How to Edit a Video: The Basics

Written by
Brandon Copple
min read

If you’re looking for a straightforward primer on how to edit a video, you’ve come to the right place. Editing is an essential part of filmmaking — and pretty much every creative endeavor — and you’ll need to achieve some level of mastery if you want to be proud of the video you’re making.

The good news is, even if you’re totally new to this stuff, today’s video editing software makes it possible for anybody to produce a high-quality video — probably in less time than you think. And while every project will have different editing requirements and steps, the fundamentals of how to edit videos remain largely the same no matter what you’re working on. 

There’s no one right or wrong way to edit a video, but there are some essential tips you should know to make things go more smoothly.

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How to edit a video: Before 

Set a goal (and expectations)

Before you go near a camera, figure out the goals of your video. Are you making a marketing piece? A highlight video? An explainer or how-to? Are you making something for personal use, for fun, or for a client? Keeping the answers front-of-mind from the start will help you determine everything from the equipment and tools you’ll need to the kind of music and sound effects you’ll use. 

It’ll also give you a sense of what your editing process will ultimately look like — do you have equipment or budget constraints that’ll limit what you can produce? Will your piece be high-energy with a lot of cuts or more streamlined and relaxed? How many rounds of edits will you need? You get the idea.

Get organized

This is less about editing itself and more about making your life easier. The last thing you want when you sit down to edit is a massive folder of randomly named files. How much time you give yourself to get creative with edits — the most important (and fun) part of making something good — will have a lot to do with how well you organize your media. Every editor has a system that works for them, but here are a few things we recommend: 

  • Write some sort of script. Having a script, even if it’s rough, to work from is indispensable during shooting and editing.
  • Log your shots while filming. Label all files properly to reflect the scene and the take, then drop them in folders separated by theme, and organize them in such a way that you can find them quickly, as you need them. 
  • Name your footage and media systematically. We know — when you’re thinking about how to learn video editing, the last place your brain goes is to something as boring as file-naming. But it’s essential to have a system for naming video files, audio files, still images, and so on. The video production team at Descript standardizes the names of all files in the same format: TITLE>DATE>VERSION. Each project has a specific title, date, and multiple versions if more than one are produced in a day. So it might look like DescripTip-07-15-2022-v1. 
  • Use folders wisely. Create a main folder for each project to house your project file, as well as subfolders for your footage, music, images, and anything else you need. For easy access, store everything on the same drive. 

Have a back-up plan

Anyone who’s ever spent hours writing a draft or creating a presentation and forgotten to hit “save” knows the agony of not backing up your work. Yet this is a step a lot of people overlook. Don’t be one of them. Save your project often — set reminders on your phone or computer if you need to. 

Many seasoned editors swear by the 321 rule: three copies of every file you need in at least two different places, e.g. an external hard drive and a Cloud-based service like Google Drive. In addition to saving frequently, note the date and time of each version, so you can go back if you get too heavy-handed on edits at some point. 

Descript makes the first step here irrelevant, and the second easy. If you have an internet connection, Descript automatically saves your project as you work; and it’s non-destructive, meaning it preserves your original files as you edit, so you can revert if you change your mind or make a mistake.

How to edit a video

After all of that preparation you may be saying to yourself, OK, but you still haven’t talked about how do you edit a video. Okay, okay: here are the basic steps. 

Watch everything first 

When you’re first learning how to make a video edit, it’s hard to know where to start. A great first step is to watch all the raw video you have from start to finish, prior to any cutting or tinkering. Imagine you’re a seasoned journalist sitting down to write — you’d want to read through all of your reporting notes before you even attempt a first draft. Same goes for video editing. At this stage, many editors will start to cut down on the amount of files, deleting extra takes and obvious mistakes.

Make a rough cut

Open your video editing software; drag and drop all of your video footage. The process will look a little different depending on what software you’re using. In Descript, as soon as you open a new project, you can start dragging media into your workstation, including video clips, voiceover, music, graphics, or other images. Add B-roll, captions, stock media — whatever you want. At this stage, you want to pick your best clips and put them together into a rough cut, or a loose version of the story you want to tell. It’s the same idea as a rough draft in writing — you’re getting the content in rough order here before moving on to more technical edits.

Edit and refine

This is when your rough draft transforms into something more cohesive, and your vision starts to come to life. Play around with the pacing, adjust the color and sound, and make sure dialogue is audible. Then add visual effects like keyframe animation, shapes, and transitions. Get subtitles and captions in your chosen font, and add stickers, GIFs, and sound effects. If you’re working in Descript, you can edit your video by editing the transcript (just like you’d edit a doc). You can cut your video into scenes so it’s easy to control when visuals appear (and manipulating the visuals is as easy as in a slideshow). Also, remove filler words (e.g. “ums,” “ahs,” and “likes”) in a single click, and add transitions, B-roll, animated captions, and other effects in just a few more. You can also use AI-powered tools like Studio Sound, which automatically removes background noise and enhances speakers’ voices.

Refine (again) 

Watch your video again and look for ways to make it better. Maybe cut slow or sloppy parts to keep your narrative moving and your video tight. Maybe you need to add a shot or scene where there’s a piece missing in the story. You might also play around a bit more with transitions and cuts, and then layer in music and any other finishing touches. 

Get feedback & do a final pass

After you’ve spent some time getting your video how you want it, it’s good to get some outside perspective. If you have time, walk away for at least a full day and call in reinforcements. Showing what you’ve made to someone you trust is often the easiest and quickest way to find out what’s working and what’s not. Return with fresh eyes, incorporate your final tweaks, and wrap it up.

How to edit a video: After 

Once you’re happy with your video, there are just two things left to do: export it and share it. If you’re wondering how to upload a video to specific popular platforms, check out these quick guides: 

Photo by Yulissa Tagle on Unsplash

Written by
Written by
Brandon Copple

Head of Content at Descript. Former Editor at Groupon, Chicago Sun-Times, and a bunch of other places. Dad. Book reader. Friend to many Matts.

Descript is a collaborative audio/video editor that works like a doc. It includes transcription, a screen recorder, publishing, and some mind-bendingly useful AI tools.
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Brandon Copple

Head of Content at Descript. Former Editor at Groupon, Chicago Sun-Times, and a bunch of other places. Dad. Book reader. Friend to many Matts.

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