7 key elements of micro-editing

Focusing on the smallest elements in text can have the biggest effect on your message’s clarity and impact.


I’ve previously shared my 4-step editing process; today let’s examine one of those steps: micro-editing, which focuses on the sentence level.

Typically, it deals with the “technical” aspects of the article, such as sentence structure, style, usage, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. For now we’ll set aside spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and look at seven other aspects of micro-editing:

1. Strive for clarity.

Does the reader understand what you are trying to say? No matter whom you write for, your audience will appreciate clear, concise language. Keep the writing lean and focused.

As Strunk and White say, “Make every word tell.”

2. Write compactly.

As writers, editors, and PR professionals, we must fight for readers’ attention. One way is to be brief. Omit needless words. Write in the active voice. Eliminate tepid modifiers, such as “really” and “very.”

In the words of Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

3. Write simply.

Don’t use a complex word when a simple one will do. Unfamiliar or complex terms stifle comprehension and slow readers down. Readers may even skip terms they don’t understand, hoping to find their meaning in the rest of the sentence.

A lifelong scholar, James Michener developed a large vocabulary. “But I never had a desire to display it,” he said. “Good writing consists of trying to use ordinary words to achieve extraordinary results.”

4. Avoid meaningless terms.

Avoid meaningless terms such as “state of the art” or “leading-edge.” Ditch jargon. Cut clichés and buzzwords.

In the words of C.S Lewis: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

5. Use strong verbs.

The verb powers the sentence. Choose clear, active verbs instead of throwaways such as utilize, implement, leverage, and disseminate.

As Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications, says: “Powerful verbs will carry a lot of work for you in your sentence. They create an image, they create a visual, and they put people right where you want them in your story or press release.”

6. Use active voice.

Keep it simple—subject, verb, object. Passive voice is longer, less conversational, and drains the energy from your sentences.

Many writers use passive voice when they don’t want the reader to know who is performing the action. For example, they may write, “Rates were raised,” instead of, “We raised rates.” What they don’t realize is that readers see through this ploy. They recognize content that is purposefully vague.

George Orwell espoused this idea in the 1940s, when he advised, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

7. Watch your word choice.

The English language is full of confusing word combinations. Here are some that I correct frequently:

• your/you’re
• their/there/they’re
• its/it’s
• to/two/too
• effect/affect
• who’s/whose
• lay/lie
• stationary/stationery
• assure/ensure/insure
• comprise/compose

As you edit, keep in mind Stephen King’s words from On Writing: “To write is human, to edit is divine.”

Ragan readers, have you any micro-editing tips to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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