The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Editing

absolute beginners guide to editing

Editors are unpopular.

Editors are kind-hearted helpers who want to nourish the new life writers breathe into their creations.  Sadly, we are perceived as sinister slashers who delight in tormenting sensitive authors for using pluperfect participles instead of pejorative prepositional postulates in the imperfect tense.

It’s easier in the minds of most writers to go to a marriage counselor or to a dentist than to a poor misunderstood editor.

I fear the ancient skill of editing will die with my generation, along with beeper repair, watchmaking and not letting your underwear show in public.

Perhaps there’s time to pass along a few secrets of the trade before our inevitable extinction.

The Purpose of Editing

Most people think the purpose of editing is to pick apart “good enough” writing and to find irrelevant errors.  The purpose of editing is to polish the work of authors and help them attain their goals.

If you are editing your own work, relax.  Focus on the content and the readability of your work.

That can only be accomplished when writers know what they are trying to communicate.

Create a Target

The very first step in editing is to define the author’s primary message.

When I edit – or apply what I term “Message Therapy” – I ask these questions:

  • Who are you writing to?
  • What is the single most important thing you want to say?
  • What other points do you want to make?
  • Do you want the tone to be formal, informal, humorous or serious?
  • How long should the document be?
  • When is it due?
  • How will it be delivered?

The single most important thought I want to convey to you is: create a target, with a bull’s-eye and several outer rings, so that you will know when your writing hits the mark.  If you have no target, how will you know where to aim to begin?  How will you know when you’ve met your goals and it’s time to stop?

I edited a book about learning “life lessons” by going on adventurous journeys.  Simple enough to define.  There are a zillion ways to make that point and help readers apply the lessons to their own lives.  Creating illustrations and applications – the outer rings of the target – was a breeze.

Somewhere around chapter five, one of the book’s contributors missed the mark.  He penned a fascinating account of a Japanese soldier who valiantly refused to believe World War II had ended – decades earlier – and how he was coaxed out of the jungles with dignity and valor.  That soldier was the perfect example of perseverance and loyalty.

That fabulous tale, however, had absolutely nothing to do with any of the inner or outer rings of the book’s target.  I suggested removing the entire section.  Finally, the author agreed … because it did not help achieve the goal of the project.

Create a target and aim all your efforts at hitting the mark.

Delete – as hard as it might be – material that has little or nothing to do with your primary or secondary goals.

Spellcheck Your Document

I have edited many authors who have earned advanced degrees, but I do not care how many PhDs they have.  The first step I always take is to spellcheck their work.  That’s where you should begin when polishing your work too.

Do I accept every suggestion made by the spellchecker?  No, that would be stupid because there are times when your cat knows more about grammar and structure than Microsoft Word’s spellchecker.

Then why use it?  I find it helpful because it surfs through documents and stops where there might be a problem with the text.  Then, I determine the proper solution, as compared to always accepting ones offered by a fallible computer program.

If you are unable to figure out if the spellchecker’s corrections are right or wrong, don’t guess.  Ask someone to help you.  Word geeks live for this.  To them, it’s like getting new pocket protectors on Valentine’s Day.

Spellchecking will also give you a word count, vital for knowing whether your work is too short or too long.

Reread the Document

Double-check the document.  I’ve found three ways to help me catch mistakes:

  • For online documents, I move my cursor over every word as I read.  Otherwise, your mind will translate errors into what you want to see, instead of what is actually on the page.
  • For printed documents, I follow along by pointing a pen or pencil on the words as I read them.
  • Read the words aloud.  This works for online or printed material and will help you find otherwise hidden mistakes.

Years ago I worked at a radio station with the call letters WMHR.  Volunteers came to our offices one particular month to fold, label and sort thousands and thousands of newsletters to be sent to listeners.

Amid the din, chatter and clatter of a dozen happy workers, I recall hearing one soft voice stand out as if she shouted “FIRE!!!” in a crowded theater.  What did she say?

“Hey, I thought this station was W-M-H-R … not W-H-M-R!?”

Immediately – after hours of handling thousands of newsletters – everyone saw the now obvious error on the front of each and every copy.

Our minds knew what the call letters were and our collective minds refused to believe all the newsletters were wrong.  But they were.  Thousands of them.

My point?  Don’t take anything for granted when you edit a document.  Pore over it, as if you had never seen it before.  You’ll be stunned at the mistakes you’ll find.

As you reread the work, be sure the content hits the target.  If it’s too long, the first things to delete are the portions that miss the target.  Even cool stories about soldiers who won’t surrender for decades should be cut.  Sorry.

Polishing Your Writing

Smart people can put complicated thoughts into simple terms.  On the contrary, sometimes people who want to look smart try to make simple ideas far too complex.  It’s as if they believe they’ll appear to be intelligent if they confuse people.

Keep your writing simple.  Sentences longer than 20-words are, in my humble opinion, probably too long.  You’ll have to make that call for yourself.

