The most delectable thing about words is that they continue to have something more to teach me. I am still learning grammar rules, and probably always will be. And that is where your focus as an editor should be when editing content: the rules.
“A process for editing creates habits, and habits
free up our minds to be more creative and attentive.”
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A process for editing creates habits, and habits free up our minds to be more creative and attentive. Here are some tips I provide to new editors. Some of these came from my mother, who taught me the importance of editing at a young age, others came from experience and fellow editors, but they all focus on creating habits and supporting the writers whose craft you’re helping to improve.
1. Create a checklist for editing each content type.
I approach editing each type of content (social media, blogs, landing pages, etc.) a different way. But there is an order of operations to everything that should be documented. Part of that documentation will include a checklist of editing best practices.
Start broad: Is it the right tone? Does the topic line up with the client’s strategy? Then narrow your focus to structure and formatting according to house or client style. Finally, get meticulous with copy editing. What are your most common oversights? What grammar rules do writers miss most?
No two editors will edit in the same way, but the order in which you approach the parts of a content piece can help new editors learn your process and style faster, and help veteran editors slow down and pay attention to detail.
2. Never close your style guide.
Bonfire has multiple style guides and a hierarchy for their use. Our general guide is the AP Stylebook. Our house style is a mix of our brand preferences, content format and structure, and those AP rules we choose to break (shhhhhh). And our client style guides are the reigning authority on a brand’s tone, preferences, and terminology.
My AP Stylebook is always open in a browser tab; I could search it over a dozen times a day. I save the pages I check most often. (Hey, possessives can be tricky.) And style guides aren’t just for editors. Writers shouldn’t close them either.
3. Google is your friend.
The proliferation of fake news gives every editor night terrors. Granted, Google’s fact check tool doesn’t catch everything, but that’s why editors are humans (for now). Google or fact check against the source every proper name, statistic, and fact you find. Our favorite mantra: Read before you share. Check your sources. Check your sources’ sources. Google stuff.
4. Third time’s a charm.
Time allowing, I review a piece of content three times. The first round is developmental and checks for general tone, topic alignment, and holes in the narrative. Round two is for fact checking, structure, format, and UX. Round three is a line copy edit. I’m still fixing glaring grammatical errors throughout each round; that’s just my nature as a perfectionist.
5. Don’t do it all in one sitting.
Each of these rounds should not be done in quick succession. Take a break between round one and two or two and three. Do a different task, edit something else, clear your head. Know when to walk away from a piece so you don’t become overwhelmed, especially after an extensive developmental edit. Ideally, the first review and final copy edit will be on different days. It’ll make you all that more attentive during the final read-through.
Otherwise, you risk becoming snowblind. Which brings me to tip six:
6. Know when you’re snowblind.
Some content will take more than one, two, or even three revisions. And after you’ve read something that many times, your eyes glaze over and you become less attentive. A good editor knows when they can no longer distinguish the independent parts of a sentence or the forest for the trees. And that’s when it’s time to bring in another editor with a fresh set of eyes.
7. Read it backward.
If all other steps go swimmingly and make you more efficient, then perhaps you have time for the most painstaking edit of all: reading a piece backward. Start from the end and read each sentence one by one. This removes the context of the surrounding material, allowing you to focus on perfecting every minute detail of the sentence.
8. Close the feedback loop.
All of your editing is for naught if you’re not informing your writers of the changes you make. At Bonfire, new writers are edited with track changes and asked to review and approve the changes so they can note stylistic adjustments made. As writers become more familiar with style, you may choose to make changes directly. But when that happens, they’re less likely to compare the final draft to the first.
When you begin to notice bad habits or recurring errors in a writer’s copy, take note and share. If you’d like to be really helpful, keep running lists of what you’re noticing and provide them to your writers as personalized checklists of things to avoid or heed. Better yet, incorporate a “Grammar Police” period to your weekly editorial team meeting where common mishaps can be shared for the benefit of all.
9. Create a writer’s toolkit.
If your editorial team is like ours, you have an ongoing messenger chat for impromptu collaboration on titles, topics, writing questions, brainstorms, etc. We often share helpful articles we find during research — then they become lost to the digital ether.
Create a live document for keeping the best of these resources as a writer’s toolkit. (We use a Google Sheet and bookmark it.) This can be shared with new writers and editors, pulled up during meetings for trainings or refreshers, and can bridge the knowledge gap from one generation of employees to the next. Link to all of your internal tools and documents as well, so the team has a one-stop shop for all of their everyday reference materials.
10. Know when enough is good enough.
Editors are known perfectionists. That means we could edit the same paragraph for an hour if it’s rubbing us wrong. A piece of writing is never finished — just own this as fact. All you have to do is get it to that point where the client and customer can derive the intended message from it.
That’s not to say a piece shouldn’t be grammatically perfect. That’s your number one job as an editor! But editing is also just as much a linguistic art. You could be vigilant about your own personal preferences until you’re blue in the face, but know the point where you’re no longer improving the quality of your writer’s work. Is it on brand? Error free? Up to par with previous content? Then move on.
Editing can be maddening, educational, rewarding, challenging, and boring as hell all at the same time. But building a process behind it keeps your eyes focused on the pieces that make up the whole, instead of stretching your attention thin and allowing errors to slip through. Do you have other editing tips to share? Comment below, and follow our blog for more editing and writing tutorials.