CLEAR THINKING FOR GREAT COPY
Writing is hard because our ideas don’t always line up conveniently.
BY DAVID HOPKINS
I’m a writer. No need to gussy it up with business jargon and call myself a “content provider.” I write. That’s what I do. Whether it’s a few words for a billboard, a few sentences for a webpage, or an incredibly dense post-apocalyptic novel, I care about the words I produce. I provide the right content at the right time for the right audience. I do it because good writing has a profound impact. Say something the right way, and your audience is suddenly, miraculously yours. Say it the wrong way, and the disdain is almost unbearable. No one wants to embarrass himself or herself when writing. As a result, many people are fearful, timid writers.
Writing is hard because our ideas don’t always line up conveniently. Our thoughts are squirrelly and rebellious. Conversely, good writing is the result of clear, patient thinking. Organize your thoughts in a meaningful way, and the writing will come. Clear thinking takes shape on four levels: in our words, our sentences, our paragraphs, and our willingness to edit.
In this white paper, I’ll show you my approach to creating great copy in the most straightforward way possible—four sections with each section focusing on an aspect of clear thinking. All the best writing advice crammed into a few short essays. Let’s get started.
I. Choosing the right word
Commensurate! That was the word I was looking for. It was on the tip of my tongue. I was explaining to my wife the pain in my shoulder was not—something—with my inactivity. The chiropractor was blaming my sedentary ways, but the pain wasn’t… commensurate. I could have said the pain wasn’t equivalent or that it didn’t fully correspond in size or degree. It wasn’t comparable or proportionate. But darn it, I wanted the word “commensurate.” That was the word.
I get frustrated when I can’t find the right word. (Am I frustrated? Or do I get mad? Angry? Irritated? Irked? Bothered? Annoyed? What is the subtle difference between these words? These are the questions I ask on almost an hourly basis.) If you’re concerned about communicating your ideas, then you need to care about your words.
I’m reminded of why words matter from the Simpson’s episode where Homer’s intelligence reached a new low.
Homer: Marge, where’s that… metal… dealy… you use to… dig… food?
Marge: You mean a spoon?
Sure, you could call a spoon a “food digger,” but spoon is already such a perfectly good word. Or as Mark Twain once wrote, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” The right word gives your meaning nuance, precision.
Denotation, connotation, and sound
What’s the difference between “offer” and “provide?” Our clients offer and provide a lot of things. To “offer” is more passive. It says, “here, take it or not, whatever.” To “provide” sounds like it’s meeting a need and is readily given. Plus, I like the sound of the word “provide.” The word just feels warmer. Does that mean “provide” always wins? Hardly. Sometimes the word gets overused, and I need to fall back to “offer.” It depends on the circumstance.
Should I say the options are “unlimited” or “limitless?” Do I call them “clients” or “customers?” A good writer is mindful about how words work and which ones work best.
Denotation is the literal or primary meaning of a word. Keep your dictionary by your side. When choosing a word, denotation is most important. Make sure the word means what you think it means. For instance, the word “occasionally” doesn’t mean “rarely.” It means at infrequent or irregular intervals. The word “invariably” doesn’t mean something that rarely happens. It’s something that is unchanging and constant, e.g., “The shopping malls invariably get more crowded in December.” When you refute, you’re not denying something, you’re proving it to be untrue. There’s a difference.
Connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes. Many words carry baggage with them. A writer should be aware of how a word can stir the reader. I’d rather be conversational than chatty. I’d rather be youthful than childish. I’d rather be economical than miserly.
The sound of a word can also be important. Even if it’s the right word, if it’s jumbled together with other words in an awkward manner and doesn’t sound right, you may want another word. Listen for pleasing alliterations, a gentle rhythm, and even a happy rhyme within your writing. Jack Hart, author of A Writer’s Coach, gives this obvious—but often overlooked—advice: “The best thing you can do is to start reading your work aloud.”
Buzzwords are the enemy.
Insecure writers lean on mind-numbing jargon. They hide behind verbosity, hoping it might cover the fact they have so little to say. If they write the same idea, over and over again, rearranging the buzzwords each time, maybe the reader will get lulled into submission? This is not good.
