “Find.” On the pop-up, type in your overused word, make sure the “Highlight all items” box is checked and hit the “Find All” button.
I have a list of words I use for every document. I also add to this list, depending on the subject. If I am writing about my child’s adventures at school, I might search for words like “school” and “teacher” to ensure they’re not repeated too often. My stock list of words includes: that, it, is, there, just, know/knew, feel/felt, could, can, was, were, will, really, great, very, much, many, you, and some.
Next, do a search of I and me. Even if your article is written in first person, you want to make sure you aren’t overusing these pronouns. Delete when possible.
Check for redundant terms like “once again,” “each and every,” “onto,” “tiny bit,” “whether or not,” and “advance warning.” A long list of redundant terms can be accessed via a link in the sidebar above.
Scan the document for adverbs and adjectives. For adverbs, use the “Find” function to search for words ending in “ly.” With adjectives, keep an eye out for ho-hum words that don’t do a whole lot of describing. Adjectives and adverbs are like a rich dessert—good in small doses in the right place. Your goal isn’t to eliminate all adjectives and adverbs, but to choose judiciously and make sure they benefit your writing.
Review the document, paying attention to the first word in each sentence. Look for repeated words, words starting with “ing,” and sentences that start with a conjunction. Again, you may choose to start a sentence with a word like “driving” or with “but” or “and.” When you do, you want it to be a conscious decision that elevates your prose and helps your message in some way—not sloppy writing.
If the piece contains dialogue, review it next. Dialogue is often harder for a reader to follow. If you can get your message across without dialogue, revise to eliminate the quotation marks. (This, of course, does not pertain to articles that include interviews with experts, where dialogue is critical to the authenticity of the information.)
“It takes creativity and writing expertise to communicate big ideas in a manner that welcomes the majority of readers.”
The Helmet—Protection of the Brainy Kind
A final step in Word involves returning to the “Review” feature to access reading ease and reading level scores. The average American adult reads at an eighth or ninth grade level; newspapers are typically written at an eleventh grade level. Studies show when reading for recreation, people choose pieces about two grades below their peak reading level.
As for reading ease, a high number indicates an easier read. A document scores from 0 to 100. Someone at a fifth grade level can read an ease value from 80 to 100. Documents in the 60 to 80 range equate to an eighth grade reading level. A score of 60 or lower requires a tenth grade level.
A note about negative connotations associated with dumbing down prose for readers: I don’t see it that way. It takes creativity and writing expertise to communicate big ideas in a manner that welcomes the majority of readers. Studies from the 1940s found even small increases in readability significantly increased readership in newspapers.* They found an easier reading style helps a person decide how much of an article is read. People read less of long, complex articles than of shorter pieces written at a lower grade level equivalent. This is a concept known as reading persistence. The studies here may be ancient, but the information is pertinent for writers today. We can all identify with the concept of reading persistence or stopping midway through a piece because it isn’t worth our time or effort. Don’t let that article be yours. Edit for reading ease to meet the needs of your intended audience.
An easy read does not equate to boring. I love vocabulary words and don’t hesitate to use them. Still, my columns come in with a reading level of about grade 5.5 and an ease score of 75. (This article is sitting at a grade level of 7.2 with a readability index of 66.)
To lower reading level or raise reading ease, review the document again, looking for difficult words or long, complex sentences. Often, splitting a compound sentence into two smaller sentences increases reading ease and does nothing to affect word choice or message. Avoid jargon. Active voice and present tense are easier to read than their counterparts.
We now segue into the optional portion of your job as chief editing officer. Not every warrior carries a spear. I do. I subscribe to a service to take my editing a couple of steps further. It allows me to use all the free editing tools in Word, plus a few more. Some of my favorites with the subscription service include checking for repeated phrases, clichés, and redundancies and a visual graph of sentence lengths. Resources and links to different services are in the sidebar above.
At this point, take another break from the piece. Overnight is optimal.
Boots Again: Back to the Foundation
Warrior Editing: A Recap
Wear Your Boots
- Read over your manuscript for meaning, completeness, and order of information.
The Shield: Protection from Writing Transgressions
- Use the Word Review feature to check spelling and grammar.
The Sword: Slash and Cut
- Use the Word Review feature to check for passive sentences.
- Use the edit feature to check for repeated words.
- Review your use of I, me, adverbs, and adjectives.
- Look at the first word of each sentence, checking for “ing” words, conjunctions, and repeated words.
- Check dialogue.
The Helmet: Brainy Considerations
- Use the Word Review feature to modify reading level and reading ease scores. Less is often more.
- Utilize the features of an online editing subscription.
Back to Boots (Your Foundation)
- Read the piece out loud until it is squeaky clean: review message, meaning, excess information, needed information, and generic information.
- Utilize literary techniques.
- Last minute corrections and revisions are key to winning the battle. Good luck with the fight!
The next morning, revisit the subjective portion of the editing process—the foundation or boots—because every woman knows a successful clothing ensemble begins (and ends) with the shoes.
In my case, this involves reading the article out loud—more than once—often more than five times. If I so much as add a comma or make the slightest hint of a change, I read the offending paragraph— in its entirety—again.
Check again for meaning, message, excess or still-needed information, and repeated words not identified during the word searches. Look for opportunities to add quality to the piece by using literary devices, such as alliteration, simile, metaphor, and allegory. Homonyms and synonyms are fun, but can be confusing for the reader. Make sure they augment the piece, not drag it down. A confused reader often does a scary thing: she quits reading.
When I (finally) read the piece aloud without making any changes, I consider the job done.
There’s no doubt there is a certain art to editing. When a writer takes specific steps and follows defined rules, editing becomes a well-honed process that turns writer into warrior and elevates a piece of prose to a new level. Editing that accomplishes this level is simply time well spent.
*Source: Principles of Readability by William H. Dubay - www.nald.ca/library/research/readab/readab.pdf
Jill Pertler touches hearts and funny bones with her weekly syndicated column, “Slices of Life,” which is printed in over one hundred thirty newspapers across the United States. She is also a playwright and author of The Do-it-Yourselfer’s Guide to Self-Syndication. Find her columns on Facebook at “Slices of Life” (and hit Like, please); visit her website: http://marketing-by-design.home.mchsi.com; or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from Jill on WOW:
The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication: Finding and Approaching Publication Sources