Most sentences that range from 25 to 50 words should be two separate sentences.  Look for the words “and” or “but” in the middle of long sentences.  That’s where you can break them into separate thoughts.

Look for sentences that begin with “and” or “but.”  Rewrite them.  Yes, all of them.  If you don’t, I will.  I would rather have you use “irregardless,” which is a real word, than to begin sentences with and or but.

Ask someone to read your work.  Give them the freedom to ask questions.  If they don’t understand something, my guess is that section needs to be reworked.  Even if you can easily explain to them what you meant, other readers won’t have that opportunity.

Before You Hit “Publish”

Writing is an art, not a precise science.

You must decide for yourself if:

  • your writing is in the vernacular of your particular audience
  • you have defined your message’s target
  • you have hit your target
  • your writing is either easily understood or overly complex
  • the tone of your message isn’t too pedantic or goofy
  • you have done your best to proofread and polish your work and
  • you accept the fact that you can communicate well with some of your readers all the time and all of your readers only part of the time.

Take a moment to spellcheck your document one last time.

Then, ask yourself if there are any portions of your message that you feel you should change.  Listening to that inner voice will, eventually, keep you from making a mistake.

Finally, be brave.  Hit “publish” and push your “creation” out of the nest and watch it spin out of control as it hurtles toward the ground.  Hopefully, it will swoop gracefully toward the heavens …


  • Steve Burge

    Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.

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10 years ago

Anytime someone talks about how strict they are with spelling and errors, it is an open door for the reader to start looking for them to prove them wrong.
Here it is: “Most sentences that range from 25 t0 50 words should be two separate sentences.” ……25 to 50……..rather than 25 t0 50……
It’s a great article, but you begin with building credibility about your “expertise” and then have a whole section set aside for the importance of spell checking your article.
With that being said, I would think that another strong part about editing or writing would be to “back up what you’re talking about.” – Or you’ll lose the reader right away.
No doubt, all of you at OS training are very smart and I enjoy reading your articles, but many times you (the writers) take a corner and call yourselves the expert…
That is when you need to really check your work before you publish it. …Overall, thank you for another nice piece of work. – Take care.

10 years ago
Reply to  Guest

Thanks and you’re right. That typo slipped in when I was moving this document from Word.

10 years ago
Reply to  steve

Steve, you can delete my comment – I don’t want to take away from your sound writing and good advice!
In fact, to show you that I’m sincere, I’ll delete it for you. ([b]Post edit[/b]: I did delete it, but now the comment is showing as a guest user. – [u]So you’ll probably have to delete it from your side[/u].
Lastly, a “biz tip” for you…. If you click on my user name – you’ll see that I’m mastering how to make “upvotes” work for our site. It’s amazing how much traffic you can get from a strategically placed comment. I’d tell you how and where, but it’s top secret kind of stuff.
> Compare [b]upvotes[/b] on various user names to see how people are using DisQus.
Cheers! – Spy-Tronix!

10 years ago
Reply to  Guest

The quickest way to be humbled is to portray yourself as some sort of expert, it seems.
I apologize for that mistake and the hundreds of others you have previously missed.
Steve, one of the kindest men I have ever worked for, believes that the “25 t0 50” error was introduced in converting the text from one type to another.
I hate to contradict him; however, I went back to my original document and the mistake was mine. That does not, however, mean that I did not repeatedly spellcheck the document. I did. I even took my own advice to make that the final step in the process.
How did I miss that mistake? One of the options in spellcheck is to “ignore words with numbers in them.” As you might guess, I had selected that option. As you might also guess, I shall never do so again. In addition to that, I did not see the incorrect character on the screen of my laptop.
I’ll take my licks for my errors, but please do not let them tarnish the fine work of OSTraining, Steve or his crew.
They are the best.
My typo only goes to prove what I have long believed: it’s almost impossible for writers to proofread their own wrok.
Robert Sutherland

10 years ago

I’ve really been enjoying the writing series! Thanks very much for publishing all these great articles!
In the second to the last paragraph of the “Reread the Document” heading, it says, “Pore over it, as if you had never seen it before.” I believe the author means “Pour” instead of “pore.” Was that done on purpose to see who was really reading?? A trick?
I found it effective for the article as this is an easy problem to miss as Word wouldn’t pick it up in spell check because it is not a misspelling. It’s spelled correctly – the English language is just weird. It completely proves exactly what the author is telling us – proof, get fresh eyes, reread, spell check, etc.
Thanks again!! Love it!

10 years ago
Reply to  bayareajenn

Thanks for the kind words, bayareajenn
You’re right English is just weird. Robert was using this idiom when he used “pore”: [url=]http://idioms.thefreedictio…[/url]

10 years ago
Reply to  bayareajenn


Thanks for your kind comments and astute observations.

I am, obviously, as capable of making mistakes as any other writer. “Pore,” however, is the appropriate word in that sentence, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Can you guess how I learned the difference between “pour” and “pore” in such cases? Yup, by making that mistake in my writing and having someone kindly point out my error.

Thanks for keeping us on our toes.


Robert Sutherland

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