Buzzwords are always changing, drifting in and out of style. It’s useful to keep track of them like wanted fugitives. These words have abused us. It’s perfectly acceptable to execute them on sight. Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman created a list of banned buzzwords in their book Content Rules. These are the words I avoid whenever possible.
Instead of “impactful,” try influential or substantial. Powerful is good, too.
Instead of “leverage” (used as a verb), try influence, exploit, enhance, rely on, or just plain use.
Instead of “learnings,” use lesson.
Instead of “synergy” (and its many variations: synergistic, synergism, synergize), try cooperation, help, joint, pooled, or combined effort.
Instead of “proactive,” try active, anticipate, or forestall.
Instead of “drill down,” try in-depth.
Instead of “30,000 feet,” use overview or executive summary.
Instead of “incenting/incentivizing,” try encourage or provide an incentive.
When you can avoid the buzzwords, you begin to sound like a human being again and not a corporate tool.
Get rid of useless words.
William Zinsser wrote in his book On Writing Well, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” This concept should stick with you: clutter is a disease. If you want to be a good writer, consider yourself a surgeon. Your scalpel is the backspace key. Carefully highlight and delete anything mucking up the intention within every sentence and every paragraph.
What does clutter look like? It’s most primal state is wordiness. When a “meeting” transforms into a “sit-down to discuss the operational imperative of our company,” you have a problem.
Other examples from On Writing Well:
“At this point in time” simply could be “now.”
“With the possible exception of” is a cluttered version of “except.”
“Due to the fact that” should have gone with “because.”
“Until such time as” is better off as “until.”
“For the purpose of?” Go with “for.”
Wordiness is a crime against common sense.
Are you crying?
I was watching TV, and a car commercial came on. It was for the Chevy Malibu. Instead of focusing on the car, the commercial opens on the scene of a woman and her daughter getting ready for the day. Then it moves to a dad playfully picking up his kid under his arm, hauling him and his other children to school. Next, an adult is having breakfast at a diner with his father. Then, a family goes to the beach. There’s a quick shot of a couple on a date, and then a father holding his newborn child. Finally, the car parked outside the house at night. Soft piano music plays throughout.
The commercial: “We’re not supermodels. We’re trying our best to be role models. We don’t jump at the sound of the opening bell because we’re trying to make the school bell. Corner booth beats corner office any day. We make the most out of our time and our money. The Chevrolet Malibu, the highest ranked midsize car in initial quality… the car for the richest guys on Earth.”
My wife: David, are you crying?
Me (wiping something out of my eye): Damn. That was good.
Was it the sappy music? Was it the sentimental image of a father holding his child? Do I just really want a Chevy Malibu? Mostly, it was one word that destroyed me. “Richest.” The commercial took a simple word and put it in a new light. What does it mean to be truly rich? Forget those fancy, expensive cars. You’re a family man. You already have everything that’s most important. No one will judge you for buying a Chevy Malibu. At least, it’s not a mini-van. (That may not have been the message they were going for.)
The right word at the right time can be powerful, like a Chevy Malibu… or something else that’s powerful. I can’t quite think of good example right now.
It’ll come to me.
+ Resources for “Choosing the Right Word”
A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart (www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/76331/a-writers-coach-by-jack-hart/) - This book is the greatest book on writing. People get sentimental about Elements of Style. Heck, I was practically raised by William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer is a modern classic. But A Writer’s Coach is the only book you really need. When I was a writing coach at Martin High School, I used this book to guide my students. We placed at every competition. My students were always the best writers in the room. The guidance of Jack Hart, editor of The Oregonian, is sound and true.
Grammar Girl podcast (www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl) - “Your friendly guide to the world of grammar, punctuation, usage, and fun developments in the English language.” Nerds, this one is for us. Mignon Fogarty covers everything from “who versus whom” to the correct spelling of donut/doughnut. She settles the score on how many spaces after a sentence (one, only one) and boldly declares that yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition.
