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How to polish your near-perfect prose

Revise, copy edit and proofread like a pro, plus an editing checklist “To write is human, to edit is divine.” – Stephen King, On Writing As a copy editor and a writer, I have to agree. Mr. King, of course, is alluding to the phrase,

editing revise proofread

Revise, copy edit and proofread like a pro, plus an editing checklist

“To write is human, to edit is divine.” – Stephen King, On Writing

As a copy editor and a writer, I have to agree.

Mr. King, of course, is alluding to the phrase, “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” from a poem by Alexander Pope. He’s right, too. It is human nature to make mistakes. And that, my friends, is why we need editors.

Okay, maybe Stephen and I are going off on our own little tangent here (forgive us), but editing is as crucial to the writing process as tuning is to a musical instrument.

Like a musician fine-tuning their instrument to make sure it sounds flawless, a writer should put in the work to ensure their writing reads perfectly. A well-tuned instrument can make even the most basic melody sound beautiful; similarly, a well-edited piece of writing can elevate the content and make it more enjoyable for the reader. Skip this step and the results can be discordant and jarring. Polish your prose and you’ll hit all the right notes.

Before I start mixing in any more metaphors, let’s dig deeper into the details and significance of the editing process, starting with why knowing how to edit still matters in this automated era.

Why self-edit in the age of grammar checkers

What if Mick Jagger had used Grammarly on “I can’t get no satisfaction”? Enough said. (Drops mic and walks away…)

The odds that double negative would have survived are as likely as Keith Richards making it to 70 80 90! And history, as we know it, would have been forever changed.

Okay, maybe not. But it does illustrate the fact that, while a useful tool, grammar checkers should not be relied upon as the sole method of editing.

Designed to catch the most obvious errors, such as incorrect punctuation or spelling mistakes, grammar checkers can miss more subtle issues like awkward phrasing or syntactical errors – things that are technically correct but may not make sense in context. Plus, automated editors sometimes flag mistakes that are, in fact, correct, such as when using nonstandard grammar or colloquial language. It’s not their fault. They’re simply algorithms trying to do their best without an ability to fully understand the meaning and intent of your writing.

Ultimately, editing is a multifaceted task that requires a human touch. Relying on grammar checkers alone can leave your writing less polished and life less colourful. A world in which Mick Jagger sings, “I am not able to attain satisfaction,” is not even worth thinking about…

Three steps to writing perfection: revising, copy editing and proofreading

Hey, we’ve all been guilty of hitting “send” or submitting a paper without due diligence. Like other tedious tasks (flossing your teeth, ironing your shirts), it’s easy to skip over. But you don’t want to make a habit of it. People will talk.

As any math teacher will tell you, an effective strategy for making a less-desirable task more palatable is to divide it into smaller, manageable portions. Fortunately, that works out well when it comes to the editing process.

To achieve a polished piece of writing, it’s essential to go through three stages of refinement: revising, editing and proofreading. It’s a top-down approach with every phase getting more specific. And each of the three steps is unique and vital. But before you get going, make sure to take a break between finishing your draft and jumping into the editing process.


This is the “big-picture” phase that focusses on the overall content and how it is delivered. Start by revisiting your aims and objectives, as well as the intended audience. Did you hit on all the important aspects of your argument or assignment? As you read through, think about whether the order or structure needs to change. Is everything flowing easily and logically? Ensure your tone is consistent and your message is clear and effective. If it’s not, reorder paragraphs, cut unnecessary information or add missing details as necessary. Once you’ve taken that more global look, move to examining paragraphs. Is there an appropriate introductory and a concluding section? Does each paragraph hit on one idea or claim, and does it have support? Do all the transitions make sense? Emphasis is on the message not the minutia.

Copy Editing

Now that your revisions have whittled away weaknesses, strengthened the structure and increased coherence, you can narrow your scope. During the copy-editing stage, the main goal is to concentrate on the sentence level taking a closer look at the wording. In addition to punctuation and spelling errors, check for style consistencies, subject-verb and tense agreements, parallel construction, passive voice and variety in sentence structure and length (but err on the side of brevity). Pay attention to tables, headings, citations and illustrations, both for style consistency and placement. Remove unnecessary, repeated or ‘inflated’ words, as well as jargon and cliches.

Feel free to employ a grammar checker now, but don’t depend on it. Take the time to read each sentence aloud, line by line. By now your piece of writing should be polished and pithy, but we’re not done yet. Next comes proofing.


Proofing is the final step of the editing process. Typically, the writing is in its final, ready-to-go format. At this point you’re giving everything a quick once-over to find any last-minute mistakes that have been overlooked or may have occurred during the layout process. Now is when you (hopefully) catch things like typos, missing words and formatting and typographical errors. To increase the odds of proofreading perfection, take a break then come at it with fresh eyes. Print a hard copy and, again, read it out loud. Scan the headers for consistency in capitalization and other conventions. Do the same for captions and citations.

The ultimate editing checklist

Following is a checklist for the different editing stages. Use it and your prose will be as polished and powerful as a new Lamborghini.


  • Check to see content meets aims and objectives
  • Check for style and tone consistency
  • Check for logical flow of ideas
  • Check for any missing details or explanations
  • Check for any irrelevant information
  • Check for any biased language
  • Check for any logical fallacies in your argument
  • Check for use of appropriate level of formality
  • Check for use of appropriate tone

Copy editing:

  • Read it aloud
  • Check for grammar and punctuation errors
  • Check for spelling errors
  • Check for consistency in formatting, such as font, spacing and headings
  • Check for consistency in citation style, if applicable
  • Check for use of passive voice and (strongly) consider rewriting in active voice
  • Check for any repetitive words or phrases
  • Check for wordiness and consider simplifying/shortening sentences
  • Check for use of jargon; explain any technical terms for the general audience
  • Check for use of inclusive language
  • Check for consistency in numbering and bullet points
  • Check for use of contractions, depending on formality
  • Check for use of appropriate level of specificity and/or generality


  • Read it out loud
  • Check for any typos or missing words
  • Check for formatting errors such as page numbers, margins and line spacing
  • Check for consistency in headings and subheadings
  • Check for any errors in tables and figures, if applicable
  • Check for any broken hyperlinks if in an electronic format
  • Check for any inconsistencies in capitalization
  • Check for any missing punctuation

Finally, check your writing one more time to make sure everything makes sense and is error-free. Yes, it’s tedious at times but worth it in the end.

Go forth and edit like a superstar! Or make like a boss and call in the pros

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