In my years as an editor and writer, I’ve edited thousands of articles and written a fair few myself. I’ve also had many of my stories worked on and critiqued by writers far more qualified than me. Besides developing an eye for a good story, I’ve learned how to take an idea and put it down on paper in a well-written and engaging manner, with minimal fluff and maximum impact.
If you struggle with self-editng or need a structure to follow, I’ve formulated a 7-step writing and editing process that you can follow to help you get your thoughts from your brain to paper with a great story to show for it.
A friend of mine used to refer to this as ‘brain spew.’ It’s a fitting term. The brain dump is the process of transferring ideas from your head onto paper. It doesn’t matter what order it comes out in, how messy it looks, or how many mistakes it contains. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of everything is shit.”
There is one rule of thumb to abide by; don’t stop to edit, ever. Stopping only breaks your concentration. What’s important here is speed and uninterrupted flow of thought.
2. The dirty edit
After you’ve thrown every relevant thought down — and likely many other non-relevant tangents — now comes the fun of trying to organize this mishmash of ideas into something that makes sense. Read through what you’ve written, copying and cutting sections around. Something I do to help in this process is to write down the structure of my argument or story in a notebook (yes, something non-digital), which gives me a framework to follow.
During the dirty edit, forget grammar and don’t worry about making sentences sing here; the point is to get your piece structured and flowing correctly. Your only aim should be to set out your introduction, main points, and conclusion.
3. The tidy edit
Now, we can zoom in on the grammar, word choice, sentence structure and more. In the tidy edit, you fix spelling errors, fix punctuation, and break down lengthy sentences. Find the wordy and multi-word phrases (you know who you are, ‘in order to’) and replace them with their cleaner, less clunky alternatives. I then use Grammarly to catch all the little errors that are hard to spot by eye, the most common being missing commas and incorrect use of semi-colons.
At this stage, your piece should be structured, flow and read correctly.
4. Sleep on it
Perhaps due to the excitement (or desperation) to publish, some writers get a rush of blood and throw their work out into the world the moment it’s been ‘edited.’ In most cases, it could have been more polished. The best advice I ever received was to sleep on every draft for at least a day. It has done wonders for the quality of my work.
I can’t repeat this step enough; make sure to walk away from your work for hours, if not an entire day. You’ll thank me for this one.
5. The clean edit
The purpose of point 4 is that an extended break allows you to look at your work with fresh eyes and perspective. This refreshed look at your works usually unearths all sorts of things that don’t make sense or aren’t necessary. Use the clean edit to tighten everything up. A good trick is to imagine that every word is costing you money. Which ones need to stay? What sentences can be rephrased? What 3-paragraph sections could be shortened to one if you spent time reworking your words?
After the clean edit, you should have trimmed everything that isn’t required. Be sure to double-check your grammar after these edits.
6. Seek peer feedback
If you have a network of fellow writers, seek feedback. I’m part of a mastermind group, and we regularly share our work with each other. It always surprises me what outside eyes spot in my drafts. Peer feedback also tests how well your ideas are hitting and how concise your message is. If your work doesn’t score with your feedback circle, it won’t survive in the wild.
External sources of feedback also ensure that you avoid getting lost in a one-person echo chamber. It’s very easy to be convinced by your own work.
7. The final edit
After receiving criticism (perhaps even praise!) from a trusted outside source, give your piece a final read-through, and make the necessary amendments. I normally find an appropriate feature image at this stage; now I have the complete picture (get it) of the story.
It might seem like overkill, but many writers fail to realize that getting your thoughts into a draft is only beginning. Without a process of editing and re-editing, your great ideas will get lost in a sea of mediocrity.
Susan Bell, the author of The Artful Edit, put it best when she wrote, “While genius does not consist entirely of editing, without editing it’s pretty useless.”
Don’t lose your genius to bad editing practices.