The editing process for taking blog posts from good to great (five fast editing wins)

Nobody looks forward to editing blog posts. This is sad, because the blog post editing process is where posts can go from good to great. Refine your thoughts, tighten your writing and produce something of real value.

Getting out of the habit of hitting publish the second you finish a blog post is really valuable. Spend just a quarter of the time you spend writing on editing and you’ll come away with a much better piece of writing. In this post we’ll cover:

  • Making sure you always get the basics right.
  • Styling techniques to highlight key points and make content ultra-readable.
  • Cutting quantity in favour of quality.
  • Writing a really good conclusion.
  • Graphics better than shitty stock images.

All sounds pretty great to me. Sound good to you? Let’s get to it.

1. Spelling, grammar and good English

All the shine in the world on your blog posts goes to waste if you don’t get the basics right. Typos, spelling and grammar slips are inevitable so it’s imperative you spot them and fix them.

Getting the basics right means actually reading through your posts a couple of times and correcting as you go. It’ll only take you a minute. Don’t skimp on it.
Of course, technology can make things easier. The Spelling and Grammar module built into Jetpack does a pretty good job. It’ll pick up spelling mishaps, grammar mistakes and make stylistic suggestions.

Covering the basics is essential, but there’s a little more to it than that. As Sue Anne Dunlevie writes there are some “fussy” grammar points to check:

  • Speak like you’d write: use contractions like I’ll, or she’d rather than I will or she would. It looks unnatural and unnecessarily formal.
  • Use apostrophes properly. Read this if you’re unsure.
  • Look out for homonyms (words which sound the same but have different meanings), i.e. you’re/your. Spellcheckers often miss these.
  • Be consistent: if you’re wrong at least do it every time and readers will think it’s your writing style.

How do you catch every mistake? Sagan Morrow recommends printing posts out to check through them. I used to do this when checking really long college essays. It’s probably overkill for all but the biggest and most important blog posts, in which case reading in “preview” mode on your site will do a good job.

Bonus tip: ask a friend. A second set of eyes can be very helpful. Any friend will be able to give you feedback on spelling, grammar and content but a friend with expertise in what you’re writing about can do the above plus feedback on your ideas and arguments.

The latter is much more valuable – establish mutual blog post feedback arrangements and you’ll be a huge help. Don’t let this be an excuse to skimp on checking content yourself, though. Make it easy for whomever is checking your posts by doing the bulk of the work yourself and getting them to give the feedback you couldn’t figure out yourself. Public Post Preview will allow you to share your post before it’s published.

2. Use styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points (and keep it readable)

Annoyingly, people don’t tend to read whole blog posts. We’re all busy, right? It’s much more common just to scan a post, grab some vague platitude and move on.

Two questions arise from this:

  1. If some readers stubbornly scan posts, how do you make sure they get something useful?
  2. How do you hold a reader’s attention throughout the post?

Let’s look at the first question. Highlighting quick takeaways throughout your post and then recapping again at the end can ensure even those who scan your content are going to learn something.

Doing this can be as simple as using the same template you use every time. Sean McCabe’s podcast show notes have precisely the same format each time, with an introduction followed by “Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins”.

Sean McCabe's "highlights, takeaways and quick wins" are really well done.

Sean McCabe’s “highlights, takeaways and quick wins” are really well done.

Sean lists roughly ten things you can learn from the podcast immediately, without even listening to it. The value you get is immediate but you’re also encouraged to stick around and learn more about the points raised.

A good conclusion is also essential in this. We’ll get to them later.

You’ll also want to highlight key points throughout your post. Bold and italics are really useful for this and for making web-writing readable.

How much emphasis you want to use is up to you. I generally prefer italics for single words or very short phrases and then bold for longer clauses or whole sentences. Generally you’ll want to only bold one or two sections per paragraph; if everything is emphasised it loses its effectiveness.

Styling breaks up the text nicely and draws the attention of readers scanning through what you’re saying.

Another useful trick for highlighting key points ties into our secondary goal of holding a reader’s attention throughout the post: using short sentences and paragraph breaks. These are a key tenet of web-readability and the web would be a better place if more people used them.

Right?

There’s research backing this: frequent paragraph breaks improve readability. Baymard Institute reports on the optimal line length for your content, advocating between 50 and 75 characters per line on average:

“If a line of text is too long the reader’s eyes will have a hard time focusing on the text… In order to… energize your readers and keep them engaged, we suggest keeping your text within the range of 50-75 characters per line.”

Design, styling and line breaks all intersect. Nail all three and your readers are going to have a beautiful experience consuming your content.