Word Dynamo (dynamo.dictionary.com) - Improve your vocabulary with this website. It combines fun games with interesting word lists to build your vocabulary. Earn badges. Gain points. Leave friends in the dust and mock them. My word score is 46,696, and I passed level 20, making me an official Word Dynamo. Bring it on.
Vocab Genius app by Brainscape (itunes.apple.com/us/app/vocab-genius/id408288733) - Beyond Word Dynamo, there’s the Vocab Genius app for your iPhone. Vocab Genius applies cognitive science techniques to learn over 1,300 dynamic flashcards covering some of the most useful yet difficult vocabulary words in the English language.
How to Make the Most of the Dictionary in OS X (computers.tutsplus.com/tutorials/how-to-make-the-most-of-the-dictionary-in-os-x--cms-20810) - Imagine my surprise when a fellow Mac user told me they didn’t know his computer had a dictionary. Yes! Your Mac has a great dictionary. If I were you, I’d keep it in on your dock. Refer to it often. This article will help you take advantage of all its features.
II. Crafting the right sentence
Words matter. But I want to share with you the dark secret of writing—you don’t need an expansive vocabulary to become an exemplary writer. Many writers have done fine with a simple, unimpressive lexicon. Few writers are impressed by other writers who can throw down multisyllabic words as if they were preparing for the SATs.
In truth, the sentence is where writers prove their worth. If you can write a solid sentence, you have my respect. Nothing is easier, nothing is more frustrating than crafting a good sentence.
Say what you mean
My daughter thinks it’s funny I own a book called How to Write a Sentence. “Dad, you write for a living. You know how to write a sentence.” You’d think so. However, on many occasions, I’ve read something I wrote that left me wondering: “What the hell was this sentence trying to say?” Most sentences don’t fail because of poor grammar. They fail because of poor organization. A thought failed to make sense. Or to quote Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence, “The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?’”
In times of trouble, let the Writer’s Holy Trinity be your guide: subject, verb, and object.
The subject is the thing being discussed in your sentence. It’s usually a noun or a noun phrase. It can be another part of speech posing as a noun (“Running is my favorite activity.”) It can be one thing or a series of things. Whatever it is, make sure it’s clear to your reader. Long introductory phrases have a way of burying the subject. If the reader is digging for what you’re talking about, get to the subject sooner than later.
The verb gives the sentence its purpose. It’s the word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence within the sentence. Entire books can be written about verbs. A good verb is worthy of honor. To check the health of your sentence, start by finding your verb. While it’s possible to have multiple verbs in a sentence, try to avoid sentences that do too much. You can write more sentences if necessary.
The object is the thing that the verb is directed towards. An object is a noun or a noun phrase. Objects are tricky because not all sentences need one. At some point, an English teacher may have told you about “active transitive verbs.” How many of us paid attention? She was talking about verbs that require objects. Basically, an object is the last piece of cause/effect reasoning. (This happened to this. This is connected to that.)
Not every sentence will arrange itself in a subject-verb-object template. However, if you know the template, it will help you to better diagnose an ailing sentence.
Dealing with lazy sentences
Certain sentences fulfill their duty, and yet, they still come across as a bit lazy, a bit uninspired. It’s OK—and sometimes unavoidable—to have some of these sentences, but if you string several of them together, your reader will lose focus. The brain gets bored. When this happens, the reader may have read every single word, but can’t remember one bit of what you wrote. It’s happened to all of us. Our brain simply wasn’t along for the ride. Readers tend to blame themselves, but the fault lies with the author.
Some of the chief instigators of lazy sentences:
“Be” verbs have long been vilified by English teachers. Sometimes without cause. The “be” verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) serve a useful purpose. Maybe they’re a little too useful? A writer can depend on them a bit too much, when maybe a better verb exists.
“It is” and “there are” - If your sentence begins with “it is” or “there are,” a better way to write the sentence exists. No law prohibits you from writing a lazy sentence, but try to keep it to a minimum. Variety is the goal.
Passive voice happens when the object of the sentence is turned into the subject. (Example: Why was the road crossed by the chicken?) Passive voice can be identified thusly: be verb (“was”) + past participle (“crossed”). Fixing passive voice usually involves rewriting the sentence.
