Good editing is at the heart of great writing. Here’s how it can take your e-learning content to the next level.
I’ve never liked the old aphorism that “there are no great writers, only great editors.” But there is some truth to it, in that no one writes the perfect draft the first time through, and even the most accomplished writers depend on a skilled editor to add polish and structure to their work.
Writing and editing are a symbiotic process. Every good editor knows how to write well, and every good writer must also be able to edit their own work. In professional industries, these related skill sets have naturally developed into specializations, but most online instructors don’t have the resources at their disposal to hire a professional editor. And that means, if you want your writing to shine, you’re going to need to learn some editing skills.
Fortunately, writing is a skill most often learned by doing, and editing is the same. But if you’re just getting started or need a refresher on the basics, these tips can help improve your editing process for creating e-learning content.
1. Use an outline to bring structure and pacing to your lesson plan.
Many people think that editing happens on the word level, but you should begin by looking at the big picture. How have you organized your content, and does it flow smoothly from one element to the next?
It’s surprising how quickly content can jump from one seemingly unrelated point to the next. This can disorient the learner and make them question whether what comes next is going to be relevant or worthwhile.
Make sure you’re properly introducing your content in the beginning, summarizing it at the end, and progressing from point to point in a logical manner in the middle.
2. Start big, work small.
Once you’re sure the larger structure is in place, then it’s time to narrow your focus. Move from the course, to the individual lessons, to the arrangement of sections and paragraphs within a lesson, to the order of sentences, to the order of words.
As you work, get comfortable moving things around. If you find yourself cutting and whole paragraphs from one section to another, that’s a sign you’re getting the hang of it. Just remember to re-read the sections you changed to make sure everything still flows smoothly.
3. Learn to love your delete key.
Sometimes, when writing, I’ll get stuck on a paragraph and won’t know what to write next. After staring at those words for far too long, I’ll realize they were simply the wrong words, and I’ll delete them and try new ones. That usually works.
Get used to applying this principle generously. Is a part of your content giving you problems? Delete it. Even when you love that part of your lesson, if it doesn’t fit in with the rest, cut it out.
4. Keep track of your writing tics.
We all fall into writing habits once we’re at it long enough. Some of those are good and contribute to our writing style. But others can be repetitive or simply lazy.
Get used to spotting those tics when you write, and make it part of your editing process to check for them when you’re done. Maybe you’re over-relying on certain words or sentence constructions, or maybe you have a pet phrase you unconsciously use every other sentence. If you’re aware of it, you can return to your writing later and replace it with something more original.
I sometimes use the search function to check my document if I suspect I’ve already used an unusual word or phrase too many times in one piece. Sometimes I find (to my delight) that I haven’t. Other times I realize I used it in the previous sentence and forgot.
5. Don’t over-rely on spell check.
Spell check has saved many a silly typo from seeing the light of day, but there are several that are notoriously hard to catch. These include homonym errors (its vs. it’s) or dictionary errors (that word doesn’t mean what you think it means).
More importantly, the grammar functions on many of these tools are commonly wrong or misleading. Word frequently mixes up contractions and possessive pronouns, or suggests an automatic substitution that works in some cases, but is grammatically incorrect in others. For instance, it once suggested I change “as long as” to “if” in a sentence where I was trying to compare the lengths of two different objects.
The point being: most spell-checkers will over-correct. If they flag something, take a look, but don’t automatically accept whatever correction they give you.
6. Invest in a good style guide.
The finer points of grammar are difficult for most of us to keep track of. What’s worse, some people disagree about how you should handle these edge cases and may give you conflicting advice.
This is where a style guide can help. When you come across a grammar or style question and can’t remember what you should do, turn to your style guide and let it decide for you.
7. Re-read your work, preferably aloud.
Re-reading your work is an easy step to skip, but you might be surprised how frequently you unknowingly repeat a point. Reading aloud also helps slow you down enough to spot typos that might otherwise slip through.
Furthermore, nothing will help you spot awkward phrasing like a vocal read-through. You’ll find yourself making a lot of those small, word-level corrections that smooth out the rough edges and leave your piece looking extra fine.
Bonus proofreading tip: Get a second pair of eyes on your content.
Finally, remember that proofreading mistakes happen. It’s not because you’re sloppy, ignorant, or careless—it’s because we’re psychologically incapable of seeing many of our own typos.
Writing is a complex, high-level brain function. When you’re in the zone and the words start coming naturally to you, you’re far too focused on the creative process to zoom in on the details. And when your writing is hot off the mental press, your mind is still too close to the words you wrote to see them clearly. When it comes to reading, our brains are designed for speed. We don’t read every word, even when the content is familiar. And when it’s our own, it’s even harder not to see what we expect to see.
By contrast, to proofread effectively, you almost need to break apart the entire reading process to force yourself to examine each word carefully. I’ve even talked to proofreaders who will read paragraphs backward to help their brains slow down and prevent the natural reading process from taking over.
Of course, if you work far enough ahead so that you forget your own writing, you will be able to go back and proofread it yourself. We’ve probably all had situations where we return to a piece of writing we did weeks earlier and suddenly spot typos that we’d missed even after several revisions. But since most of us don’t write that far in advance, it’s wise to bring in a trusted friend or colleague. Ask them to give your writing a careful read-though (not a quick skim!) before you publish.
And if typos do slip through? It’s not the end of the world. The beautify of digital content is that most of it can be updated in seconds.