Self-editing 101: The key to great writing

Writing

The key to great writing?

Great rewriting.

Overview

All first drafts are lousy.

The best writers usually aren’t more talented at writing.

They’re simply better editors.

(Or they work with a great editor.)

Editing takes the pressure off your writing.

When you’re a confident self-editor, you can:

✅ Write faster
✅ Distill and distribute only your best ideas
✅ Engage and entertain readers
✅ Inspire your readers to take action
✅ Look like you knew what you were doing all along

Rewriting is tough work:

❌ We become attached to our work
❌ We struggle to empathize with the reader
❌ We see the story as it exists in our head, not on the page

But the results are worth every ounce of effort.

The keys to making self-editing easier:

✅ Learn to read as someone else
✅ Detach emotions through process
✅ Separate writing (writer-centric) from editing (reader-centric)
✅ Create the right constraints

Clear writing starts with clear thinking:

✅ What am I really trying to say?
✅ What is the key point I need to make?
✅ How can I make that key point easy to understand?

Writing is all about addition. Editing is all about subtraction.

Don’t try and do both at once. I like to write in the mornings and edit in the afternoons.

Edits come in many different flavours:

💡 Topic: Is your idea clear?
🌉 Structure: Can readers follow it?
🎯 Clarity: Do your arguments work?
✨ Intrigue: Is your writing interesting?
🔍 Line. Are the words correct?
🧲 Purpose: Does it inspire action?

They’re all equally important.

Don’t try and go through each editing round all at once.

You’ll overwhelm yourself.

Instead, examine your writing through a series of “lenses”, like an optometrist.

Start with the big ones, like the structure lens.

Then smaller ones, like the repeated commas lens.

The trick with self-editing:

Figuring out which lenses fit your prescription.

Editing for topic and structure

Before you edit, write down the main point you’re trying to communicate.

Now, write it shorter.

Keep shortening until it fits in one sentence.

Add your thesis statement to the top of your doc.

Your thesis is the lens through which your readers will see your entire story.

Make sure it’s clear, succinct, and compelling before you do anything else.

Great writing is ALL about structure.

Clear structure helps readers parse your writing. It also helps you keep your writing tight.

The good news? You can (and should) edit structure before you dive into writing 👏

Structural editing starts with the outline:

✅ Make sure all the most important ideas are included
✅ Make sure ONLY the most important ideas are included
✅ Make sure all your ideas are organized in a logical order

Sure, you can do this after drafting—but it’ll take 10x longer.

Begin each paragraph or section with your key idea.

Don’t bury the best part in the middle like a jelly donut 🍩

One sentence = one thought.

One idea = one paragraph.

A common mistake I see with business writing:

Assuming your readers have the same knowledge, expertise, or context you do.

Always explain new concepts or background ideas—even if you know them 100%.

A little explanation goes a long way in building trust.

Never leave the reader wondering what to think.

Always be specific about:

✅ WHY each example is important
✅ HOW this idea can benefit them
✅ WHAT they should do with this information

You don’t need to re-hash everything in your conclusion. This isn’t 10th grade English.

Just follow the ABC method:

✅ Add value
✅ Bring closure
✅ Create action

Write the intro last.

One trick for writing stronger intros:

Cut the first sentence. Does what you’re saying still make sense?

Cut the second sentence. Does it still make sense?

Keep going until you’ve skipped the back story and your piece begins at speed.

Editing for clarity / specificity

The most common writing mistake: overwriting.

Overwriting shows a lack of confidence and detracts from the reader’s experience.

If you can’t stop editing while you’re writing, separate both tasks by a few hours, days, or weeks.

You’ll return with a fresh mind and a new set of ideas.

If you STILL can’t stop editing while you’re writing, try tools like @squiblr_ that delete your writing if you stop.

https://www.squibler.io/dangerous-writing-prompt-app 

A good editing exercise to avoid overwriting:

Cut 25% of the words before you do anything else.

Fewer words makes your writing less writer-centric and more reader-centric.

(h/t @jimmydaly) https://www.jimmydaly.com/how-to-edit-your-own-writing/ 

Always write for one specific person. Someone you know by name.

