The Ultimate Content Editing Checklist
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
There are many things to check for before content is ready for publishing, and a thorough content editing checklist can help.
The first thing you need to do as a freelance editor and content creator is to stop taking errors in your content personally.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the #1 speller in the entire world, errors just happen, and they aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault.
Just because a “there” is where a “their” should be, that doesn’t mean you don’t know the difference between there and their.
There’s a reason editing and editing by multiple people is an essential step in the publication process.
Errors just happen. So stop taking it personally.
Editing is a technical process that requires a technical approach.
Think of editing like a production line.
Getting error-free content is all about building an air-tight production line where each step can help pick up any errors left over from the previous step.
That’s why I don’t just have one master editing checklist.
I have six.
Checklist #1: Substantive Editing
The next thing you want to check for is the substance of the content.
This includes everything from structure, format, transitions, themes, message, interest and intrigue, flow, paragraphs, bullet points, layouts, and anything else that has to do with the structure of the content.
For example, as you read you might find that a paragraph should be placed somewhere else.
Or maybe a paragraph is too boring and needs to be rewritten to keep the readers interested.
All content needs a solid message, beginning, middle, and end, with seamless transitions between them all.
Any problems in the content that will involve some major rearranging, rewriting, and additions to the text need to be edited first, before you move on to more nitty gritty details.
Checklist #2: Delete
Some things you need to just delete or cut out.
Everyone has writing crutches that they lean on. Many writers don’t even know what their writing crutches are until they have them pointed out to them.
Be on the lookout for repetitive, overused, and unnecessary words, phrases, sentences, and even sections.
I like to think of these items as “filler” that you want to get rid of so the core message is clear and not covered up by verbal shrubbery.
You also want to get rid of this excess first because you don’t want to waste time editing words that you’re just going to delete later.
I’ve accumulated my own list of content filler to delete when doing my first round of edits:
to be able to
a lot of
Checklist #3: Inclusive Language
Inclusive language is language that seeks to include all humans.
Some forms of language are inherently exclusive and need to be changed so that the text isn’t unnecessarily excluding any members of the audience.
An example of exclusive language would be using the term “firemen” because not everyone who fights fire is a man.
So instead you would change this word to “firefighter.” That way, all firefighters are included in the message, and not just male firefighters.
Sometimes inclusive language is more nuanced than this though. You also want to make sure the text is being respectful of other groups, uses the proper terminology, avoids cliches, assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes as well.
Inclusive language can be really hard to catch if you aren’t careful. Some stereotypes we take for granted without realizing the false or narrow-minded reality we’re assuming is always true.
The text might say something like, “Most people don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck,” but unless you are presenting an actual statistic that supports this information, it’s an unbacked generalization that could be completely false.
Just because something is true for you, and even everyone you know, that doesn’t make it true for everyone in the readership.
This is how you get issues when you’re reading a text and a line that’s being presented as a general truth sounds just so weird to you and steals all your focus away from the actual message.
There are many things you should know to do and not due when you’re doing an inclusive language edit. The best thing to do is stay informed and up to date in the editing world for what you need to be looking for.
“70 Inclusive Language Principles That Will Make You A More Successful Recruiter (Part 1)” by Nehemiah Green is one of the best online guides i’ve found to talk about absolutely everything you need to know to edit for inclusive language.
Use inclusive pronouns
Check for assumptions
Check for stereotypes
Check for generalizations
Check for bias
Use inclusive titles like police officer NOT policewoman or policeman
Know the guidelines for how to reference different groups and communities
Checklist #4: Audience
What genre are you working on? Who is in your audience and what do they want?
These are the things you need to know in order to have a firm grasp on the audience that will be consuming the content.
The audience for a fantasy novel is going to be different to edit for than the audience for a nonfiction novel. Content that people will read on the internet needs to be edited and formatted differently than content in a brochure.
Likewise, content being written for 40 to 50 year olds needs different edits than content for 10 to 12 year olds.
Learn as much as you can about the intended audience before you edit.
Below is a brief list of some items to remember when editing content for the web:
short, 1-2 sentence paragraphs
lots of space between lines and paragraphs
keep heading hierarchy simple
5th-grade reading level, conversational, informal
use bullet points and steps
make it scannable
use examples, data, and images
Below is a brief list of some items to remember when editing novels:
Show vs tell
Logical sequence of events
Below is a brief list of some items to remember when editing nonfiction writing:
Fact check everything
Statements of fact
Names of real people and places
Checklist #5: General Grammar
This editing checklist comes almost last because you don’t want to get into the pickiness of copy editing until after you’ve finished all the rewriting potentially involved in the previous editing steps.
Now that your document is trimmed down, with great flow, and a great message, you can do the final copy editing to make it perfect.
