How to Edit Your Content: Secrets for Successful Self-Editing

Freelance Content Writer and Editor

How to Edit Your Content: Secrets for Successful Self-Editing

A self-edited page with a red pen

Have you ever tried self-editing your content, but you:

  • Can’t bring yourself to throw away those hours you spent wrestling with a white paper?
  • Published that blog post you spent three days writing, only to get 10 comments about a typo?
  • Cringed at the 250-word block of rambling text that’s your website’s landing page?

Behind every great piece of content is a fearless editor, who rewrites every tweet, article and email to ensure it’s on brand, engaging and error-free. It’s someone who understands how unique and targeted copy doesn’t just attract, it also converts. The perfect editor won’t let the smallest piece of content out the door without making sure serves the audience first.

That’s why all companies with endless marketing and communication budgets have copy editors on staff. But what if your company has the grand total of one employee, aka you? Or you and your staff can spot a bug in a line of code from a mile away but can’t do the same for a typo?

The truth is, all content writers are capable of self-editing. You just need to learn the secrets of the editing trade.

Take a Break First

Rule number one of self-editing is: invest some time between you and your first draft. Why? Because otherwise, you risk mistakes falling through the cracks: from the little errors to the utter howlers.

I recently wrote a 1,000-word article called: 7 Mistakes Non-Native English Writers Make. The next day I noticed that I had only listed 6 mistakes. And I kept switching the subject between ‘they’ and ‘you’.

These mistakes jumped out at me straight away. But I hadn’t noticed them when I looked over my draft the day before.

A successful self-editor always approaches a first draft with fresh eyes. That’s because everyone needs a break to switch from writer to editor mode. Do you dive in as soon as you’ve written your last word? You won’t be as ruthless with the red pen as you need to be.

So, how long should you put your content away for? I prefer to give it 24 hours. But if you’re under the gun and don’t have time to spare, make sure to take at least an hour. Cross some tasks off your to-do list, go for a break or take a walk outside.

Once you’ve had that time away, you can open the content again. You’ll be refreshed and ready to whip that text into shape.

Define the Content’s Goal and Audience

So, you’ve taken your first draft out of the desk drawer. But before you start wielding that red pen of yours, you need to remind yourself of a few things.

First, what’s the goal of this content? What do you want to achieve? Are you:

  • Looking for high-quality leads?
  • Telling your audience about a new software update?
  • Building your brand identity?

The goal of the piece informs its tone and voice. For example:

  • If you’re on the hunt for leads, focus your copy from beginning to end on a call to action.
  • If you need people to download a tool or update, show your audience how it will help them.
  • If you want people to know more about your brand and who you are, share a story in your brand’s voice.

Once you’ve reminded yourself of the goal, you need to remind yourself of the audience. This is another reason why great editors take a break from their first drafts. Because it’s easier to put on the mantle of your audience.

Put yourself in your ideal client’s position and quickly scan what you’ve written. As a potential client, are you engaged? Do you easily grasp what your company does?

Every piece of content you put out there must be aimed towards a goal and an ideal reader. When you’re self-editing your content, keep both in mind at all times. Your fine-tuned content will reward you with quality leads, shares and conversions.

Check Your Style Guide (or Create One)

Style guides are the jewel in the crown of content branding. Now, I’m not going to pretend these dry documents are an interesting read. But having a comprehensive style guide is utterly essential for a cohesive brand.

But why do you need a branding guide if you’re the only person writing and editing your content? Because you want your audience to recognise your brand, whatever the content and medium. If you are consistent in your tone, colour scheme and font, you will anchor your brand in everyone’s mind.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a business card, your LinkedIn profile or a blog post. When you’re self-editing your content, a style guide helps you be consistent. A good style guide lists everything from hex colour codes to font point size, from punctuation to tone of voice.

But what if you don’t have a style guide? No problem, it’s easy to create one. Start with a general style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style or the BBC Style Guide for things like bullet point formatting, capitalisation and acronyms.

Now it’s time to get specific. Make sure to list:

  • Tone (pick three adjectives that sum up your company’s voice)
  • Ideal client
  • Brand colours
  • Font

Here’s an example of Spotify’s colour guidelines:

Spotify's colour style guide

Your style guide is your bible when self-editing! Don’t even tweet without keeping it in mind. As your company grows and changes, keep adding to your style guide to ensure branding consistency. Soon people will recognise your brand from an introduction line alone.

Look at the Big Picture

You’ve got your style guide sorted and it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of revision. But before you go through each sentence of your content with a fine tooth comb, you need to zoom out and look at the big picture first.

You must always remember that your audience’s news feeds, email inboxes and web searches are saturated with content. Yes, your website may be stuffed to the gills with colourful copy and engaging images. But if it’s hard to read, no one will hang around long enough to appreciate it.

Take a long, hard look at your piece and ask yourself:

  • Is it easily scannable?
  • Is each paragraph no longer than three sentences?
  • Is there plenty of white space?
  • Have you used bullet points, pull quotes or images to break up the text?

If the answer to any of the above is no, start planning on how to make your content more scannable. Break up long paragraphs, add useful images wherever possible and keep an eye out for bullet point opportunities.

Self-Edit Your Introduction until It’s Tight

So now that you’ve taken a long hard look at the big picture, it’s time to start polishing your content. But where should you start? At the beginning of course!