Instead of: “The ball was caught by the baseball player.”
Try: “The baseball player caught the ball.”
The goal is not to remove every instance of “be” verbs and passive voice. You’ll drive yourself insane. Both “be” verbs and passive voice have their place. Instead, you want to consider if there’s a better way for the sentence to be written. Opting for active verbs and an active voice can keep your writing lively and on task.
The long sentence and the short sentence
What’s better? A long sentence or a short one? People indulge in long sentences, and I admit a certain beauty springs from a well-crafted sentence that takes a few turns here and there. That being said, short sentences can pack a punch. Usually, a combination of both is preferred. If you notice your sentences meander too much, vary up the length to improve engagement. This lesson is especially true for executives who are so worried about impressing people they trip over unnecessarily long sentences.
Regarding fragments: Are sentence fragments wrong? Not really. We use them from time to time for effect. Just don’t go overboard though. Seriously. It’s trite.
When to use modifiers
Ernest Hemingway once said, “I was taught to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” More dramatically, Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adjectives.” Despite this, pick up any book by Hemingway or King, and you’ll find plenty of adjectives and adverbs. William Zinsser inches closer to the truth: “Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”
When dealing with adverbs, intensifiers like “very,” “really,” and “truly” are almost universally unnecessary. Many adverbs that end in “-ly” can be deleted as well. After you’ve finished writing, do a quick search. When you come across these words, ask yourself: “Can this sentence survive without this word?” If so, you’re better off without it.
The predictable protest becomes: “But useless modifiers and cluttered writing are part of my style! Why are you taking away my personality? Why?” Insert the world’s loudest, most belabored sigh here. A lot of people misunderstand what style and voice actually are. Your voice as a writer emerges naturally whenever you become more comfortable with your craft. It’s not something you can fabricate with a few tricks and go-to tactics. You don’t pepper “style” into your writing. Style begins with the well-crafted sentence, devoid of cheap ploys. It takes shape when you have something worth saying, and you say it well.
In general, you want to watch for the standard clichés. Don’t try to be overly cute with your introduction. Avoid being ridiculously conversational. (“Have you ever wondered how to be a better writer? Boy, I know I sure have! Woo. I mean, seriously, like, I think about it all the time. Crazy, right?”) To be safe, view all rhetorical questions in your writing with extreme skepticism. Instead of asking the question, try answering it.
Write a decent sentence, one that makes you proud. You can build something worthwhile from there.
+ Resources for “Crafting the Right Sentence”
How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish (www.amazon.com/How-Write-Sentence-And-Read/dp/006184053X) - Such a simple concept and such a dense book on the subject. Over 176 pages, Fish expands on the idea of a well-written sentence. According to Fish, it’s as important for writers to genuinely like sentences as it is for great painters to like paint. I couldn’t agree more.
Hemingway’s writing advice (www.copyblogger.com/ernest-hemingway-top-5-tips-for-writing-well/) - Hemingway said it’s bad luck to talk about writing. However, you can’t go through the Internet without tripping over some trendy article sharing Hemingway’s advice on writing. Here’s a good one from Copyblogger.
Chuck Wendig (terribleminds.com) - What would I do without Chuck in my life? His book The Kick-Ass Writer is amazingly practical in all aspects of professional writing. Wendig’s Twitter account is a treasure trove of wisdom and his blog is also amazing. Why would some guy give away all his best secrets? Because he’s fairly confident he can still out write and out work all the wannabes, and he’s right.
The Writer’s Chronicle (www.awpwriter.org) - Published by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, this magazine is the only one I can confidently recommend. There are a lot of writing magazines that capitalize on the insecurities of aspiring writers. This magazine actually explores the craft in a meaningful way.
How to Write a Sentence Infographic (www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/writing/how-to-write-a-sentence-infographic) - This infographic from Marcia Riefer Johnston provides a handy checklist to make sure your sentence is doing what it should and a few ideas for how to edit it.
