in Writing

The Semi-Ultimate Guide to Self-Editing Your Content Like a Pro

I don’t have money to hire a professional editor.

So for the last five months, I’ve spent my free time becoming one.

This article will guide you through the exact editing process I’ve developed to consistently turn my crappy articles into sorta-decent ones. There are no friends, co-workers, or editors required — only you, yourself, and… you again.

(p.s. This article is a whopper. So if you don’t feel like trying to remember it, you can download the “checklist version” here— no email required.)

Let’s dive in, shall we?

1. Define your goals.

Goals are the guiding lights of your article.

They give your words purpose, and they keep you from “going off-the-rails”:

So before you edit anything, ask yourself:

“Why did I write this article again?”

I like to set two goals for every article I write:

  1. An audience centered goal (ex. “I want to teach my readers how to self-edit like a champion.”)
  2. …and a business centered goal (ex. “I want to drive newsletter signups.”)

It’s important to balance these two out. If you’re hyper-focused on driving results to your business, your article will sound “selly.” But if you’re hyper-focused on your readers, ya ain’t gonna drive any results.

Once you have both, slap them on a sticky note or a text document. You’ll use them more later.

2. Start big.

Before diving into the small details of your article, you need to ensure that its overarching structure and flow are rock-solid.

And that’s where “editing by chainsaw” comes in.

In her book, Everybody Writes, Ann Handley defines “chainsaw editing” as “the process of ignoring the grammar and specific words you’ve used, and [editing] the bigger stuff.”

Let’s look at how you can apply this technique to your articles, starting with your introduction:

The Intro

99% of the time, you can cut 60% (or more) of your intro without harm.

Why?

Because it’s filled with “warm-up copy.”

“Warm-up copy” is unnecessary copy we write when we don’t know what the f**k to write about. It usually appears at the beginning of your intro, like in this example from Joanna Wiebe:

See that data point at the bottom?

Joanna recognized that it would be a much stronger starting point to her piece, so she chopped everything before it. Ruthlessly.

Here’s another great example from Everybody Writes:

Now notice how, with only a few painless snips, Ann “gets into the point of the piece more quickly and clearly, and with brevity”:

Much better.


…but we’re still not done with the chainsaw.

The Body

(p.s. The following tips can be applied to your intro as well.)

There are a few things you must look at when editing your body by chainsaw:

1 . Ensure your sections are optimally ordered.

If your intro would work better as a conclusion, don’t be afraid to slide that sucker down.

2. Cut paragraphs that don’t serve your purpose.

Think back to the goals you defined earlier.

Do any of your paragraphs fail to move your piece towards them? Do they detail unnecessary or out-of-place information?

If so, chop ’em off.

3. Ensure your sentences are optimally ordered.

Read your sentences one by one and ask:

“Is sentence B a logical afterthought to sentence A, or is it only clear in my head?” (from On Writing Well by William Zinsser)

This may seem like a lot of unnecessary effort, but it’s not. The number of mistakes you’ll find will surprise you.

4. Inject data, examples, and quotes.

It’s tough trying to keep up with data and examples as you’re writing.

That’s why I recommend keeping a list of quotes, examples, and data points you plan to use in an outline, like so:

Then, while you’re editing, plug ’em in where you see fit.

(p.s. If you want to use my outline, here’s a link— again, no email needed.)

5. Look for ways to smooth the “switch” between your sections.

For example, when I switched from “Intro” to “Body” earlier in this article, I wrote a single sentence to help you transition to my next point:

If I had left that out, the next section would’ve unexpectedly hit you in the face when you read it.

My goal is to provide value, not break your jaw.


Now that you’ve given your body paragraphs a nice chop, it’s time to do the same for your conclusion.

(see what I did there?)

The Conclusion

There are only two scenarios where conclusion paragraphs are necessary:

  1. If your article is super long (like the one you’re reading now).
  2. Or if there’s a ton of data packed into it (like a case study).

