How to Edit Yourself

We’re all editors these days. Well, at least we should be.

Whenever we write — be it a business proposal, a research paper, an article, a blog post, an email, a social media comment or even a text — we should edit ourselves. But who am I kidding? Seems like self-editing has gradually become a thing of the past, just like the evening newspaper and letters written in longhand.

The truth is, anything poorly written or poorly punctuated can leave a bad impression.

Obvious rule No. 1: Proofread before posting. But thinking like an editor goes beyond structure, grammar and accuracy.

Here are five questions to ask yourself before and while you write:


1. Who is my audience?

While you have no way of knowing who ultimately might lay eyes on your writing, you should at least have a fundamental sense — based on platform, topic and  purpose. Write for those people, with headlines, subject headers or opening sentences that will make them feel they’ll miss out if they don’t read your words. If others want to read them, too, they will. But don’t worry about them.


2. What is my message?

Know why you’re writing. This is similar to knowing your audience, because once you’ve captured your target reader with those first few words, you don’t want to lose them with the rest of your words. Have a plan, and stick to it. If you stray, so will your readers.


3. Why should readers care?

Readers are not dumb, and they’ll know when you’re just dashing something off to get it done. Tell your readers early on why you’re writing, and then deliver. Give them a stake in your message:

I’m writing to let you know that …

When you think about it, we’re all editors these days.

Readers will keep reading because they know what follows pertains to them, either directly or indirectly. Now, a coworker might overlook a typo here and there, or a couple incomplete sentences in a casual interoffice email (“Just got back from lunch. Wanna chat about the new marketing campaign at 2?”). But write an email like that to a new client? He’ll think you didn’t have the time or the respect to write complete sentences, and he’ll probably be your former client soon.


4. How long should it be?

Be aware of shrinking attention spans. Many sites now include anticipated reading times for their articles. If you can state your point in a 20-word email, do that. If you need only 500 words to make a compelling argument in a blog post, don’t use 650. If your editor wants a 1,900-word article or a 65,000-word book manuscript, don’t come in way over or way under. This takes practice, so it’s a good thing you write on a daily basis.


5. What’s next? 

Know where you’re going. You don’t need a formal outline for everything you write, especially tweets and social media comments. But longer pieces typically require more detailed direction and focus. Would you set out on a 1,400-mile road trip without your GPS? Or cook a five-course gourmet meal without recipes? Most of us wouldn’t. Nor should we attempt to write a blog post about the five reasons you should avoid vacationing in July without a list of those five reasons. An outline — and by that I mean anything that includes what you’re going to write — will help keep your words on track and your readers engaged.

Editing yourself is one of the most challenging (and most important) tasks for anyone who writes. Use these tips to keep yourself on track.