How To Get Better At Editing Your Writing?

As a writer, your job doesn’t end after you’ve finished your first draft. Here are the top 10 editing tips to help you improve the final drafts that you’ll submit.
Nigel Seah
Nigel Seah

Nigel is a Technical SEO Specialist at a Digital Marketing Agency based in Singapore. He also dabbles in freelance SEO content writing and is an avid language learner.

As a freelance writer trying to make money online, I’m an entire business entity in one. 

I am a salesperson, accounts/customer success manager, writer (operations), and financial controller all at once.

This means that it is my job to ensure that the customers are happy with my work. The importance of proofreading and good editing skills simply cannot be understated.

At the beginning of my writing career, I received my fair share of criticisms due to my sub-par work. To help you become a better writer, I’ve compiled my best editing tips to help you produce and submit better-quality work.

My top 11 Self-editing Tips

1) Use grammar tools

As an experienced freelance SEO content writer, I can confidently say that I’m pretty knowledgeable about the various writing and editing techniques.

That said, even the knowledge and skills of an experienced professional aren’t foolproof. 

Personally, I use various apps and tools designed for freelance writers. Some of which include grammar checking tools like Grammarly.

These are essential. Sometimes, it is difficult to catch your own mistakes. Having an extra pair of eyes can really go a long way in sparing you from mean criticisms from your clients.

2) Punctuation marks in written dialogue

I have to cover this one first, because it’s my pet peeve. One of them, anyway.

When your characters in your writing make a statement, it is an actual sentence, right? That means it deserves proper punctuation, like any other sentence.

Consider this dialogue. 

 “I like to write dialogue.”

Pretty basic.  Statement ends with a period. But who said it?

“I like to write dialogue,” I said.

Notice the comma. Since you are continuing the sentence by explaining who is speaking, there is no period until after I said. The comma comes before the quotation marks.

“I like to write dialogue,” I said. “It helps me understand my characters.”

Two separate sentences. A comma before the first set of quotation marks, a period after I said, then a period before the last set of quotation marks.

“I like to write dialogue,” I said, holding up one finger to grab his attention, “but I can’t stand seeing it written incorrectly.”

Notice: this changes because the sentence is split in the middle. It’s still, however, one sentence. 

You need a comma before the first set of quotation marks closes, a comma after I said, a comma before the last set of quotation marks opens, and a period before the final set of quotation marks closes.

3) Be mindful of misplaced modifiers

These can occasionally prompt giggles. Even so, you should avoid them.

First off, what’s a modifier? 

These are words or phrases that modify other words or phrases. “Only” is a typical modifier, and one that is easily misplaced. Other modifiers of which you should be careful are: almost, even, hardly, nearly, and often.

Neither one of these sentences is incorrect, but look at how the placement changes the meaning.

“I only speak English.”

This means: I don’t speak anything but English. No French, no Mandarin, no Polish.

“I speak only English.”

This means: The only thing I did with English was spoken it. I didn’t write it or read it.

Here is a valid example of a misplaced modifier.

“Dressed all in blue, Susan paused to study the crowd of women.”

“Who was dressed in blue? Susan or the crowd of women?”

These can be hard to spot. Read them out loud to be sure!

4) Pay attention to syntax

What is Syntax, and what can it do for my writing?

There are zillions of words in the English language (that might possibly be an exaggeration, and the cool thing is how you can transform those words from boring old sentences into great ones just by using syntax. 

So really, it’s using words effectively. Playing around with syntax can help make plain sentences more interesting. Here are some examples:

“I wrote a book. I hope people will buy it.”  

Now that’s just boring 😴 Let’s connect the two phrases with a conjunction (“and”). In this case, I removed the “I” from the second phrase, meaning the second phrase can’t stand independently. When this happens, no comma is necessary.

“ I wrote a book and hope people will buy it.”

Now let’s use what’s called a “dependent marker” so phrase #1 become a modifier for phrase #2. Let’s also pop that “I” back in so the second phrase is just as independent as the first. 

“While I was writing my book, I hoped people would buy it.” 

Just to make things even more interesting, we can insert a “nonessential phrase” and surround it by commas BUT you have to put the comma after the conjunction (“and” in this case). 

“I wrote a book and, of course, I’m hoping people will buy it.”

Along the nonessential phrase thing,  you can also insert one that modifies the first phrase. In that case the conjunction comes after the nonessential phrase.

“I wrote a book, which was amazing to me, and I hope people will buy it.”

If you want to make that nonessential phrase stick out, like it’s something that just popped into your head, use em dashes. The conjunction comes before the dashes in this case. 

“I wrote a book – which surprised the heck out of me – and I hope people will buy it.” 

If you use brackets instead, it will de-emphasize it. Don’t forget the comma after the close bracket.

“I wrote a book (which surprised the heck out of me), and I hope people will buy it.” 

Semi-colons can be used as well, but sparingly. For example, if we change the second phrase into something a little more interesting, we can add it to the first one.