It makes it easy to spot (and remove) the parts they won’t care to read.

Jargon is the enemy (unless you’re writing for a technical audience).

Simple language doesn’t weaken your writing; it makes it easier to digest.

If there’s a simpler way to say it, write it that way instead.

Readers have short attention spans. Edit accordingly:

✅ Keep paragraphs to 3-5 sentences max.
✅ Break up sections with quotes and images
✅ Use engaging subheadings to grab attention
✅ Bullet points make for easy scanning

Never leave the reader hanging:

❌ “Writing, editing, etc.”
❌ “Writing, editing, and much more”

It makes your writing feel lazy.

Instead, be specific:

✅ ”Writing, editing, and guacamole”

Metadiscourse or signposting—writing guidance explaining your work—is another sign of laziness.

❌ “Now, let’s talk about self-editing.”

Instead, work on creative transitions—or just dive right in.

Your writing will feel less choppy.

Writing “in fact” does not, in fact, make your writing fact.

Facts do. Stick to facts, not "in facts".

If your sentences have more than one comma, like this one does, it might be a good idea to remove the commas, split the sentence in two, and keep your readers happy.

When you write for everyone, you write for no-one.



Your readers won’t accept abstraction, so you shouldn’t either.

❌ “We care about our customer experience”
✅ ”We have customer service agents standing by 24/7”

Zombie words suck the life from your sentences 🧟‍♂️

Look for words ending in:

❌ -tion
❌ -ity
❌ -ism
❌ -cy

Replace with non-zombie versions:

❌ “A demonstration was run...”
✅ “We demonstrated...”


More on zombie words: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie-nouns

Editing for style / engagement / intrigue

Write shorter sentences. Please.

When you can’t write shorter sentences, alternate your sentence lengths to make your writing sing:

Look for “hedging” words:

❌ “needless to say”
❌ “in other words”
❌ “meaning”
❌ “seems to be”
❌ “obviously”
❌ “therefore”

They’re a good sign you’re not sure what you’re trying to say.

Rewrite those bits until you’re more clear.

Back every opinion up with a relevant example, statistic, or expert comment.



Examples make abstract writing specific.

Avoid clichés like the plague.

(A useful tool for finding them: http://cliche.theinfo.org/)

Analogies are useful in moderation.

But they’re most effective when they aren’t explicit.

❌ “Self-editing is like pulling teeth”
✅ ”I’d rather visit the dentist than edit my own writing”

Replace negatives with positives:

❌ “You don’t want to make these mistakes with your writing”
✅ ”You want to avoid these mistakes with your writing”

Positives are more palatable for readers.

Line editing

Fixing typos is the least important part of editing.

Most readers will forgive a few errors—if they notice them at all.

When you’re done, read your work out loud.

If it doesn’t sound right to you, it won’t read right for your audience.

Making the document look different on the screen (font, size, color, formatting) makes errors easier to spot.



Another trick I like to use: Print off a hard copy, and edit by hand.

When you’re reading, look for repeated words and swap them out.

Make the thesaurus your best friend.

Always use active voice.

❌ “Our product is loved by customers”
✅ ”Customers love our product”

Adverbs aren’t your friends.

Either replace them with more descriptive verbs, or eliminate them entirely.

❌ “The guacamole was really bad”
✅ ”The guacamole tasted like cardboard”

Writing tools ARE your friends.

✅ @grammarly
✅ @ProWritingAid
✅ @evernote or @NotionHQ
✅ Cliche Finder (http://cliche.theinfo.org/)
✅ Writer’s Diet (https://writersdiet.com/test/)

(Don’t just accept the suggestions. Read them until you understand them.)

Everyone has “crutch words” they lean on far too often. Some common ones:

❌ “for example”
❌ “in other words”

To find them: read your recent writing, highlight repeated phrases, and make a list.

For each new article, run a search for all the terms and delete them.

Pick the most important rules for YOUR writing, and build a personalized editing “cheat sheet” with:

✅ Voice and style notes
✅ Common errors you make
✅ Crutches to look out for

Run through your checklist for everything you publish.


Last but not least:

Make time for editing.

Writing isn’t over when you’ve finished your draft.

It’s only just beginning 👏

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