In those cases, conclusions can help your reader solidify the massive amounts of info they consumed while reading your piece. But apart from that?

They’re unnecessary. They interrupt your flow and annoy readers with information they’ve already digested.

So saw them off and conclude with a powerful CTA instead.

(if you’re curious what I mean by this, look at the bottom of any Julian Shapiro blog post and notice how he leads his readers directly into his newsletter CTA.)


WHEW.

You made it through Phase 1. Grats.

Now drop the chainsaw, and grab the scalpel.

3. Start editing with “surgical tools.”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff? It’s all small stuff.” — Robert Elliot

According to Ann, “surgical tool editing” is the process of fixing the small errors in your writing, like choppy flow and sentence clutter and improper word usage, among other things.

For old continuity’s sake, let’s begin with your intro:

The Intro

1. To begin, strengthen your first sentence.

Your first sentence can “make or break” your intro.

If it’s good, you’ll insta-hook your readers. But if it’s crappy, you may find yourself with an abnormally high bounce rate (which, after Google’s RankBrain update, can hurt your SEO).

Luckily, there are only two qualities of a killer first sentence:

  1. It’s short.
  2. And it tickles your reader’s curiosity.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “I felt sick to my stomach.” — Yours truly.
  • “I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t.” — William Zinsser
  • “Mother died today.” — Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Iain Banks, The Crow Road

I’m a simple man. If I see “grandmother exploded,” I continue reading.

(Remember: The purpose of your first sentence is to entice your readers to read the second. The purpose of second is to entice your readers to read the third. And so on. So don’t hesitate to use these rules for your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sentences as well.)

2. Shorten your other sentences.

Short sentences help to maintain the momentum your reader gains from your first sentence.

I like to view my articles as “quick-start” roller coasters (like this). Once you’ve boarded, I want to propel you into the heart of my article as quick as possible with your eyes wide and attention flaring.

Short sentences help me achieve that goal.

…but don’t take this the wrong way.

I’m not saying every sentence in your intro needs to be three words long. That would be boring. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t start with a giant passage like Ephesians 1:3–14.

3. Throw in some “snappers” (if the mood is right).

“Snappers” are short, comedic sentences strategically placed at the ends of your paragraphs, like so:

“I was an awful writer. Like, embarrassingly awful. My target readers avoided my content at all costs — which, from an outside perspective, made sense. Nobody likes to vomit.”

“Snappers” are great for keeping your reader’s attention during slower intros. William Zinsser said it best in On Writing Well:

“Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.”

4. Fix the transition between the intro and the body.

Stay away from transitions like…

  • “In this article…” or,
  • “In this post…”

Your readers (should) already know what your post is about from your headline, so there’s no need to restate it. Instead, lead your intro naturally into your body paragraphs, like in this example from Srinivas Rao:

Notice how the last bit before point 1 — “three themes kept emerging” — fades directly into the body of the article. That’s what you should aim for.

(There is an exception to this. If your article is super long and packed with useful information or step-by-step processes (like this one), it’s not a bad idea to re-prepare your readers for the journey they’re about to take.)


Boom. Intro done.

Now let’s move on to your body paragraphs.

The Body Paragraphs

(p.s. You can use each of these tactics in your introduction paragraph as well.)

1. First, check for economy.

Are your sentences clear and concise? Or are they long-winded and jumbled with gobbledygook?

(I don’t know where the f**k I got ‘gobbledygook’ from)

If you don’t know the difference, here’s a long-winded sentence:

“Do they have something in common with the story the artist is telling?”

…and here’s the same sentence said concisely:

“Do they relate to the artist’s story?”

Notice the difference? One makes you want to die, and the other makes you want to keep reading.

(hint: your readers want the latter.)

(double-hint: Reed College has a great article designed to help you practice writing with economy — I highly recommend it.)