“I wrote a book; I’m hoping when folks head into a bookstore they’ll pick up a copy.” 

Use the semi-colon again, still using a more interesting second phrase, but add an adverb or adverbial phrase after the semi-colon, followed by a comma. 

“I wrote a book; naturally, I’m hoping when folks head into a bookstore they’ll pick up a copy.” 

When you are writing, or when you’ve finished writing something, read what you’ve done out loud. Are your sentences all the same length and rhythm? Do they lack a little depth and variety? Anything gets dull if it’s all the same.

Look at syntax. Take a sentence or two and play. Create something beautiful out of something plain.

5) Start with a great hook

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. 

If you don’t hook your reader right off the start, nobody’s going to read what you’ve written. Well, maybe your mom, or your spouse, or someone you pay … but why torture them? Give them a great opening line.

The opening sentence is a multi-tasker. It sets the tone for your writing, engages the reader, and hints at something yet to be revealed. You want to have the reader lean in, frown at the words, nodding, and say something like, “Wow. This is gonna be good.”

If coming up with this first line is giving you such a hard time you can’t seem to work past it and get to your second line, then skip it. Sometimes a writer will come up with the perfect first line only after they’ve finished writing the last line! 

Here are a few classics. 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

 “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'”

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d never had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined i like this.”

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

6) Get rid of words you don’t need

These lists a few of the top “most used and unnecessary” words and phrases. 

Do a search for them when you’re done your draft and cut or alter when you can. 

Too many words make your reader yawn. Sometimes the words can just be deleted, sometimes the whole sentence needs to be rearranged. 

And sometimes the words are perfect and you should just let them be. Read these sentences aloud, first of all using the unnecessary word, then trying it without. Smoother?

That … “She told me that it would be possible”

There was … “She told me there was no way it could be done.” (makes it a passive sentence) “She told me it couldn’t be done.” (active)

Just … “I just wanted to do it.”

Really … “I was really glad she’d said that.” or use a better word: “I was thrilled she’d said that.”

Was  … “The problem was being discussed by management.” (passive) “Management  discussed the problem.” (active, and usually preferred)

Quite … “Everything about the problem was quite difficult.”

Very … “Everything about the problem was very difficult.”

7) Don’t combine “And” with “Then”.

Choose one or the other.

“She buttoned up her coat, and then reached for an umbrella.”

“She buttoned up her coat and reached for an umbrella.” 

This is weak because it suggests she’s doing it simultaneously. Notice the comma disappears because the second phrase is dependent.

“She buttoned up her coat then reached for an umbrella.” You can see her doing it now, can’t you?

8) Avoid listing too many activities in a sequence

Read this.

“She opened her tiny suitcase and stared fearfully at the pile of clothes she’d have to squeeze in. Besides the mandatory socks and underwear, she’d have to make room for ten shirts and four pairs of pants. Those were obvious. She’d need a skirt for the party, and that meant she’d have to fit in not only her two regular pairs of shoes but a fancy pair as well. With resignation, she puffed through her lips, sounding somewhat like a horse. She’d have to make herself presentable, so she’d need all her hair products as well as make-up. And crowning it all, she’d have to stuff in her big, fat, down winter jacket. How was she going to manage all that?”

See my point? 😩

9) Avoid using simple verbs too often

While writing in simple English is essential to make your writing accessible and understandable to a wider audience, your writing need not be boring 😉

For example, take a look at this sentence.

“He felt the night descending”

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence. But using this simple structure too oftetn is way too easy, and way too boring. 

Instead of using simple verbs, use words that put him right out there and experience it with him.

“His skin prickled as darkness shadowed the woods; the lack of sunshine sent shivers of uneasiness tickling down his spine.” 😬

10) Explore all senses

It doesn’t all have to be in one sentence, because that can be overwhelming, but you can try.

Check out this first example 

“Jenny stepped across the room and smelled Clara baking a birthday cake.”

It’s simple, but is also clean and dull.

Now check out the second example. 

“The worn grey planks creaked as Jenny’s bare feet shuffled across the floor, and she shivered at the chilling evidence that it was mid-January. She should have taken the time to search out her cracked old moccasins, hidden somewhere in the dust beneath her bed. From under the kitchen, the door seeped an almost sickly sweet aroma of vanilla, and she realized Clara had remembered her birthday. The clanging of pots and Clara’s muttered curses confirmed it.”

This version takes in all—or most of—the senses, brings your reader into that room with your character.

11) Step away from your work for a bit

After putting all that work into selecting the best writing framework for your task, conducting keyword and topic research, as well as writing, your brain is just too exhausted to be sharp enough to catch all the little errors 🤯

Step away from your work for a bit and take a breather. 

Once you are well-rested, come back and focus on picking out your mistakes.

Are you now clearer on how to make a good edit?

And there you have it! 

These are my top editing tips that I personally use in my writing.

With these in your arsenal, I’m confident that you can produce great pieces of writing work 😊