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The 5-step fast edit

You have a piece to edit and limited time to work on it — and the piece is a mess. How can you fix it quickly?

While every author has their own idiosyncrasies, some problems are common, easily fixed, and make a dramatic difference in readability. Here are the five quick steps to make writing vastly better.

1 Fix the story.

If the narrative thread is missing, here’s how to fix it:

  • Find the most interesting thing and put it at the top — that’s the hook. It could be a story, an insight, a statistic, or something else that grabs the reader.
  • Find the main idea, and move that right after the hook. Rewrite if necessary, into a sentence or two.
  • Rearrange paragraphs to put the rest of the ideas in some semblance of logical flow.
  • Delete redundant content.
  • Rewrite (or write) a sum-it-up ending.

2 Break up big paragraphs.

If a paragraph is ten or more lines long, find a spot in the middle to break it. The point where you can break it is in there; once you look, you’ll always be able to find it. Repeat for every long paragraph.

3 Break up long sentences.

If a sentence is full of clauses or uses the word “and” more than once, break it into shorter sentences. Fix every long sentence and you’ll vastly improve readability.

4 Fix passive voice.

The litany of passive voice sentences is a roadblock to readability. Passive voice sentences — sentences in which the subject of the sentence is not the actor — give the reader a weird feeling that somehow things are happening but they can’t tell who’s doing what. If you can’t figure out what the subject of the sentence should be, try “you” (meaning the reader).

Here’s an example from a manuscript I’m working on. Before:

Comments and feedback can be classified in terms of whether factors in these areas were positive or negative contributors.


You can classify comments and feedback as positive or negative contributors in each area.

5 Write a good title

Wait until you get to the end of edit. Then ask yourself what stands out about the text, and suggest it as a title.

That’s it

If you’re in a hurry, you can stop there. You won’t make a piece fantastic this way . . . but you could turn it from a disaster into something publishable, or even powerful, and then get on with your day.

You can do this to your own writing. But if you’re doing it for someone else, they’ll think you’re some sort of miracle worker, when all you did was apply this blog post. Just smile and take a bow. I’ll never tell.

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  1. I shared this with my students in Slack, Josh. Thanks for backing me up.

    Most of them are oblivious to the perils of the passive voice, long sentences, and excruciating paragraphs. Your posts backs up my in-class recommendations.

  2. I’ve just shared this column with my three immediate colleagues. I would add three more steps that won’t take much time:
    1. Add subheadings or lead-in headings.
    2. Rewrite figure or table captions to make them more compelling.
    3. If you find a “hidden list” (“this, that, and the the other”) in a paragraph, break it out into an unordered (bulleted) or ordered (numbered) list.