III. Building the right paragraph
On the subject of writing a novel, Neil Gaiman once said, “You put one word after another like putting brick onto a wall. And sooner or later, you look and you’ve managed to build the palace of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria… out of matchsticks.” I love this quote, and it’s a beautiful sentiment on the end results of the often-tedious writing process. However, with all due respect to Neil, the writer doesn’t organize his ideas “one word after another.” Paragraphs are the matchsticks we use to build our castle.
I hear you saying, “Hey idiot, aren’t there words in the paragraphs?” Yes, of course, my oddly belligerent hypothetical reader-friend. Think of it this way: It’s absurd for a builder to work with atoms and molecules. While the wooden beams and bricks are comprised of atoms and molecules, the builder functions at the level of wooden beams and bricks, nails and cement. Likewise, while the words and sentence reveal an attention to nuance and craftsmanship, the writer must build and think through an essay, a blog post, website content, or a novel with paragraphs.
The “word” is not my end result. I’m working toward a paragraph and then another paragraph.
The paragraph is a slippery concept. You shouldn’t be too surprised teachers gloss over it hastily. Many writers can’t explain what a paragraph is. They know it when they see the indention, or they give terribly rigid—ultimately inaccurate—definitions like “a paragraph is a group of three or more sentences.” A paragraph is a complete thought dealing with a single theme, often developed and supported by other ideas. A paragraph can be a single word, a single sentence, or it can be established over several sentences. (So, forget counting sentences.)
Paragraphs form the basis of a mental outline. This outline helps writers organize their thoughts, providing a foundation to build upon, and guidance when they’re lost. It’s the lighthouse guiding a ship into harbor during a rainy, foggy night. In this metaphor, the fog is your scattered, disorganized brain.
Why paragraphs fail?
A paragraph fails when the sentences—while they make sense as individual units—do not connect in a logical or meaningful way. I need a sense of cohesion with what I’m writing. The sentence following this sentence should contribute to a linear thought process. I can do without the non-sequiturs.
That’s not to say people who are distracted by shiny objects can’t write. Far from it. You just need to make sure you bring the party along for the ride. If the subject changes: make a new paragraph, create a new subhead to give direction, or opt for bullet points if the ideas are flying furiously.
Other paragraphs fail because each sentence is simply restating the previous sentence but with different words. You have sentences, and they all say the same thing, but the words are different. New sentences, different words, no new information. The new sentences simply restate what previous sentences already stated. (Hopefully, you get what I’m saying. There’s no progression.)
Do I need a main sentence?
Desperate teachers in an effort to systematize the amorphous process of writing a paragraph talk about needing a “main sentence” and “supporting sentences.” You remember school assignments where you had to circle the main sentence that was hiding within each paragraph. Honestly, I don’t know if you need an explicit main sentence. I don’t look for one every time I finish writing a paragraph, and I can’t always find one when I’m reading someone else’s work.
Instead, every paragraph needs to have a main or controlling idea, which is different than a main sentence where all the other sentences flow. You should be able to read a paragraph, and see the subtle, but ever present, idea developing.
The long and the short paragraph
I’m a fan of the short paragraph. A little bit of me dies when I see an entire page of text with no paragraph breaks and no indentions. My brain shuts down. Nope, nope, nope! That doesn’t mean I always write short paragraphs.
How long should a paragraph be? It depends on the subject of course.
Like a sentence, a long paragraph can convey a depth of necessary information. When done right, there is an odd beauty in it. The short paragraph is best used for emphasis and style. It’s a nice break for the reader. (See previous paragraph for an example at work.) Ultimately, the best paragraphs have an innate sense of when they should end. Nothing is wasted.
The stylistic paragraph break
One reason paragraphs are so tricky: the construction can be a matter of style and not some timeless law, separating right from wrong. Sometimes we break one paragraph into two or more paragraphs, because the break itself creates a necessary or intriguing shift.
And then, we pick up where we left off with another sentence. (See what I just did there?) The stylistic paragraph break should not be overused. Like all great tricks, it has a diminishing return.
