How to become a more effective self-editor: The substantive edit

If you read the introduction to this series on becoming a more effective self-editor, you know that writing and editing are two distinct processes. While many people edit as they write, you will be a better and faster writer if you separate these two processes. Similarly, editing has two phases. You must focus first on the developmental edit, which improves the structure and organization of a piece. Once the structure is sound, you can focus on the substantive edit.

Three Steps to completing a substantive edit.

The substantive edit is a line-by-line edit intended to make your writing clear and compelling. If your writing is confusing, complicated, or wordy, your reader will abandon it. To complete your substantive edit, follow these three steps:

  1. Trim the fat. Look for opportunities to tighten up your writing. Read your article aloud. If you run out of breath, your sentence is too long. If you have to reread it because you’re not sure what you were trying to say, you might be making that sentence work too hard. Clear and concise writing is compelling. Writing bogged down with redundancies, multiple adjectives, weak verbs, and filler words is a slog to read.
  2. Strengthen the language. Strive to be clear, not clever. Minimize jargon, eliminate clichés, and use hyperbole sparingly. Use the passive voice when you wish to emphasize the action or when the actor is unknown, irrelevant, or obvious. While the active voice (where the individual or entity taking action is the subject of the sentence) is often more direct and compelling, it can result in a tortured sentence structure.
  3. Sweat the details. Start each item in a list with the same form or a verb, and ensure numbered lists are presented in the proper sequence. Read the article backward to catch spelling errors. Pay close attention to homonyms so you write right.

The more time you can allow to elapse between the writing phase, developmental edit, and substantive edit, the easier it will be for you to identify and correct your mistakes. Every writer relies on crutch words or phrases. These are particularly difficult to recognize when you’re evaluating your own writing.

Self-editing is hard, but it is also a skill you can improve. Download and use The Substantive Edit Checklist the next time you need to edit your writing. The better you become at editing your work, the more compelling and authoritative your writing will be.