A seasoned editor offers 10 copy editing tips to help creative professionals craft error-free communications.
Even if you're not a copywriter by trade, the ability to write clean and compelling copy is critical to your career. Sending sloppy or unclear emails or reports can make you look bad and leave your colleagues and clients frustrated and confused. As the line between traditional roles continues to blur, you may be asked to perform tasks that fall outside your job description, including writing and copy editing. After all, creatives are in the communication business, and pixels and prose go hand in hand.
I've been working with words professionally for 17 years and developed some techniques to ensure the copy I write and edit is free of mistakes. If you want to dazzle coworkers and clients with your communication skills and avoid embarrassing goofs, take the following advice to heart.
1. Clean up the clutter
Many people approach writing by dumping all the information they've collected into a document, and then organizing and massaging it into a draft. But that's just the first step. Reread your copy objectively and eliminate anything that's extraneous. The editing process often illuminates information that's interesting but not pertinent or critical. Your goal is to be thorough but not exhaustive.
2. Avoid mix-ups
Watch out for words that are often confused. The most cringe-worthy offenders include your vs. you're, insure vs. ensure and compliment vs. complement. I once knew an editor who wrote the word capricious when she meant to use capacious in an article about hard drive storage. That type of error undermines your credibility.
3. Say what you mean
Make sure clichés mean what you think they mean – or better yet, steer clear of them altogether. Idioms often get in the way and muddle your message. Determine whether there's a simpler way to communicate your idea.
4. Rely on resources
Keep a dictionary, thesaurus and style guide handy. While grammar and punctuation rules vary among style guides, picking one and sticking with it will ensure consistency for you and your audience. You can even create an internal style guide for words and phrases commonly used by you or your clients. A wiki is a great way to manage a guide that's used by multiple team members.
5. Use spell check
Spell check is a powerful tool, so use it. But it will not flag every type of error. As such, you should also...
6. Read aloud
Speaking the words you write can reveal awkward sentence constructions and missing words. Read your copy out loud to yourself or in front of a friend who can provide constructive feedback.
7. Press print
Don't just read your work on screen; print a hard copy as well. Seeing your words on paper sheds new light on the project. It's often easier to revise a hard copy because you can read your work from start to finish without getting distracted by email and IM alerts.
8. Put it in reverse
Reading your work backward word for word will force you to focus on each and every term. (This is easier to do with a hard copy.)
9. Establish some distance
Take a break from your writing – a few hours, or even a few days if you have the luxury. If you don't have a lot of time, re-reading your work in a different environment can help you see things from a new perspective.
10. Get a second or third opinion
For critical pieces of writing like company-wide memos, final drafts of projects, and cover letters and resumes, ask for some editing assistance. Depending on how high profile the project is, you may want to consult multiple people, including a colleague close to the project who knows the end goal, someone unfamiliar with the project who can identify unclear information, and a wordsmith who has a good eye for grammar and punctuation.
Effective communication is a valued soft skill for every creative role. Use these copy editing tips to improve your work and enhance your professional reputation.