The ultimate goal of the paragraph is to communicate clearly what we’re thinking. We do this by grouping our ideas into sections. When organizing what we write, the writer needs to think one paragraph at a time. For example, before I started writing this paragraph, I had a note here that said: “Insert the concluding paragraph here that summarizes my point. Make it short, sweet, take a bow, and exit the stage.”
+ Resources for “Building the Right Paragraph”
The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda (www.amazon.com/Sound-Page-Great-Writers-Writing/dp/0060938226/) - My loyalty belongs to A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart, which I say is the only writing book you really need. And I stand by that. But this one is good too. The focus here is on style and voice. Ben Yagoda explores the discovery process that happens when writers start writing.
AWP Conference & Bookfair (www.awpwriter.org/awp_conference/registration_overview) - The Association of Writers & Writing Programs is truly wonderful. Not only do they have a great magazine, but they also have an incredible writing conference or so I’ve heard. I’ve always viewed writing conferences with skepticism. The thought of being in a large room with hundreds of other writers makes me nervous. But I’ll give this one the benefit of the doubt.
Hemingway App (www.hemingwayapp.com) - This app is fairly cool. It will rate the readability of your work, highlighting hard to read sentences, pointing out your adverbs, passive voice, and phrases that could be simpler. The app is not a replacement for good judgment, but it may help you be more mindful about your writing.
The Writing Center for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/paragraphs/) - The Writing Center is quite thorough with several example paragraphs. They go into using transitions; something I didn’t really dig into with this section.
iA Writer (ia.net/writer/mac/) - I love this word processing program. For a writer, it provides a clean and uncluttered canvas. If you need to write and only write, this program does it without getting too fancy or complicated. I adore the “focus mode” and the ease of importing and exporting to and from Microsoft Word.
IV. Editing to perfection
“Perfection” is a strong word. I don’t mean to scare you with it. The goal is to write something you’re willing to send into the world without nagging guilt or remorse. You don’t feel the need to revise it, redo it, or wreck it. For me, that’s as close to “perfect” as I’m ever going to get. By this definition, not everything I’ve written and published has been perfect. Occasionally, I’ll get a strange pain in my chest. I wonder where it came from, and then it hits me. Deep in my bones, I’m still lamenting that one sentence I wish I could’ve rewritten … from something I wrote years ago. I’m not kidding. I’ve been estranged from friends. I’ve been divorced. I’ve lost pets and loved ones. All of which, I’ve dealt with and accepted. And yet, I can’t get over a badly-written piece of prose.
What is wrong with me?
My favorite blunder: I once wrote a query letter to a literary agent. At that time, I thought it was the most important letter I would ever write. It was my big break. I told her about this story I was working on. I said it was about “a police officer who investigates a school shooting,” except I actually wrote “a police officer who instigates a school shooting,” which is a completely different story. Oops.
I want to save you from the pain I know too well. Learn how to edit, so you can love your work.
Editing is still writing, but you’re using a different set of mental muscles. It’s hard to give you one or two guiding concepts. Instead, editing involves a set of numerous, disparate skills.
Here are the basics:
Give yourself something to edit - In theory, you should worry about editing once you’ve finished writing your first draft. If you find yourself editing a sentence over and over without moving on, your writing will be disjointed. You’ll never find a rhythm in your work. Hemingway once said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Maybe a more responsible way to view it is: let your first draft be uninhibited. You can always panic later while editing.
Read your work aloud - The best writers always mumble quietly to themselves. There’s no other way around it. You need to hear the words to know if they’re any good.
Read your work multiple times - You’re not going to catch everything the first time. If you’re not willing to read through your work a few times, would anyone else read through it once?
Spend time away from your work - Deadlines get in the way of this premise. Generally speaking, you need to step away from whatever you’ve written for a day or two, so you can see it with a fresh perspective when you return. If you don’t have time, at least, get up and go for a walk. Tune out, return to your desk, and tune back in.
Get someone else to read your work - Even the best writers can subconsciously skip over the mistakes in their own work. It’s not a failing on their part. Everybody does it. You need another pair of eyes. You don’t want just anyone reading your work. Find someone you trust. You don’t want someone to hack your work to bits—it’s not as helpful as you’d think—nor do you want a person to arbitrarily mark up your work. Mostly, you want an editor who is willing to suggest improvements, point out errors, and give feedback on how it sounds to them.
