Self-Editing Checklist For Essays Online

One of the first things you learn when you start blogging professionally is the value of a good editor. Far from someone to catch mere typos, a good editor is a teacher, a mentor, a partner in crime; the Obi-Wan to your Luke Skywalker, the Pat Morita to your Ralph Macchio, the Batman to your Robin.

But what if you don’t have an editor?

When I first started writing for a living more than 10 years ago, I didn’t have an editor. I didn’t have anyone to tell me the things I wish I could tell my younger, slimmer, less-experienced self. I never even spoke to my first client on the phone, and had only the most nebulous editorial guidance. As such, I had to learn how to effectively edit my own work.

In this post, I’ll show you how you can do the same.

This checklist will help you learn not only how to actually edit your blog posts, whitepapers, and other content, but also how to think like an editor and develop new habits that will make you a more effective, independent, autonomous content producer.

1: Identify – and Avoid – Your ‘Crutches’

One of the most common problems I see in less experienced writers’ work is a reliance on certain words, turns of phrase, or structural elements. Most of the time, these writers aren’t even aware that they’re relying heavily on these things, and so they keep repeating the same mistakes. I call these crutches, and every writer has them, whether they realize it or not.

Woah.

To make your writing stronger (and your editor’s life easier), it’s vital that you identify your crutches so you can avoid them. I find that one of the most effective ways to do this is to reread older published work. For example, do you unconsciously start most of your blog posts with questions? Do most of your paragraphs contain compound sentences? These are both examples of crutches that you might not even be aware you’re relying upon.

Although it can be difficult (and sometimes embarrassing) to read through your earliest work, it’s an excellent way to identify the things you unconsciously do over and over again, and these problems will likely be much more evident in your earlier work. Once you’re aware of your crutches, it’s easier to be vigilant for and avoid them in your work as you write it.

Quick Tip: Try to “catch” the habits you make as a writer by rereading older work and making note of techniques or conventions you use frequently. Do you rely on the same turns of phrase over and over again? Do you overuse certain words? Make a concerted effort to avoid relying on these crutches.

2: Use Serial Commas

Some style guides and editors favor The Associated Press style guide, and for good reason. Its rules on formatting numerals, dates, and other important information are solid, and offer the weary writer or blogger trusty, reliable rules that should be followed.

One element that the AP and I disagree on is the use of serial commas.

Unless there’s a damned good reason to avoid doing so, use serial commas (also known as Oxford commas and, occasionally, Harvard commas, but who do they think they’re kidding?). The potential for ambiguity in whatever you’re trying to say is greatly diminished if you use serial commas, and I can’t think of any good reason not to use them in your content.

Possible exceptions to this would, however, include situations in which space is limited – which is why the AP, a wire service that still provides copy to newspapers in which every precious column inch counts, still advocate for not using serial commas. Examples of these situations would include tweets and certain other social media updates, and PPC ad headlines.

Quick Tip: Use serial commas unless there’s a really good reason not to.

3: Always Refer to Companies As Singular Entities

As online writing has become the predominant way in which many people get their information, writing has generally become more conversational. This is a good thing (for the most part), as it makes content more accessible to a wider audience. One drawback to this, however, is that the flaws in people’s speech have become more deeply ingrained into a lot of writing, particularly when it comes to talking about companies.

Despite what Congress would have us believe, corporations are not people. Companies and organizations of all kinds – without exception – are singular entities, and should be referred to as such. This means that companies should always be referred to as “it,” never “they.” It’s tempting to refer to companies and organizations as “they” in conversational writing, but a conversational tone is no excuse for simple mistakes.

This also means no possessive apostrophes when discussing a company’s assets (“Alphabet, and its subsidiary companies Google, YouTube, and Calico Labs…”).

If you must talk about a company in this fashion, refer to the people who work for the company in question rather than the company itself (“The engineering folks at Google have introduced the latest update to the algorithm that they’ve been working on…”).

Quick Tip: Companies are ALWAYS “it,” never “they” – no exceptions.

4: Pay Attention to Hyphenation

Another frequent mistake I see in many writers’ work is the misuse (or ignorance) of hyphenation. Admittedly, hyphenation can be complicated and is often situational, but the basics are easy and should be something you nail down before sending your first draft to your editor.

Hyphenation matters.

