When I first started editing articles for HubSpot's Marketing Blog, I didn't quite realize how much time each one would take.
Depending on length, topic, author, and other variables, it can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an entire afternoon to edit a single blog post.
This post isn't about cutting corners; it's about editing efficiently. That sometimes means giving more thoughtful feedback up front so your job is easier when the final draft does come in. Other times, it means keeping a few key websites handy so you can refer to them quickly -- whether you're checking the author's math or adding a Pinterest Pin It button to an image.
What are some ways to edit more efficiently while maintaining integrity? Whether you're editing your own piece of writing or someone else's, here are 12 ways to save time when you sit down and whip out that proverbial red pen.
12 Ways to Save Time While Editing a Piece of Writing
1) Find a quiet space to do your editing.
Don’t try to get your editing done in a meeting, or when you're around chatty coworkers. Research shows that multitasking like that can make us far less effective at our work and increase mistakes and stress. And when you're editing, you're trying to catch those mistakes -- so you want to be extra diligent.
Instead, find a place where you can plug in and concentrate fully on the piece in front of you. When you get there, turn off those pesky email and social media notifications, and put your phone on airplane mode (or, better yet, leave it in your bag). The phone part is particularly important: In a 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people who received notification of a call -- even if they didn’t pick it up -- were 3X more likely to make mistakes.
If you're working through a piece of writing that'll require more than a few hours of careful editing, consider blocking out chunks of concentrated time separated by breaks. Otherwise, you may lose focus and begin missing things. In fact, a study by the Draugiem Group found that the employees with the highest productivity spent 52 minutes working, followed by 17 minutes of rest.
2) Be sure the topic aligns with your content strategy.
You might be tempted to dig into the meat of the piece and begin meticulously editing it straight away. But, as an editor, it's important that you put the content into context before you dive into the details.
First, take a quick skim of the working title, the layout, and the main ideas covered in the piece. Think to yourself:
- Does this topic align with our content strategy?
- Will our readers and buyer personas care about it?
If you're concerned the piece isn't about a topic your readers will be interested in, think about how to tweak the angle.
You'll also want to reflect on how the piece fits in with what you've written in the past -- especially if the piece is a blog post. Search engines like Google might see the second post as duplicate content and penalize you in search. Even if Google doesn't consider it duplicate content, competing for keyword ranking against another post from your own blog will hurt your SEO strategy. The questions to ask yourself here are:
- Have we covered this topic comprehensively in the past?
- Will it add anything new and interesting?
If both answers are yes, you might consider updating and republishing the original draft.
3) Read for content & ideas first, grammar second.
Never start diving into detailed edits before you read the whole piece through. It's important to reflect on it holistically so you can pinpoint places where the content and ideas can be made stronger. This may seem like we're adding time here, but trust me, this'll save you a lot of time and pain in the long run. If you've ever started editing a piece line-by-line only to realize it needs to be completely restructured, you know what I mean.
The key takeaway here is to recognize when the piece needs more work from the author. "Sometimes, an author sends a piece in before it's ready to be edited," says Corey Wainwright, HubSpot's Director of Content. "Learning to recognize those instances can save you a ton of time, because otherwise you start just rewriting the piece, which isn't helpful to either of you."
Ginny Soskey, manager of HubSpot's Marketing Blog, agrees. "Your job, as an editor, is to preserve the voice of your writer while making sure they are meeting your Quality Bar," she explained in her post on editing confessions.
If you notice the piece doesn't flow well, or the introduction needs to be tightened up, or there aren't enough points in the article for it to meet your standards for quality, then it's better to send that feedback to the author via email than to try and fix it yourself.
If the piece needs an overwhelming amount of editing help, then the author's writing may not be a fit for your publication -- and you'll save a lot of time by telling the contributor outright.
4) Check for places where the author can fill in the blanks.
Aside from providing larger, more broad feedback, you should also read through the piece to identify smaller improvements that you might want (or need) the author's help on. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are there any structural inconsistencies in the piece? For example, if they included an image in every section of the piece except for one or two, you might ask them to find an image for those sections for consistency.
- Are there any points that need more, better, or any evidence? Statistics and data can elevate the quality of your content and make it more interesting for readers.
- Are any sources missing citations? (This is a big one.)
As you read, take notes on these points in an email draft to the author. Once you're done, make sure you clean up the notes so they're comprehensible.
5) Bookmark helpful websites for quick referencing.
If the content, ideas, and structure of the piece are all ready to go, you can get down to the nitty-gritty of editing the piece. This is where I like to keep a few websites bookmarked for reference. Here are the ones I prefer.
- Your company's style guide: For when you want to double-check how something is spelled or referred to.
- Percent change calculator: For checking math.
- Your favorite keyword tools: For identifying top keywords for the content so you can use them in the title, headers, and relevant anchor text.
- Pinterest Pin It widget builder: For creating Pin It buttons for graphics or infographics.
