Editing power: chop until you drop?

The concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “edit” as “…set in order for publication…” In practice editing can mean anything from a quick tidy-up of spelling and grammatical goofs, to a savage massacre that reduces a piece to a few clipped sentences.

Some people (usually editors!) believe that good editing of a piece of text is as important as the initial writing of it. I think that’s true in instances where the original text is a mess for whatever reason – over-written, repetitive, long-winded, pompous, full of jargon, etc.

However if you structure your writing properly in the first place and write appropriately for the topic and audience concerned, extensive editing shouldn’t be necessary.

I believe you need to strike a happy medium with editing. Tighten your text up, by all means, but don’t throttle it to death, or it will lose its personality.

Editing criteria

The first part of the editing process acts like a final reality check on your writing. Especially if it’s for business, use the key checklist I describe in my book “Business Writing Made Easy.”

M is for message. Does the piece really get over my message in terms of what I want to achieve, not just what I want to say?

A is for audience. Have I really understood the audience I’m writing for and does this text connect with their needs and drives?

M is for media. Does this text (or script) work well for chosen medium? E.G. If it’s web text, is it short, snappy and scanable? If it’s for spoken speech, does it sound natural when I read it aloud?

B is for benefits. If my writing needs to bring about some sort of change in the audience’s behavior or perception, have I supplied them with sufficient reason to change? Have I made clear what’s in it for them?

A is for articulation. Have I chosen the right style and tone of voice to articulate my message? Am I sure the audience will understand every word?

If the answer is “yes” to all those points and your word count is right for the space/time concerned, then you’re unlikely to need much editing. If you answer “no” to one or more points, see if you can rectify the problem with a few small changes. If you can’t, though, you may find it easier overall to start again with a complete rethink.


This is a pruning process and apart from the thorns, is similar to pruning roses. Yes, you need to be quite radical at times in order to strip out dead wood and irrelevant suckers. But if you strip out too much you’ll end up depleting the flowering potential, or even killing the plant.

First, satisfy yourself that your writing flows in the correct order. What that is depends on what you’re writing and there’s no room to go into all those here! Essentially though, follow the old principle of “a beginning, a middle, and an end:”

  • Does it start by identifying clearly the key point of the piece?
  • Does it provide convincing and accurate substantiation?
  • Does it conclude and summarize the main issue?
  • If relevant, is there a strong call to action?

Shortening your text

I’ve always found that if I need to shorten my text by more than a bit I have to start removing content, and that’s where the balance can go seriously wrong.

If you need to reduce the length of a piece by more than about 20 percent, you’ll do better to re-craft it from scratch – editing your thinking, rather than editing your words. That way your final piece of work will hang together far more effectively than if it’s just a “shadow of its former self.”


Style will depend to a large extent on the audience you’re writing to, but there are a few common denominators that apply pretty much across the board:

  • Take out any adjectives and adverbs that don’t work genuinely hard
  • Remove repetitive words, phrases and sentences
  • Make sure each sentence flows logically into the next
  • Make sure paragraphs and sections flow in logical sequence too
  • Where appropriate use sub-headings to make text more readable and scanable
  • Run a final spell check and double check homophones, etc., yourself

 Others’ opinions

If you’re not a professional writer (and even if you are) it sometimes helps to show your work to someone else and ask their view. But be careful. People will often go to ridiculous lengths to find something in your writing to criticize, just because they feel it’s expected of them.

If you want a balanced opinion from a colleague/friend/family member/etc., don’t hand them your writing and say “what do you think of this?” That suggests you’re expecting them to be critical.

Instead, say you’d like them to imagine they’re the recipient of your writing. Recap to them the basis of your message – what you want and/or need to achieve with this piece of writing. Then ask them if, as the recipient, they would go along with your message.

With this approach you almost certainly will get more than a “yes” or a “no.” And if there are any negatives you can ask why. The answers will be less about your writing than about your thinking in the written piece, which is probably where it will have gone wrong anyway.

Others’ editing

Sometimes your writing will have to be edited by others – e.g. senior colleagues – whether you like it or not.

If this happens do not let it go to its final destination before you’ve had another good look at it.  Even if the other people have tried to be careful in editing your work, the fact that they didn’t create it to begin with means they’re not as in tune with it as you are.

If someone has made a change that really is nonsensical, change it back again, even if that someone was your boss. In the end, you’re probably the one who will get into trouble if the mistake gets though, so look after your own interests. (And blame me if it goes wrong!)

Once you’ve finished your final text, leave it for a while, then go back and take another look. No matter how wonderful you think it is, you’ll always find something to tidy up or improve on after you’ve had a good night’s sleep or even a walk around the office and a quick cup of coffee.

Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing the whole first draft. If you try to fiddle with your work as you go along you’ll lose the momentum of your thinking.

More editing and writing power:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English




  1. Anne Gould says

    Totally agree that all writers need to have a second pair of eyes on their work.
    It’s also useful to print out what you’ve written for proofing.

  2. Paul Johnstone says

    Great advice I should try and follow but saddly I get SIDETRACKED No ide what that stands for but it happens


  1. […] Editing power: chop until you drop? […]

  2. […] experts do advocate very harsh editing, I’m not quite so violent by nature. As I wrote in this article some time ago, it’s all very well to prune your text hard: but there’s a big difference […]

  3. […] 9. Don’t over-edit or over-agonise about your text. By all means tidy it up but don’t re-work it so much and so many times that it loses all its personality and spontaneity. If you’re not very good at writing and editing get a pro editor to work on it after you’ve completed your first draft – and (here comes the advert because I’m very good at this) make sure the editor knows how to tidy it up without losing your personality and “voice.” More about editing your text here. […]