The most common (mis)use of hyphenation is when dealing with adjectives. Essentially, the rule is that if there are two words that describe something, the two words should be hyphenated. Examples include:

  • Man-eating shark
  • Long-distance relationship
  • Award-winning software

Without the hyphens, the above examples could refer to a man actually eating a shark, a relationship conducted over a certain distance for a prolonged period of time, and software that helps users win awards. The hyphens eliminate this potential ambiguity.

One exception to this rule is when using adjectives that end in “-ly” and words ending with “y” in general. For instance, describing a restaurant as “family friendly” does not require a hyphen, as there is no possible way in which to misconstrue the meaning. Similarly, the phrase “nationally syndicated radio show” would not need a hyphen.

If in doubt, or to learn more about grammatical complexities such as hyphens, I strongly recommend reading and following Mignon Fogarty – AKA Grammar Girl – who is undoubtedly one of the best authorities on the Web for this kind of thing.

Quick Tip: Hyphenate compound adjectives. Two descriptive words that could have a comma or the word "and" between them (as in "big, black car") don't need a hyphen.

5: Make Sure Not to Use ‘That’ and ‘Which’ Interchangeably

This mistake is even easier to miss or forget about than some of our earlier points, but it’s no less important.

Although many people mistakenly believe otherwise, “that” and “which” cannot (or should not) be used interchangeably. This is because “that” is almost always used as part of a restrictive clause – a part of a sentence that restricts another part of the sentence and cannot be removed. An example would be:

  • Foods that are high in saturated fat can contribute to the development of heart disease.

In this case, we’re talking exclusively (or restrictively) about foods that are high in saturated fat and their potential impact on cases of heart disease. Not all foods cause heart disease, and so “that” becomes a vital part of the restrictive clause of that sentence.

The word “which,” on the other hand, is commonly used in nonrestrictive clauses, or parts of a sentence that could be removed without altering the meaning of the original sentence, like so:

  • Facebook ads, which can be highly cost effective, are a great way to grow your business.

You could remove the italicized part of the sentence above and the “original” sentence would still make sense. The nonrestrictive clause adds potentially valuable information, but its removal wouldn’t harm the rest of the sentence or alter its meaning.

Quick Tip: Generally, only use “which” after or between commas.

6: Use Repetition Sparingly

Repetition is one of the easiest mistakes to overlook in your own work, but it can ruin an otherwise perfectly good piece of writing.

Don’t get me wrong. Repetition can be a powerful technique to reiterate or emphasize crucial points, or bring rhythm to a piece. When using certain turns of phrase, repetition may even be required. However, many inexperienced writers only concern themselves with avoiding overuse of the same words multiple times in their work, but repetition can also find its way into other elements of your writing, such as sentence or paragraph structure.

When you’re done with a first draft (or, rather, when you think you’re done), cast an eye over the first few words of each paragraph. Are you opening your paragraphs in the same or similar way every time? You may have missed it during the drafting phase, but your reader will pick up on it.

Quick Tip: Be vigilant for repetition of specific words, as well as “crutches” like sentence and paragraph structure.

7: Read Your Work Out Loud

I’ve advocated for this technique in several posts in the past, but it really is an excellent way to catch mistakes or areas of improvement in your work.

Be like this guy.

When you’re done with a first draft, take some time away from it (I find a few hours or afternoon to be the absolute bare minimum), then come back and read the piece aloud. Actually sit down and say each and every word you wrote out loud. It sounds crazy and potentially embarrassing (and it can be), but doing so will highlight every awkward turn of phrase that will sound just as awkward in your reader’s mind as it does out loud.

This technique will also emphasize parts of your post that don’t really need to be there. If you find yourself glossing over certain sentences, getting tongue-tied on others, or generally losing your train of thought, it’s time to get out the proverbial red pen and start cutting.

Over time, you’ll find yourself needing to read your work aloud far less often. I count myself lucky that I don’t need to do this anymore, but I would heartily recommend this technique to those new to content and those who want to become stronger, more independent content producers.

Quick Tip: Record yourself reading your work aloud. Once you get past the awkwardness of hearing your own voice, you’ll quickly identify problems with the rhythm and cadence of your work.

8: Avoid Clichés Like Anything BUT the Plague

Using clichés is among the fastest and most effective ways to dilute the potential power of the point you’re trying to make and lose your reader’s attention into the bargain. We’ve all heard these turns of phrase countless times, and including them in your work isn’t just lazy writing (bad), it’s giving your reader permission to turn her brain off and let her mind wander (worse).