3. Cut a quarter of what you’ve written

It’s easy to get obsessed with word counts.

My post won’t be good unless it’s 1000 words.

If I’m not writing long form nobody will be interested.

This is the wrong way to think about it.  Think about your posts in terms of value created, not word count.

Cut the crap, keep the value. Quality beats quantity every single day. Be concerned about what you’re writing, not how many words you’re writing it in.

You don’t have to specifically cut a quarter of what you’ve written, but you want that kind of approach. Once you’ve finished writing, make a note of the word count and go through cutting out anything that is superfluous or isn’t directly providing value. You’ll probably have ended up cutting out a quarter.

Hemingway is a great tool for helping here. It will analyse your writing and give you a readability rating, highlighting complex sentences, errors and passages which are hard to read.

If you’re writing with sentence structures that are difficult to understand Hemingway is going to tell you and you can make the appropriate adjustments. You don’t have to make all the changes Hemingway recommends (it can level-down too much), but a quick check and correcting any serious mistakes is worth the time.

Making sure your writing is comprehendible and concise is going to make a huge improvement to your writing.

Bonus tip: check you’re not overusing words. This tool is handy for seeing if you’re frequently repeating anything. Hat tip Akshay Hallur for this.

4. Write a really good conclusion

Once you’ve written the main bulk of your post, conclude. The conclusion is not a place to say “and that’s that! follow me on twitter and let me know what you think in the comments”.

The conclusion does so much more and understanding this is key to crafting really good blog posts. Here’s what you should be doing:

  • Show how the ideas introduced in the introduction have been developed or achieved.
  • Tie everything you’ve said together (don’t introduce any new ideas).
  • Recap the key points you’ve made.
  • Link to further study and analysis.
  • Encourage further discussion.

You need to be bringing everything together here and make it easy for readers to be clear what you’ve just said, what they can take away and where they can go next. This is why a conclusion is important 🙂

5. Have really good images, kinda

I originally wrote this post about a year ago and included a section on having really good engaging images. I linked up to Nathan Barry’s post on killer graphics and again mentioned Sean McCabe’s hand drawn graphics. I advocated using better stock photos.

This is all good advice and if you want better images you should check out all of those. But – I don’t practice what I preach. On this site I’m using images sparingly, preferring to focus on writing and where I do use images I like to use photos I’ve taken in order to add more personality (hat tip Tynan). Adding generic stock photos for the sake of having photos seems a bit of a waste of time.

What I do like doing instead of images is screencasts. These add something really unique to posts and are easier to do than ever. Opentest is a free Chrome addon that lets you really really easily record screencasts. If it suits you can add camera and voice narration. Upload the finished video to YouTube and you’re done. Really convenient and useful.

Your editing just seriously improved your blog post

We’ve explored a pretty formulaic approach to editing posts but it’s a highly sound method which will result in better content. It’s kinda a pain to do but if you’re serious about the quality of your writing it’s well worth the time.

Here’s a handy recap of what you want to be checking:

  1. Check spelling and grammar. Actually read your post fully + look out for uncommon mistakes then ask a friend to read it through (and use this plugin to do that).
  2. Make sure your content is easy to read. Use paragraph breaks and styling for emphasis.
  3. Cut words viciously. Leave the good stuff, bin the rest.
  4. Make sure you’ve got a really good conclusion with easy takeaways.
  5. Add images if it’s appropriate. Otherwise, don’t.

I can’t stress enough how much better you’re going to make your posts by following these steps.

This is the kind of stuff that gives your blog the edge.

Let me know your thoughts @AlexDenning.

 

Successfully managing freelance work through college (how to balance study, work and social)

Freelance work is one of the best jobs for college students. You get to pick your own schedule and work from home. You can pick up part time work and fit around your schedule.

I spent my first year of college (or University, as I called it), thinking it wasn’t really possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life. On these grounds, I sold my blog, stopped doing freelance work and basically disappeared from social networks.

In my second year I added a ton of responsibilities running societies, started taking my academic work more seriously but started accepting a little bit of freelance work.

In my third (and final) year, concious I wanted to transition to freelancing full time after graduating, I took on roughly one day a week of freelance work – the very thing I thought two years ago wasn’t possible. It was possible, but required a lot of forward planning (this all looks very similar to freelancing next to a full-time job).

College is a normally a tripartite beast where one is required to stay on top of:

  1. Academic work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing

Adding freelance work throws a spanner to the work. Now you have:

  1. Work
    • Academic work
    • Freelance work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing

You don’t really want to compromise on any of these, which is where the difficulty comes in. It can be done though. Here are some of the things I learned about successfully managing freelance work for college students.