2. Look for multi-word phrases that can be shortened.

For instance,

  • “He came to a stop,” can change to, “He stopped.”
  • “If that were the case…” can change to, “If so…”
  • “Whether or not he was brave..” can change to, “Whether he was brave…”
  • “Despite the fact that I was running,” can change to, “Although I was running…”
  • “The end result of the study…” can change to, “The result of the study…”

There are hundreds of these phrases, and I can’t cram ’em into this article, so I’ll just link you to this Roane State article. They have a ton listed there. No email required.

3. Hunt for cliches.

Cliches are a disease.

“Lazy writers use clichés as business platitudes and seem to insert them almost reflexively, without much forethought or intention. Their use is often redundant and vacuous — in other words, they don’t add a lot to a discussion.” — Ann Handley, Everybody Writes

So if you wrote a sentence that you feel like you’ve heard before (and it didn’t come from you), switch it up. Or, if the cliche is particularly ghastly, you can throw it inside a set of quotations to remind your reader that you aren’t that careless.

(here’s a tool you can use to spot cliches)

4. Double check the things you love.

Don’t hold onto unnecessary paragraphs or sentences just because you think they’re funny/smart/clever.

If they’re slowing down your piece and can be cut without losing meaning or value, cut them, even if losing them feels fatal.

Not sure why I keep depicting you as a balding middle-aged man.

5. Check for common grammar errors.

These are mind-numbingly boring, but unfortunately they’re necessary.

Here are some of the most common I see in my writing:

  • Pronoun errors. If you start a sentence with “I,” you can’t end it on “we.” They’ve gotta match up.
  • Tense errors. Don’t time travel. If your sentence starts in the present tense, keep it there until it’s over.
  • Mistaken words. Know the definitions of the words you use.
  • Overusing commas. You know, commas aren’t meant for pausing, mid sentence.

And if you’re interested, here are 15 more.

6. Make last minute improvements.

  • Cut any unnecessary adverbs. Those “-ly” words like “truly” and “absolutely” are largely unnecessary. If they don’t alter the meaning of the word following them, it’s best to remove them. You can use a tool like Hemingway App to help you with this.
  • Create simple transitions. Each of your sentences should build off your previous ones. Same goes for your paragraphs. You can also use Joseph Sugarman’s “seeds of curiosity” to propel readers further down your piece — these are phrases like “but here’s the thing,” “but that’s not all,” “let me explain,” etc. Just be sure to use them in moderation.
  • Strengthen your verbs. “Punt” is more interesting than “kick.” “Jab” is more descriptive than “poke.” And “hurl” is way funnier than “puke.”
  • Remove repetitive sentences and paragraphs. If you’ve said something once already, there’s no need to say it again.

Conclusion

By now, I’m going to assume that you’ve cut your conclusion and ended with a strong CTA instead. But if you haven’t….

Just do the same stuff you did to your body paragraphs.

👍

4. Break time.

By now, your brain is probably telling you:

“Dude, take a f**king rest. You’ve edited enough already.”

…and it’s probably right.

So go walk the dogs. Take a countryside drive. Meditate. Do whatever you need to do to clear your head — you’ll need it for this last step.

5. Finally, do one last sweep.

Read your entire piece aloud. And as you’re reading, ask yourself:

  1. Do all my sections and paragraphs flow smoothly?
  2. Have I said what I wanted to say?
  3. Have I achieved the goals I outlined in step one?
  4. Do I have enough data to backup my points?
  5. Have I used a consistent voice across my piece?

If you can answer “yes” to all those questions, I have good news for you:

6. You’re done. Now go and publish that shit.

…then repeat the process hundreds of times over with all your other articles.

Have fun!


Final Note

There’s a lot of information in this article.And there’s no way you’re going to stuff it all into that cranium of yours.

So don’t.

Instead, pick one section and practice it for a week. Lock it into your memory nice and tight. Then, once it’s locked, move onto another section and repeat the process.

That’s how I’ve mastered every writing skill I have.

Speaking of which…

If you want to follow along with my journey to writing mastery, I send a newsletter every Friday that details everything I’ve learned about writing in the past week. You can sign up here:

How do you edit your articles? I’d love to hear new suggestions.

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