Also, people rarely have to consciously avoid actual plagues these days thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, so if you’re going to use a cliché, at least use one that’s relevant.

This doesn’t just apply to boring, weary turns of phrase, either. It also most definitely applies to lazy filler phrases like “At the end of the day…” Unless something relevant to your post is happening at the end of the day, we don’t care.

Avoiding clichés in your work isn’t just a matter of doing right by your readers – it’s about forcing your mind to think harder and more creatively about how to say something.

Quick Tip: Using clichés isn’t just lazy – you’re insulting your readers by offering half-hearted work. You can do better, and your readers deserve better.

9: Read Like a Reader, Think Like an Editor

Writing can be a thankless, punishing task. All the time, effort, and expertise that goes into crafting an engaging, actionable blog post (or essay, or story) does not guarantee anyone will actually read it. This can lead to what is known in writing workshops as “being married to the work.” Sometimes, the very notion of deleting huge swathes of your writing is just unthinkable. You spent hours lovingly honing each and every sentence, so your readers will devote as much attention to reading it, right?

Wrong.

When you’re looking over a completed draft, think back to your (strong, memorable) headline and ask yourself whether you’re delivering on the promises you made. As you read each line and scan each paragraph, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. You’re busy, and have dozens of other blog posts competing for your attention. What makes yours so special? Why should the reader spend precious minutes of their life (that they’ll never get back) reading your post?

Your readers are constantly asking themselves – subconsciously or otherwise – if your post is meeting or exceeding their initial expectations. If it isn’t, they’ll stop reading and move on to something else. If they’re getting what they want, however, they’ll hang on your every word. This is the essence of reading like a reader and thinking like an editor. Your editor will be constantly asking themselves if your post is delivering on your promise and providing value to her readers – and you should be, too.

Quick Tip: Does every single sentence and paragraph in your work make a valid point or contribution to what you’re trying to say?

11: Eliminate Every Single Unnecessary Word

Whether you love his work or hate it, few can argue that Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway was a true master of the minimalist sentence. Hemingway could accomplish more in six words than some writers can in six pages. Delusions of grandeur aside, I’m going to challenge you in my tenth and final tip to be more like Hemingway and be ruthless with your proverbial red pen.

When editing your own work, go through the piece methodically and eliminate every single word that isn’t absolutely crucial. This is much harder than it sounds. Writers (myself included) love the sound of our own voices, and it’s very difficult to be as demanding with our own work as it is with someone else’s.

Rather than think of this as cruelly depriving the world of your wit or wisdom, instead view this as a valuable service to your reader. Time is precious, and every moment that a reader spends with your writing is a compliment. Return the favor by making your work an easy read.

This is among my personal crutches, and I’m acutely aware of my tendency to ramble if left unchecked – but I’m lucky to work with such a patient editor.

Quick Tip: Think you can’t pare down a sentence any further? Try again – you might be surprised.  

As we all know, content creation isn't as simple as just stringing together a few words and hitting "publish." At least all high-quality content creators know this.

If you really think about it, the editorial process has quite a few steps -- from ideation, to concepting, to production, to proofreading, editing and copyediting. Unfortunately, it's that last part that often gets undermined, rushed through, or altogether just swept aside as writers and content creators hurry to get content out the door. But if you really want to ship remarkable, high-quality content, you can't afford to overlook the proofreading and editing process. 

The problem is, it can be difficult to remember every little editing consideration you should be making. So in an effort to make things a little easier on you, we compiled a complete online editing and proofreading checklist you can bookmark (or download a PDF version of here) and use to make sure your next piece of content is ready and raring to go, whether it be a simple blog post or something longer form, like an ebook.

Download this free guide for even more writing and editing tips.

The Content Editor's Online Proofreading, Editing, and Copyediting Checklist

Topic Selection

Consider these high-level questions at the beginning stages of the editorial process. (Tip: Ask contributors to show you a working title and/or a brief outline for the piece of content before they start writing so you can steer them in the right direction and save writers' time.)

Does this topic align with our content strategy? Will our readers/buyer personas care about it? 

 

Have we covered this topic comprehensively in the past? Will it add anything new and interesting amongst all the content clutter on the web? If both answers are yes, consider updating and republishing the original draft.

 

Can the angle be tweaked to be even more interesting?