Don’t get lured into strange tactics - Some writers have bizarre editing tricks. Highlighting every other sentence with different colors. Reading the essay backwards and upside down. Having a spouse read it while you lie on the ground. If it works, go for it. But be careful. These editing fads aren’t always as useful as simply reading it.
Not all edits are “typos” - A typo is a flat-out, always-wrong mistake. It could be a misspelled word, misplaced punctuation, misuse of a word, a spacing issue, or any number of embarrassing goofs. Typos will drive you crazy. However, issues of style or areas for improvement are not typos. You eventually want to get to the point where typos only occupy 10 percent or less of your editing energy. Instead, you’re focused on style, voice, and general betterment of your ideas.
Know when to rewrite - Here’s a painful one. Sometimes a piece just isn’t working, from beginning to end, and there’s no amount of editing that will save it. Your ideas weren’t fully-formed. The work isn’t viable. In these sad cases, editing will not help. You need to throw it away and start fresh. I’m sorry for your loss.
Start with an axe; end with a scalpel - The best editing starts with the big changes, such as an idea that needs more support or a paragraph to be moved. Then, you move to the smaller adjustments, fine tuning your phrases and the cadence of a particular sentence. The precision detail work is best saved for when you’re almost done.
Know when to leave it alone - Your work is never finished, just due. You can edit and edit endlessly, poke and pull at every word, every sentence. At a certain point, you have to let it go and send it into the world. In this situation, the issue is almost always your own sense of confidence and not the work itself. Every writer is simultaneously ego-driven and insecure. You need to know when to nod your head, and simply say “OK. This will do.”
Anyone, with clear thinking and a willingness to work, is capable of writing something that makes them proud. I’m convinced of it. The secret shouldn’t be too surprising. You have to care enough to risk disappointment, and you must be willing to change your work for the sake of the final product. You have to suffer a bit, and you have to endure. To quote David Remnick, “This is not a normal activity. Writing, to do it well, is horribly difficult. It breaks people in half sometimes. I don’t recommend it. But all those things said, there’s no greater pleasure.” Our writing can achieve a sublime power. When it does, it’s an incredible feeling, and the words on the page feel perfect enough.
+ Resources for “Editing to Perfection”
AP Stylebook Online (www.apstylebook.com/online/) - I will confess. I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style. However, many businesses and most journalists opt for AP or a modified AP style. No one has time to read the massive Chicago tome; AP is accessible. Plus, the online version of AP is incredibly useful.
Ginger Software (www.gingersoftware.com) - The world has come a long way since Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check. Now there’s Ginger. It’s a highly sophisticated piece of software with all the usual grammar/spelling highlighting, plus a handy sentence rephrase function. You can get Ginger for your browser, but be careful using it to write a blog on WordPress. The Ginger highlighting code can creep into your html. It’s a pain. Remember, software like Ginger is intended as a guide only. Ginger is not your robot overlord. You are allowed to disagree with it.
Elements of Style audiobook (www.audible.com/pd/Self-Development/The-Elements-of-Style-Recorded-Books-Edition-Audiobook/B002V1NRTW/) - The book itself is a beloved, breezy guide for writers. Some people swear by Elements of Style as if it were sacred law. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the 21 reminders in chapter five (“An Approach to Style”) is certainly a thing of beauty. Why the audiobook? Frank McCourt narrates it! His Irish accent is beyond charming, and he brings these ideas to life with his own wry humor.
Editor World (www.editorworld.com) - I have not used Editor World. I’ve always been in a position where I’m either writing for a publication with an editor on hand, or I have writer friends willing to edit my work in exchange for beer and candy. But if you don’t have a trustworthy editor, this website might help make the match.
DFW Writers’ Workshop (dfwwritersworkshop.wordpress.com/meetings/) - If you live in the North Texas region, this organization has been helping writers for several decades. A writers’ workshop is a great place for peer support. For everyone else not in North Texas, look around. I’m sure there’s a group somewhere near you. Check with your local college.