Finding part time work for students

I’m not going to spend too much time on this as I was able to leverage contacts from building and running WPShout to get work. If I had no online presence and was starting out, I’d ask these questions:

  • What skills do I have or could I develop?
  • How can I position myself in a market where my skills are valued, rather than a market where there’s a race to the bottom?
Here’s an example: writing is a frequently recommended field and for good reason: there’s no problem working remotely and as a student you’re already well skilled in writing.

The obvious problem is lots of other people are also good at writing. Instead of working in the very low end of the market, writing for $5-a-time content mills, how can you add value? Look at how you can leverage your writing skills to break into other markets.

For me that was WordPress, later social media and later still marketing. For you? What do you find interesting? Does this offer a route in? Do some Googling and think about it.

Once you can identify a market to be working in, you can establish yourself as someone whose skills are to be valued and an authority by setting up a website and blog and publishing regularly. I’d recommend using WordPress for this.

Start publishing good stuff and promoting it in the market you want to work in. After a month of regular content creation you can start advertising you’re available for hire or – the more effective method – get in touch with people who you think would want your services, tell them what you can do for them and ask them to hire you. I got the vast majority of my early freelance work this way.

You don’t need to mention to clients that you’re a student. As long as you get the work done, it’s not a problem (although you may wish to have some time off around busy academic periods – more on that later). I’ve never had a client value my time less because I’m also in full time education, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens.

Be exceptionally disciplined

You must be exceptionally disciplined. You will not succeed as a freelancer if you don’t show up without fail and reliably do the work.

I liked to keep a schedule. I had one day of contact hours (lectures and seminars), one day for study for each of my four modules) and then one day for freelance work. The seventh day in the week provided some leeway for fun or essay writing when necessary.

Knowing what work was to be done on which day meant I spent no time working out what needed to be done, I just got on with it. I liked to use weekly repeating tasks in OmniFocus (expensive but well worth the money imo). Plus, the regular schedule meant I always got my academic work done (and often did more reading/seminar preparation than my peers) and also always got my freelance work done.

Having a schedule is one thing, but you need to religiously stick to it. This is where the discipline comes in. By taking on freelance work next to your academic work you’re reducing your leeway for spare time, so you’ve got to show up and get the work done.

Be exceptionally disciplined. Set a regular schedule, show up and do the work

Say no to things so you don’t burn out

Saying no to opportunities was something I’d rarely done before, but realising I needed to do it was a big eye-opener. Clarity on this came from reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism.

The book makes the same point again and again, but it’s a good point so it gets away with it: identify what’s important to you and focus on it, and cut out everything which is secondary to your primary focus.

If your focus is on the tripartite beast we discussed before – work, social and wellbeing – then things secondary to that focus need to go.

I cut out a number of commitments after this minor revelation, declining to continue my involvement with running societies, turning down extra client hours when I thought it would negatively impact on other areas and making a call on when my own projects were not worth pursuing (this meant putting my blog on hiatus).

Identifying your focus is of extreme importance here. I’m making the assumption work, wellbeing and social life are important, but for you that may be different. Well worth thinking very seriously about what it is you’re focussing on, and how all the work you’re doing fits in around that primary focus.

Be smart about academic work

Successfully managing freelance work through college involves being successful with academic work. You don’t want to compromise on academic results or the growth from pursuing interesting ideas and asking difficult questions.

We’ve established keeping a schedule is important, but a schedule only works if you can consistently get work done in the time you’ve allotted. You can resolve needing to do all your academic work but only having a fixed time to do it in by being smart about it.

Keeping on top of studying is a lot easier when you’re smart about it.

The arguments of the pareto principle, that 80% of work comes from 20% of effort, are well rehearsed. Given students don’t start from a point of doing 100% of work (does anyone do 100% of the reading lists for semianrs?) you can’t just cut your work to a fifth and expect to maintain results. You can, however, make intelligent decisions about which work to do.