Article Structure & Formatting

Optimizing the way the writer organizes their content and ideas is an important part of the editing process. Ask yourself these questions to determine whether the content is structured and formatted in an optimal way.

Is this the right format for the content? Does this topic work better as a longer form ebook, or a blog post? If it's a blog post, should it be formatted as a list post, a yin and yang-style post, or a LEGO-style post, etc.?

 

Is the flow of the content logical? Are the chapters/headers/ideas organized in an order that makes sense and naturally guides readers through the content?

 

Are big chunks of text broken up with headers and paragraph breaks so it's easier on the eyes and readers can scan and skim?

 

 

 

How is the formatting? Can you incorporate numbered lists and/or bullets to make it easier for readers to skim, scan, and identify important takeaways?

 

Are important points/stats/ideas called out in bold to catch readers' attention?

 

Are supporting images and visuals included where appropriate?

 

Are these visuals and images high quality and interesting? Have they been resized and compressed so keep page load time reasonable?

Writing / Copyediting 

This section is pretty important, for obvious reasons. Here are the critical things to consider as you're evaluating the writing in and of itself.

Is the content well-written? Is the writing interesting, entertaining, and easy to read?

 

Does the content tell a story?

 

Do the transitions make sense and flow well?

 

Is the grammar correct?

Does the introduction capture the reader's attention? Is it interesting enough to get the reader to keep reading? (Tip: Keep in mind that 10% of readers don't scroll through articles at all.)

 

Does the intro tee up the rest of the content well and explain the value the reader will get out of reading it?

 

Does the tone of the writing align with the content being presented? Does it align with the persona being targeted?

 

 

Yet, are we still allowing the writer's individual writing personality to shine through?

Supporting Elements 

Here are some additional tips that can transform your content from okay to awesome.

Did we include examples (real or hypothetical) to illustrate our points?

 

Did we use data, statistics, and quotations to back up our points? Is the content well researched?

 

Are there other supporting elements that could enhance the content (e.g. a SlideShare, a video, a visual, etc.)?

Attribution

Any good editor makes sure he/she is giving credit where credit is due. Here's what to think about. 

Are statistics, data, quotes, ideas, etc. properly attributed to the original source with a link back?

 

Is the data interpreted correctly (i.e. not lost in translation) from the original source?

 

In any quotations, do we have the right spelling of the name and job title/company of the person quoted?

 

Are we actually allowed to use these photos/images? (Here's a cautionary tale about internet copyright law.)

Title Selection

The title/headline of your piece of content is often the first impression it gives off (think social media shares, search results, etc.), so it's important to put some time and careful thought into its selection. Here's what to consider.

Is the title compelling and interesting enough to get people to click through and read on?

 

Does the title accurately reflect the content within? Avoid being overly sensational or bombastic.

 

Is the title brief and concise? (Tip: Keep in mind longer titles will get cut off in search engine results.)

Style Guide Alignment

Written style guides serve as the commonly acknowledged authority when questions of grammar, punctuation, and style come up in writing. A style guide answers questions like whether you use title case for article titles and headers; whether you capitalize the word internet; or whether you use the Oxford comma. 

You can either adopt an already-established style guide, like the AP Stylebook, or create an in-house version that enables you to borrow from different schools of thought and address any nuances specific to your industry or company. The important thing is to be consistent across all content you publish. Here's the main question you should ask yourself ...

Does anything contradict our style guide? (Tip: If you don't have a style guide, you can download HubSpot's and customize it as you see fit.)

Search Engine and Conversion Optimization

Want to get your content ranked for relevant keywords in Google and other search engines? Don't forget on-page SEO best practices. Then make sure you're converting all that traffic by doing some conversion optimization as well. Here's what to consider.

 

 

Finishing Touches

You're almost done! But don't overlook these finishing touches.

Are there internal links to other resources, landing pages, or blog articles that might be helpful to the reader (or improve your SEO)?

 

Were those links tested to confirm they work and send readers to the right place? 

 

Is the content spell-checked? 

 

Are any company names referenced spelled and styled correctly? (Tip: Pay particular attention to CamelCase, lowercase, one vs. two words, etc.)

 

Does the content contain any sensitive or controversial information that we need to get anyone's approval on before publishing (e.g. our legal or PR department)?

 

Have any stats cited or quotes used (etc.) been fact checked?

 

If it's a blog post, is it tagged with the appropriate topic tags?

 

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