11 Editorial Skills You Need to Become a More Efficient Editor

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Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox


When I first started practicing my editorial skills on the HubSpot Marketing Blog, I didn't quite realize how much time each one would take.

Content marketer works on improving editorial skills

Depending on the length, topic, and other variables, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an entire afternoon to edit a single blog post.

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This post isn't about cutting corners; it's about editing efficiently. That sometimes means giving more thoughtful feedback upfront 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.

Want some ways to edit more efficiently while maintaining integrity? Here are 12 ways to save time when you sit down and whip out that proverbial red pen.

11 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).

In fact, for every notification you get, it can take 23 minutes to get back on track, according to a study from the University of California.

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 uninterrupted time with small breaks in between – the Pomodoro method.

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 to put the content into context before diving into the details.

First, take a quick skim of the working title 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?
  • Does each section flow naturally into the next?

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 here are:

  • Have we covered this topic comprehensively in the past?
  • Does this offer a fresh angle and perspective?

If both answers are yes, you might consider updating and republishing the original draft.

3. Read for content and 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 improved.

This may seem like we're adding time here, but trust me, this will 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," said Corey Wainwright, HubSpot's Website CRO strategist & copywriter at HubSpot. "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, former Marketing Blog manager at HubSpot, agrees.

"Your job, as an editor, is to preserve the voice of your writer while making sure they are meeting your quality bar.”

You may 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. In that case, send that feedback to the author via email as that may be more productive than switching everything around 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 instance, if they included an example in every section of the piece except for one or two, you might ask them to find one for each of those sections.
  • Are there any points that need any, more, or better 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.

Once the content, ideas, and structure of the piece are all ready to go, you can get down to the nitty-gritty.

This is where I like to keep a few websites bookmarked for reference. Here are the ones I prefer.

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 use specific code to include a “Featured Snippet” module in your CMS.

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 needed.

Here's an in-depth intro to HTML so you can learn helpful coding hacks.

7. Read the piece out loud.

The importance of this step cannot be overstated.

Reading out loud isn't just good for memory retention, it's also great for spotting errors. You're more likely to find clumsy sentences and other things spell check won't catch if you read 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 them 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.

"I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like Ddamn, 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.

We all have words that trip us up, no matter how long we've been writing or editing.

Think about it: What are the mistakes you tend to make when writing or editing? What things do you tend to miss?

Start keeping track of this and adding it to a personal blog. Then, as you're editing, do a "Find and Replace" before publishing to catch any mistakes that slipped through the cracks. 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."

9. Do a final check on Microsoft Word.

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.

10. 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. 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:

  1. The piece successfully solves the problem, addresses the need, or conveys the message intended.
  2. It is clearly and distinctly on brand.
  3. The quality of work is consistent with or above the level of previous work.
  4. It has been thoroughly yet objectively scrutinized by other qualified individuals.
  5. 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.

11. 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.

As such, use this online editing and proofreading checklist when doing your final check. Feel free to also add to the list, as you may have additional steps in your process.

Ultimately, being an efficient editor requires concentration, attention to detail, and the ability to know when to stop. With this list at your disposal, you'll be better in no time.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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