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5 Tips for Writing Cleaner Copy

You know you need an editor. No one can find all the errors in a piece of writing, least of all the person who wrote it. And AI isn’t even close to being able to edit for us.

Paying for an editor is another story.

Fortunately, editors don’t charge by the error. Most of us charge by the hour, project, or word. Some editors charge by the level of editing required. You might pay one rate for a developmental editing, another for a copyedit, and a third for proofreading.

Copyeditors also sometimes vary their rates depending on whether the copy needs a light, medium, or heavy edit. Each editor will define levels a little differently, but in general the more work there is to do, the higher the rate can be.

To save some money—and perhaps reduce the shock at the amount of work needing to be done—you can do a little editing before sending your manuscript to your editor.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t hire a professional editor. The longer you look at your work, the more you’ll see what you expect to see instead of what’s really there. Plus, your editor will do more than fix typos. They’ll smooth transitions, watch for libel, and more. Your editor is a specialist. But you can ease the work by tidying things up before your editor arrives on the scene.

What can you do to clean up your manuscript? Here are a few ideas.

Eliminate Unnecessary Redundancies

Redundancy can be a wonderful tool for driving home an important point. Repeating the crux of a lesson a couple of times within a lecture helps students learn, for example.

There’s another type of redundancy, though, that just takes up space and wastes readers’ time. Close proximity is a good example. On its own, proximity means “nearby in space or time.” Adding close doesn’t change the meaning, it simply emphasizes it. Does the text really need that emphasis?

Other unnecessary redundancies you can fix:

Redundancy…Instead Use…
and alsoand
basic essentialsessentials
completely unanimousunanimous
end resultresult
exactly the samethe same
new innovationinnovation
past historyhistory
personal opinionopinion

Read more about redundancies with Mostly Useful Redundancies and The Reason Why is Because…

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Trim the Deadwood

Deadwood is any word in a sentence that doesn’t add meaning to the sentence. You might find that a thing has been said with more words than necessary. Get right to the point! You don’t have to specialize in writing short to get value from deleting words that don’t add to your text.

It’s often shorter to use modifiers before a noun (adjectives) rather than after (post-nominal adjectives, prepositional phrases):

a decision to buya buying decision
the impact of the contentthe content’s impact

Multi-word verb phrases can be reduced to single verbs:

are able tocan
need to paymust pay

Verbs in the present progressive can be changed to the present:

will have to gomust go

And nominalizations (nouns formed from verbs) can be turned back into verbs:

make it clear that expectations for studentsclearly expect students

Use Active Voice

Active voice means the subject of your sentence is doing the action the verb describes: Jim runs marathons. Sentences in active voice are not only more direct, they’re more interesting to read. Yet sometimes the important point is the receiver of the action: The building will be demolished. By all means, use passive voice when it’s called for.

Use Strong Verbs

Strong, or dynamic, verbs are ones that show action: Run. Jump. They create vivid pictures in our head. Weak, or static, verbs are verbs of being: Be. Seem. They state facts. Weak verbs are fine in their place, but if you can substitute a strong verb for a weak one, you’ll keep your readers’ interest longer.

Fix the Typos

Sure, your editor will help with typos, but the more you catch now, the more your editor can help you with bigger issues, such as transitions between paragraphs and fine-tuning your voice.

Read your document, ensuring each sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with an appropriate piece of punctuation. Watch for duplicate words and missing words.

Finally, run a spell-check on your document. While spell-checkers aren’t perfect (they won’t catch a there for a their), they can find errors your eyes otherwise glided over.

Self-editing won’t replace professional editing, but it will help you hone your writing skills and maybe save you a few bucks in the process.

A version of this article originally published in 2015 on The Paper Weight Blog.


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