How to edit copy

If you work in charity communications, it’s probably your job to edit other people’s copy, from articles for your magazine, newsletter, website and annual review to jargon-packed reports.

If you’re lucky, contributors will send you work written exactly to brief, in the right tone of voice and house style, in need of nothing more than a quick polish.

But who are we kidding? We all know pieces from colleagues in different departments, volunteers and others can need lots of work.

So what’s the most effective way to edit? Here’s my three-stage process for you to try:

Stage 1: Get the audience and purpose clear

Before you start editing anything, ask yourself two questions: Who is the audience for this piece? And what do I want them to do when they’ve read it?

Write your answers down, put them above your desk and bear them in mind with every word you edit. Does the piece give your audience the information they need? Is it written in a tone and language they can relate to? Does it inspire them to take the action you want? If not, sharpen your editing scissors…or send it back to the writer to fill in the blanks.

Stage 2: Look at the order and flow

Is the copy in the most logical order? Does it start with the most important point? And follow up with supporting information and background material in descending order of importance? Before you get into the heart of editing the language, do some moving around if the piece needs it.

Stage 3: The 8-step elimination checklist

Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of improving the language, sentence by sentence. In everything I edit, I get rid of eight things, with one aim: to make the copy tighter, shorter, easier to digest and more likely to keep people reading – then take action.

They are:

1. Long sentences and paragraphs. Make sure sentences are a maximum of 30 words and paragraphs no longer than 4-5 lines.

2. Long words. Is there a simpler, shorter word you could edit in? Then do it. ‘Help’ instead of ‘assistance’, ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’ and ‘before’ instead of ‘prior to’ are just a few examples.

3. The passive voice. Make the verbs in your piece active to create more powerful, shorter sentences. So instead of ‘Katie was helped hugely by our counselling’ (passive), try ‘Our counselling helped Katie hugely’ (active).

4. Redundant words and phrases. Every word in the piece should add meaning. Look out for those that don’t, and edit them out. Isn’t ‘Your donation is vital’ more effective than ‘It goes without saying that your donation is vital’? And doesn’t ‘Children are suffering’ get the point across better than ‘The reason why we do this is because there are children suffering’? Cut the waffle!

5. Nouns. Never use a noun when you could replace it with a verb. Verbs always have more impact. Doesn’t ‘We aim to engage young people and reduce crime’ work better than ‘Our aims are engagement of young people and crime reduction’?

6. Adjectives and adverbs. As Mark Twain said: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.’ Take his advice. Edit our unnecessary and excessive describing words.

7. Jargon. Your audience should understand everything you write, the first time they read it. If they don’t they’ll probably stop reading. That means getting rid of – or explaining – any specialist language.

Don’t just look out for obvious technical or scientific terms. You might use them internally all the time, but charity buzzwords like ‘empower’, ‘deliver services’ and ‘service users’ can alienate supporters if you let them seep into your external comms. In doubt about whether a piece contains jargon? Get someone from outside your organisation to look it over.

8. Clichés. The more a phrase is used, the less impact it has. If you hear a phrase all the time, like ‘She was as sick as a dog’ or ‘He was as happy as Larry’, replace it in the piece you’re editing.

Need some copy edited? Contact me now.

 

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