By Kelsey Boudin
President and Founder, Southern Tier Communications Strategies, LLC
You finish a draft. You’ve spent the last few hours, days or weeks pouring your soul into writing this masterpiece — perhaps a script for a new XM radio ad or a behemoth grant proposal.
You submit the draft to your editor. You try not to make it too obvious you’re sweating and staring through her office window. Or maybe he’s cool and invites you to participate in the revision (as several great editors did with me and I later did as an editor).
Great editors do wonders to make writing (and writers) shine. No one wants to see their beloved words hacked to hell. In your pursuit of submitting the perfect, crème de la crème draft like Ralphie’s daydream in A Christmas Story, here are some tips to write like an editor before it reaches your editor’s desk.
Improve Your Writing for Editing … By Writing Like an Editor
Full disclosure: the perfect draft doesn’t exist. Writing can always be improved. We can always find a way to reword, rework and reframe words to be better. Yet the quest for perfection marches on.
Try some of these common editing techniques on your own work before submission:
1. Check Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar & Syntax
OK, so this is the easiest of all. Heck, even text messages today spot misspelled words. The computer does most of the work for you. Check it anyway.
As a news editor, nothing annoyed me more than receiving sloppy copy. Sure, our ever-dwindling staff of overworked and under-resourced reporters produced mountains of stories beyond their paygrade. But poorly written articles rife with errors atop a stack of unremitting writing, editing and administrative tasks made my blood boil.
Take the extra 3 to 5 minutes to copy edit. Did spell check miss something, perhaps an alternate spelling that would appear correct but is wrong in that context? Software may not catch if your commas don’t fit the organization’s stylebook. Grammar suggestions may be spotty (or flatout wrong). And syntax (the order and structure of sentences) requires a seasoned touch.
Yes, it’s an editor’s job to edit, but they’ll thank you warmly for a competent effort.
2. Cut & Cut Again
Look no further than famous company slogans to see clear, concise writing. Nike’s “Just Do It” and L’OREAL’s “Because You’re Worth It” sum up brands in a few memorable words inspiring action. But you’re probably not writing a slogan.
Media consumers have difficulty following long, wordy messaging, whether it’s a press release or a spot on the 5 o’clock news. Most grant applications now limit submissions with word and character counts requiring writers to succinctly express needs and strategies.
I can still hear an intense (yet effective) college professor bellowing “Omit needless words.” Certainly, many words are useless. Take “certainly” used in that last sentence. If something’s certain, you don’t need to state it. “Many words are useless” stands on its own. Introductory clauses like “in reality” or “in summary” add no value.
Does one sentence reiterate a previous sentence? Cut it. Do you “fluff” sentences with unnecessary qualifiers, flowery language and big words. Cut them.
(Fun challenge: Write 500 words. Cut it in half to say the same thing. Cut it by half again. Did you retain the meaning?)
3. Avoid the Passive Voice
Things are not done by people. People do things. Linking verbs like forms of “is” and “are” appear in weak sentence constructions. For example:
Passive: Essays are written by college students.
Active: College students write essays.
Passive: New employees were hired by the grocery store.
Active: The grocery store hired new employees.
You can feel the power in the active voice. Now, you’re not going to get very far without using linking verbs, but avoiding seeking the active voice strengthens your message.
4. Limit Adverbs
They’re mostly unnecessary. In that sentence, I don’t mind using the adverb “mostly” because adverbs aren’t always unnecessary. But along the same lines as omitting needless words, many adverbs do menial work. For example:
The weed killer effectively destroyed the farmer’s crop.
The school board truly supports art programs.
Bob really loves fishing.
Read those sentences again without the adverbs. Is “destroyed” any less meaningful without “effectively?” “Supports” without “truly?” “Loves” without “really?” Adverbs sound nice — even sophisticated — but they often serve little to no purpose. So are they truly necessary?
5. Write Conversationally
The written word has a way of bringing out the inner scholar — even when we’re not scholars. I picture an English lord in 17th-century garb, thoughtfully scratching parchment with quill under candlelight, when we should strive to be that friendly neighbor chatting over iced tea on the front porch.
The average person reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade level. Hell, Ernest Hemingway wrote at a fourth-grade level. That’s not to say writing is bad or readers are dumb. It’s just most comfortable to converse in terms most people will understand.
There’s a place for the word “inconsequential,” probably within a college term paper. There’s also a place for “doesn’t matter” or “minor” in the same context. Less than 1 percent of Americans have a doctoral degree. You’re probably not writing to them.
Writing Like an Editor is Easier than You Think
Your editor likely has more writing experience than you. They’ve been elevated to the status of reviewer, organizer and administrator because they’ve demonstrated those abilities. But their work to refine your writing is rooted in the same practices that guide your writing.
You can be your own best editor! If you need some help, contact me at email@example.com.