As a Politics student a lot of my work was reading for seminars which wasn’t assessed. A lot of my peers did the bare minimum reading, but turn up knowing nothing and you’ll take nothing from the seminars. So how to do the reading, just faster? A number of things:

  • Find tools to work faster. I needed to read books and journal articles and take notes. I wanted digital notes but most PDF readers don’t let you copy text, so I’d just type out notes. Solution: get a dedicated PDF highlighting app and switch to Evernote, which can handle notetaking better.
  • Know when to do more work, when to do less work. I had a lot of choice for what I was assessed on. Identifying topics I wanted to choose way in advance, from looking over the schedule at the start of the year, would mean I could focus especially on those weeks. Equally, if I definitely wasn’t planning on doing any assessed for on a topic I could safely cover the basics but leave the advanced reading.
  • Start early. Being a week ahead with reading brings a huge amount of leeway into your schedule. It’s really easy to do: in the long holidays just start on the next term’s work the week before term starts. Knowing you’ve got a week spare brings a huge amount of flexibility.

Subjects with more frequent assessment may find this less effective, but there will definitely be ways to work smarter and work less whilst maintaining results.

You also need to know when to prioritise academic work above all else. Around exam times and when essays are due you need to be able to focus exclusively on those. This just involves keeping on top of those dates. Let clients know way in advance when you won’t be able to work for a couple of weeks and there shouldn’t be a problem. Try and squeeze everything in – and that’s just not going to work.

Practice deep work

I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work over the summer and virtually everything there resonated very strongly with me. A grossly simplified summary of the basic thesis is for maximum productivity one should schedule “deep work” sessions where you focus wholly on the task in hand. All distractions are to be ignored, Facebook and Twitter are to remain unchecked.

This is really good advice. Working out how to be really productive is the final piece in the puzzle of making this all work.

I swore by the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a productivity system whereby you work in 25 minute blocks with no distractions, then have a five minute break. You then repeat. I adapted it to work in 50 minute blocks followed by 10 minute breaks. Do whatever to make it work best for you.

My entire work schedule revolved around these 50 minute “deep work” sessions and I’d highly recommend it. The time pressure guilts you out of any (or at least most) procrastination and facilitates the getting done of a lot of work. I liked using Pomotodo to track my sessions. Sara Laughed has some interesting ideas worth thinking about on this. See also Ransom Patterson on this.

I’d also recommend starting work earlier. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme – just starting at 7.30am instead of 9am makes a huge difference. You can still finish at 6pm, just you’ll have gotten a lot more productive hours done each day.

It can work and it can work well

Writing this has made freelancing through college seem herculanean, zero fun and stoic. I’m probably guilty of slightly overdramatising; it’s not like you make the choice to earn money in place of having fun.

I wanted to do freelance work but I didn’t want to compromise my academic work, so the solution was just a lot of work. A lot of my friends and peers were doing just as much work, but where I was working freelance they were teaching and marking, running societies, working more traditional jobs and/or engaging in hobbies. Freelance work was just a different type of demand on my time.

It is absolutely possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life whilst at college or University. You just need to keep on top of everything, make strategic compromises and make your work count. I’m now graduated but if I was doing it again I’d probably do slightly less freelance work and trade it for more time off, but on the whole I have no regrets about the experience.

I hope this post inspires some action. If you’re wondering about the feasibility of work, go for it. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences – let me know @AlexDenning.

Get my new free course: Becoming a WordPress Master

I wrote a couple of months ago I was planning on setting out freelancing full-time after my graduation (and a trip to Japan). This has now all happened and I’m entering my third week working for myself 100% of the time.

I’m excited to be writing regularly again, and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be transitioning some content from BlogBettr to here and publishing a new post every fortnight. You can grab a newsletter subscription if you’d like to stay updated.


One of the first projects I’ve been working on is a free course for WordPress users to become WordPress masters and do everything they want, themselves.

There are a ton of WordPress courses for beginners and a second ton for experts, but nothing that bridges the gap – and that’s where MasterWP comes in.

I’m producing the course with Ben Gillbanks. Ben and I have worked together for years and have eighteen years of working with WordPress between us (me as a power user, Ben as a developer), so we cover all aspects of the WordPress spectrum.

The free course runs for a week and empowers you with the skills to set up sites how you want, manage sites for clients and vastly increase the value of your WordPress skills.

The full lesson breakdown looks like this:

  1. How to choose the perfect WordPress theme
  2. Get the most from theme support
  3. Theme customization basics (+ helpful plugins)
  4. Make your site load really quickly
  5. Using CDNs for extra speed
  6. Integrating email marketing with WordPress
  7. Keeping your WordPress site secure

The lessons are thoroughly detailed and packed with quick tips and convenient takeaways, so it’s worth grabbing the course even as a refresher. After all, it’s free 😁

The course starts next Monday (12th September) and signups are only open until then, so signup for free here.

We’re hoping to follow-up with a more detailed advanced course, so would love to help develop your skills and hear your thoughts. Let me know on Twitter.