in Blogging

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.