- Embed code generator: For creating embed codes for any original graphics or infographics. (Learn how to use it here.)
- Click-to-tweet: For adding click-to-tweet links to tweetable quotes in a blog post. (Learn how here.)
6) Keep useful code snippets close at hand.
Along with bookmarking helpful websites, it's also a good idea to have all those useful snippets of HTML or other code that you tend to use easily accessible.
For example, you might notice that we add borders around many of our images on the blog. To add these borders, I need to add a specific snippet of code into the source code of the blog posts I write and edit.
To make this process easy, I save code snippets in my Evernote. When it comes time to add them to the source code of my blog post, I simply pull up the note and plug in the snippets as need. (Download our free guide to HTML here to learn some simple and useful HTML coding hacks.)
7) Read the piece out loud.
Reading out loud isn't just good for memory retention; it's also a great way to find errors in a piece of writing. You're more likely to you find clumsy sentences and other things spell check won't necessarily catch if you hear those errors out loud.
Best-selling author David Sedaris uses this verbal approach to fine-tune his writing. According to Fast Company, Sedaris tests his works-in-progress by reading it aloud to live audiences because it helps him notice imperfections in the text. As he reads, he'll circle everything from confusing or misleading phrasing to closely repeated words or words that sound alike in the same paragraph
"I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like ‘damn, how did I not catch that?’" Sedaris said. "But you pretty much always catch it when you’re reading out loud."
Reading out loud will help you catch these errors in the first go-round, which will save you time later.
8) Use "Find and Replace" to quickly fix common errors.
Here's a useful tip from my colleague Ginny from that great blog post on editing I mentioned earlier. Think about it: What are the mistakes you tend to make when writing or editing? What things do you tend to miss? For example, you might notice that one of you typically get hung up on the difference between there/their or you're/your.
Knowing that, you can make sure to do a "Find and Replace" before publishing a piece to correct these little slipups. It's a far quicker way to polish a piece than looking for these instances manually.
To do a "Find and Replace," hit Control + F on a PC (or Command + F on a Mac), type in your problem word or phrase and click "Find," and let your browser take you to the word or phrase. Then, look through each instance of that word or phrase and swap it out with the right thing when needed.
9) "Find and Replace" HTML snippets to quickly clean up a post's formatting.
You can use the same principle when you're cleaning up the formatting of a piece of writing for a blog post or other piece of online content. Skip the time-consuming manual work and find specific pieces of code using "Find and Replace."
For example, if you're finding rogue <span> tags or other troublesome code in the source code, you can use "Find and Replace" to replace them with something else or strip them out completely.
Simply hit Control + F on a PC (or Command + F on a Mac), type or paste in the code, and click "Find." Under "Replace," either fill in the code you want to replace it with, or leave it blank to strip out the code completely. When you hit "All," it'll be gone.
10) Copy and paste the piece of writing into Microsoft Word to find spelling and grammatical errors.
It doesn't matter how meticulously you eyeballed a piece of writing: More often than not, you will find additional errors using spell check that you would otherwise miss.
If your writing software has spell check, use it. We also recommend pasting the content into Microsoft Word (length-permitting) for a final check. Just remember to give the document a few extra seconds to process your piece once you've pasted it in there, as Word takes a little longer to "read" your piece and uncover any mistakes. Then, you can go through it and assess any red or green squiggly lines you see.
11) Know when the content is good enough.
I know as well as any other editor that letting go of perfectionism is hard. But it turns out that perfectionism, while helpful in certain contexts, can become a major roadblock for productivity.
There will always be something you can do to improve a piece of writing -- and it can drive you crazy if you let it. You might think of "done" as spending every possible minute improving, polishing, and refining a piece until it's whittled to perfection.
But what are you sacrificing by making more, minor improvements? And are those sacrifices realistic? Are they worth your time? At some point, you need to ask yourself: When is "good enough" good enough?
Of course, knowing what the threshold for "good enough" is easier said than done. Here's a helpful formula to give you some direction:
- The piece successfully solves the problem, addresses the need, or conveys the message intended.
- It is clearly and distinctly on brand.
- The quality of work is consistent with or above the level of previous work.
- It has been thoroughly yet objectively scrutinized by other qualified individuals.
- The final decision of preference had been left in the hands of the creator.
Make sure that you complete the most important editing and proofreading tasks. Then, once you've refined a piece enough to move on ... just move on.
12) Keep this pre-publish checklist handy.
Before you hit "publish," it's time to do a final once-over to make sure you've checked all the boxes. While this seems like another extra step, remember that this is an investment of time that'll save you from having to return to the piece later to make edits and adjustments.
But there are a lot of little things to remember before you publish a piece of writing -- which is why my colleague Pam Vaughan created this online editing and proofreading checklist. Use it to ensure all the important boxes are checked before you hit publish so that when a piece of writing is shipped, it's shipped for good.
How do you save time when editing while still giving the piece its due diligence? Share your tips with us in the comments below.