December 8th, 2021

Copycat's Anatomy #5: Self-Editing

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Written by Rebecca van Laer

At Copycat, we’re always in the process of creating new professional development resources for working and aspiring copywriters. The below blog post is adapted from our in-house manual on all things copy-related, Copycat’s Anatomy.

Many writers say that they “can’t edit themselves.”

While it’s true that we have various degrees of jitters when looking over recent writing and varying abilities to identify spelling errors, there’s a lot you can do to improve a self-editor (as an added bonus, developing these skills helps you learn to edit other writers, too!).

At Copycat, we advocate writing a less-than-perfect first draft before bringing your editor’s toolkit to bear on the text at hand.

Ready to whip your most recent writing project into a confection designed to delight the reader’s palate? Let’s dive into our top strategies for editing.

#1 Establish a Hierarchy of Concerns

To begin, it’s helpful to understand the hierarchy of concerns in writing. 

What’s a hierarchy of concerns? 

In short, it’s the way you’d rank the concerns (or issues) in your writing in order of importance (starting with the most relevant).

  • Higher Order Concerns (HOCs) are essential to the success of your piece, no matter the writing genre. If a novel lacks compelling characters, it doesn’t matter if your semicolon use is correct. If a piece of copy fails to address the topic at hand, your client won’t be happy with even the most pristine prose on the web.

  • Lower Order Concerns (LOCs) still matter to the overall professionalism and quality of your final work product. Consider a grammatical mistake in the first sentence of an article. Seeing this will break the innate trust with the editor (or Reader). Despite the rest of your article being error-free, that first mistake lingers in the mind. That said, a few missteps throughout a piece won’t be as noticeable or as impactful on the reader's experience.

Long story short? While it’s great to remove every comma splice in your prose, that won’t matter much if your article is completely off topic.

From top to bottom, the most important concerns for the work we do at Copycat are:

  • #1 Relevance – Does the article fully address the title topic? If it’s easy to cover the topic in a few words or paragraphs, is the rest of the article relevant to the person behind the Google search?

  • Action: Locate the place in the article where you clearly address the prompt, whether it’s defining a term, choosing a winner in a versus battle, or answering a yes or no question. Can you answer it sooner?

  • #2 Organization – Is the article organized in an easy-to-follow format? If a reader skims through H2s, H3s, and bolded bullet points, will the flow make sense? Will they begin to understand the information from these pieces of sign-posting language?

  • Action: Read through your headings and bolded bullet points. Are they parallel? Do they follow a logical order?

  • #3 Appropriateness – Is the article shaped with the client’s platform in mind? Does it introduce topics and arguments that subtly or directly promote the client’s solution? Is the voice, register, and humor appropriate for the client’s brand?

  • Action: Review the brand guidelines and reread your introduction. Does it feel on-brand for the client? With that in mind, are there any sections that need revision?

  • #4 Flow – Are there transitional sentences before and after H2s and H3s? Can the reader easily understand how a new topic flows from the previous one? Are bulleted lists introduced with language more engaging and descriptive than “Benefits include:”?

  • Action: Reread the sentences before and after your section headings. How is the flow? If there are no such sentences, by all means, add them!

  • #5 Hook – Does the article have a narrative hook in the introduction that will keep the reader’s attention?

  • Action: Identify your hook or narrative scenario. If there isn’t one, create it. Then, see if you can implement a call-back in the conclusion or somewhere else in the article.

  • #6 Rhythm – Are the article’s sentences of varied length and construction? Be on the lookout for repetitive syntax, i.e., “Not only...but also” as well as repeated transitional words and phrases like “However” and “As well.”

  • Action: Search for a phrase you know you like to use (whether it’s “whether” or “while”).

  • #7 Diction – Have you eliminated all filler words (i.e., so, very, just, good, great, simply, and so on)? Have you varied your word choice throughout the article? Look in particular for bland verbs like “to be” when there’s a spicier option available.

  • Action: Generate a word cloud to see if you overused a particular noun or verb. CTRL+F search filler words and replace them with synonyms.

  • #8 Grammar and spelling – Don’t get us wrong—this one is actually quite important. As a Copycat writer, we’re guessing you’re on top of your game. But if you know there’s something you struggle with, be it parallel sentence structure or appropriately using an em dash, double-check your piece with that concern in mind.

  • Action: Run your article through Grammarly.

If you notice an issue in one or more of these areas (especially the top four), try and address it right away. And if everything seems good-to-go with these “higher order” concerns, challenge yourself to improve one of the lower-order concerns.

#2 Gain a Fresh Perspective

Ever have the experience of rereading a brand-spanking-new article and feeling like it’s written in Greek?

συμβαίνει στους καλύτερους από εμάς.

All joking aside, it’s difficult to overstate the value of a fresh perspective on your work. To that end, try the following:

  • Edit a few hours later – If you’re able to complete your article before the deadline, press pause before reading it with bleary eyes and uploading it to the article dump. A small slice of time between composing and editing can make all the difference in your ability to root out errors.

  • Read it on paper (or your tablet) – No time to wait? Changing the medium on which you’re working can help you shift out of writer mode and into editor mode. Try printing your article and marking it up in pencil or taking notes on a tablet using an app like Notability.

  • Change the font – No printer or iPad? No problem. Try changing the font or lightly highlight the piece (avoid changing color or size—you don’t want all your hard formatting work to go to waste). Reread the document and see if the new vantage helps you approach the content from a different lens. 

  • Read backwards – Want to focus on your sentence-level prose? Try reading the document from end to beginning, sentence by sentence. While this won’t necessarily help you target flow, it’s a great way to isolate each sentence from its context and give the syntax a deeper look.

  • Read it out-loud – If something sounds awkward to you when you read it, it won’t feel natural in the reader’s mind. Also listen for opportunities to make better transitions or vary word choice.

#3 Set Specific Goals With Your Own Editing Checklist

It can also be helpful to edit with a specific goal in mind.

Keep forgetting to integrate keywords? Tackle that in your editing process.

Have you received feedback stating that you need to simplify your sentences and eliminate redundancies? Read with that goal in mind.

Consider editing with a checklist that focuses on the areas you’d like to improve. Writing out these goals just once can help you achieve them—but you can also return to this handy tool when you’re feeling fatigued and simply want to check the most important elements.

Try building a custom checklist from this general Copycat checklist:

  • Topic – The article topic is answered in the intro/as soon as reasonably possible

  • Keywords – All keywords appear in the article

  • Word Count – Blog meets word count requirements (not including metadata and sources)

  • Formatting – The document is aligned with Copycat formatting standards: (font and text size are all within Copycat brand standards), (header formats are accurate), (spacing is 1.15)

  • Sources – Sources are included and appropriately cited

  • Language – Sentences are free of redundancies and begin with clear noun-verb pairs

  • Skimability – The text on each page is optimized for the reader

If there are certain errors you find yourself making across articles, add those to your checklist!

Grow Your Toolkit With Copycat

Ever tell yourself “I’m just not a good editor?” No one is born with the ability to write at all, much less edit with preternatural prowess. And while it may seem to come more naturally to some writers, developing a hierarchy of concerns for your own writing can help you identify where to focus your brainpower to improve your craft.

Looking for more tools to add to your rhetorical kit? At Copycat, we’re here to help. Email hr@copycatcopywriters.com to subscribe to our newsletter, and keep your eyes peeled for our monthly posts from Copycat’s Anatomy.

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