First, read the content from the first word to the last word to make sure there aren’t any glaring items that the previous checklists might have missed.
Second, read the content backward, from the last word to the first word. This way, you won’t be blinded by the flow of coherent sentences and miss any misspellings.
Below is my list of copy editing items I always go through in every document I edit. Many of these items can also be quickly found and checked using the find and replace tool.
afterward, forward, toward NOT afterwards, forwards, towards
into vs in to
no vs know
favor the present tense
than vs then
its vs it’s
your vs you’re
there vs their
affect vs effect
em dashes vs en dashes vs hyphens
oxford comma after “and”
check headings and subheadings
no double spaces after periods
‘s vs s (possessive vs plural)
Checklist #6: Style Guide
Now that you’ve checked the content over for general grammar, it’s time to go over any specific items outlined in the style guide.
A style guide is like a grammar and formatting guide made especially for a business.
An organization might have a preference about capitalizing certain words or when to use commas. All of the style rules and guidelines specific to an organization will be outlined in their personal style guide.
If the organization you work for doesn’t have a style guide, you can reference the Chicago Manual of Style.
This style guide is a detailed manual about any grammar or English question you might come across as an editor.
Many organizations that do use style guides, reference the Chicago Manual of Style for any instances where their style and grammar preferences don’t deviate from the norm.
Checklist #7: Smart Quotes
Is your word document having issues with putting quotation marks at the bottom corners of words instead of the top corners? This could be happening because you have Smart Quotes turned on.
To resolve this issue, make sure Smart Quotes is turned off while you are writing and editing content.
Issues like this are another reason we like to wait until the end of the editing production line before fixing Smart Quotes.
Smart Quotes are curly quotes or curved quotes that curve around the quoted sentence or sentences. The first quotation mark curves around the beginning of the first quoted word and the last quotation mark curves around the end of the last quoted word. Smart quotes should always curve around the word, not away from the word.
Straight Quotes are straight instead of curvy or curly. The first and last quotation marks are both straight, vertical marks. They don’t help designate the beginning and end of a quoted section. This is why we like to change all of the quotation marks to Smart Quotes at the end, to better show where quoted sections begin and end.
Do the following steps to make sure all your quotation marks are Smart Quotes (curly or curvy quotes) and not Straight Quotes:
AutoFormat As You Type
Checkmark the box: “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes”
Ok > Ok
Replace tool on the Home tab’s menu bar
Find what: “
Replace with: “
Find what: ‘
Replace with: ‘
#8: SEO and Metadata
A lot of content is now online. This means that you’ll also have to go through an editing process for SEO and metadata.
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This involves anything that helps the content be easily searched on search engines like Google.
Good SEO and metadata practices are always updating, so make sure you’re staying up to date.
A good title is a balancing act.
You want the title of the content to be intriguing enough to grab readers’ attention without looking too much like dramatic clickbait titles that are trying too hard to get readers’ attention.
Next comes the meta description. A meta description is a brief summary of the content that is shown in search results.
Meta descriptions are usually around 150 words and include key information about the content so readers know what they’re clicking on.
Keywords and keyword phrases are the words and phrases that people use to search for things online. An example of a keyword phrase is “work from home.”
Determine what keywords apply to the content and then use these keywords in the title, headings, alt text, tags, URLs, and descriptions of the content.
The lede sentence is the subtitle or the first, introductory sentences.
The lede sentence should be a proper opening to the content, outlining to the reader the benefits of reading this material.
Create a featured snippet section in the content.
A featured snippet is a box of clearly outlined content that search engines like to use as their primary search result.
To make a content reach the primary search result spot, make sure it includes a featured snippet section that search engines can easily use.
The body content can take on many forms according to the content type. Know what kind of content you are editing and what should and shouldn’t be included based on the target audience.
For SEO purposes, the content should be well researched with a proper source. It should adequately give the information and answers it promises to give. And it should have a clear and uncomplicated heading hierarchy, format, and layout.
You want the content to keep readers reading, skimming, scanning, clicking, and learning.
One way to get readers to keep reading your content is to make it easy for them to digest.
This means favoring small paragraphs to long walls of text and including beautiful, related images and videos.
If there are any sources in the content, make sure they are properly cited and linked.
When you start working as a freelance editor, do what I did:
Make a personal “handbook” folder in OneDrive or Google Drive. Then keep your own detailed editing checklists in this folder.
Update your personal editing checklists as you go from job to job, adding new items as you come upon them.
Collect other things that will help you in your editing process, like references and graphics to help you remember the difference between affect vs effect or lay vs lie.
Soon enough you’ll have your own arsenal of references and resources to help you be the best freelance editor around.