The introduction is where you grab that content-saturated client and never let them go. Hook them by explaining how your content will help, educate or entertain them.

In the first draft of your content, you may have waffled on about your great new software release or how fascinating the story of your company is. But this won’t keep your audience’s eyes on your content.

So how do you keep them engaged? By self-editing your introduction until it is as snappy and engaging as possible.

This is how you self-edit an introduction:

  • Get to the point of your article, fast. Your readers are busy.
  • Hook your audience in by introducing a statistic, asking a question or telling a story.
  • Explain how and why this content will help them.

Ditch the Flab (and Don’t Let Indecision Paralyse Your Self-Editing)

You’ve slashed and burned your introduction until it’s hot to trot. Now it’s time to refine the rest of the text. Remember that you must be utterly ruthless in your edits so that your content is scannable and concise. Otherwise, your readers will switch off.

At this point, many content writers come down with self-editing paralysis. Every sentence you cut reminds you of the time and effort you spent writing the piece. You might hem and haw about what to remove. Or you might worry that you’ll cut something essential you’ll need later.

It’s difficult to let go of something that you’ve spent so much time on. But your company deserves concise, engaging content that converts those elusive leads into shiny clients. So self-editing, while often painful, is key to attracting the busy reader.

So, let’s take a look at the golden rules of editing engaging content:

  • Sentences should be no longer than 20 words.
  • Paragraphs should be no longer than 3 sentences.
  • Swap adjectives and adverbs for strong verbs.
  • Avoid the passive voice.
  • Add white space wherever possible, like bullet points.

Here’s an example of a big block of text that would put off even the most dedicated of readers:

One long paragraph of content in a block that doesn't have white space

And here is what the text looks like after an edit:

Example of scannable text with enough white space and bullet points

See? Now it’s much easier to read.

Edit Your Content for Flow

Another way to streamline your content and keep your readers interested is to make sure each section flows nicely into the next.

Why is flow important? It’s all about scannability and concise content. When you’re editing your own work, you need to ensure there’s a logical sequence to your writing.

Does each sentence and section relate to the next? And does your content progress in a logical way?

For example, you may be so keen to introduce a feature that you haven’t explained the tool itself properly. So, you’ll confuse your reader and they won’t get the gist.

Read over your content and make sure each sentence connects to the other. If you’re splitting up long sentences, use transition words to encourage flow between them: words like ‘because’, ‘so’ and ‘maybe’.

Fine-Tune Your Content for SEO

If your content reads and flows well, you’ll keep your readers’ eyes glued to the screen. But it doesn’t matter how good your website content is if no one can find it. To make sure potential clients can find you on Google, you need to edit your content to be search engine optimised (SEO).

Editing engaging and unique content that’s also SEO is a tricky tightrope to walk. SEO copy that’s stuffed with keywords is a snooze for your audience. And Google will always rank quality content over robotic text.

But if you want people to find your content, you’ll need to keep SEO in mind. So how do you keep the balance?

Write your content first. Then, during the self-editing process, you can incorporate these SEO basics:

  • H2 and H3 headers throughout your content
  • Inbound and outbound links to relevant, authoritative content
  • Keywords and synonyms your audience may use when searching for your content

Make sure to incorporate all keywords and search phrases naturally and don’t overstuff.

Zap Those Typos by Proofreading Your Content

Now that your content is SEO-ready, it’s time to get into the fine detail and proofread your content. Even the best self-editors fall at this hurdle and miss typos and grammar mistakes that turn readers off.

This is because proofreading requires a huge level of concentration. It’s difficult to keep up the level of focus required to examine each word and sentence, so our minds tend to wander.

Here are a few tips to stay focused:

Run a Spell Checker

We all know that spell checkers have their limits — they don’t pick up homophones like sea and see, for example. But they’re worth a twirl in case you’ve missed anything. Or you could try Grammarly, a free spelling and grammar checker that catches mistakes some standard spell checkers miss.

Read Your Content out Loud

Reading your text out loud can unearth pesky mistakes and any awkward sentences that need a rewrite. Newer versions of MS Word have a Read Aloud feature that highlights each word as it’s spoken, saving your voice. You can pause it, edit the mistake and then restart from the section of your choosing.

Print out Your Work

Editing and proofreading your text on a screen can cause eyestrain and loss of concentration. So, give your eyes rest and print out your text. Find a quiet place to sit and go through your hard copy, word for word. Use a pen to tick off each word, sentence and section.

When you find yourself racing ahead, take a short break. You want to make sure you’re reading every word that’s actually on the page, and not the words you think are there.

Over to You

Congratulations, you’ve hereby unlocked the secrets to successful self-editing. Now you have the tools to shape your content into scannable, engaging copy that attracts and converts.

But what if you’re too busy to improve your website and marketing materials? Maybe you’re running your business alone and don’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done.

I can help.

I’m Yvonne Reilly, a freelance content editor with over 10 years’ experience. I can give your copy a facelift and boost your leads, web traffic and conversions. Get in touch for crafted content that your audience can’t wait to read and share on social media.

Yvonne Reilly is a freelance copywriter and editor for hire. Her mission is to make boring business web copy and blogs sparkle. She loves working with businesses to plan and create high-quality content that attracts and converts their target audience. Raised in Dublin and Luxembourg, she considers herself a professional Eurobrat and spends her free time sniffing out travel deals. Contact Yvonne or visit her website for more information on her services and to view her portfolio.

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