Words? Forget words. This piece is definitely lacking cat hair.
There are a few small changes that can help you make huge strides toward clear, concise writing.
The only problem?
When you finally get to the stage where you can make these changes, you’re usually so antsy to get the piece off your desk that all you want to do is click send and be done with it.
So I’ve got a challenge for you.
When you think you’re finished, when your piece is polished, your argument’s in shape, your spellcheck’s been run…
When you’re all excited about being done, finally, when you’re you’re just getting ready to hit “publish” or “send”…
That’s the time to stop.
Don’t hit publish.
Don’t hit send.
Instead, put your piece away for a few hours and work on something else. Ideally, put it away for a few days, or even a week.
When you pick it up again, you have one job: tighten, tighten, tighten. Slash unnecessary paragraphs. Cut unnecessary sentences. Ditch unnecessary words.
In doing so, you’ll help your reader see the core of the point you’re trying to make or the story you’re trying to tell.
This process will make your writing clearer, cleaner, and more confident.
Here are some tips for how to do it.
Start at the paragraph level—for novels and dissertations, you’ll start at the chapter level, but the concept is the same.
After taking a much-needed break from your piece, you can look at it with fresh eyes. Likely, you’ll notice something.
The “logical flow” of your plot or argument may not be quite as logical as you initially thought.
Often, writers base their structure on the order in which the thoughts come to them—the order that’s convenient for them as a writer. But usually, this order is not very logical for a reader.
So, how to fix this problem?
Reorder. Cut. Repeat.
Look at paragraphs that seem similar. Group them, then delete anything that’s too repetitive. Merge what’s left.
Then, reread. Is the logic working? Are there any paragraphs breaks that seem too jerky, places where the ideas or emotions don’t flow? Continue the process of reordering and cutting, then fill in any gaps with transitions, or a few new paragraphs, as needed.
Once you’ve got your paragraphs working, it’s time to look at sentences. Especially in paragraphs you merged, you’ll likely see sentences that say more or less the same thing, just in different words.
Again, it’s time to reorder, cut, repeat.
Your strongest, “I’m-making-a-point-here” sentences should fall near the beginning or end of your paragraphs. Delete any that aren’t pulling their weight, that seem like fluff or distraction.
Don’t worry if your paragraph lengths end up being all over the place. A paragraph can be one sentence. A paragraph can be twenty sentences. Forget any arbitrary numbers you may have learned in school. The important thing is that each paragraph is essential, and each sentence, too.
Here’s where you’re really going to make your piece stand out. Now that your sentences and paragraphs are in order, it’s time to make sure your writing is absolutely tight.
This is my favorite stage of revising. You get the feeling you’re reaching the core of something. You’re revealing the true meaning, which until now has been hidden beneath all the things you’re pruning away.
The words you’ll need to search for and delete depend a lot on your own style—your personal writing habits and what kind of filler you rely on.
Here are some typical things to cut:
- Redundancy (“little baby,” etc)
- Unnecessary transition words. “Then” can often be deleted or replaced with “and” for better flow.
- Clichés and borrowed phrasing. If you hear it all the time, it needs to go.
- Mixed metaphors. (Difficult, I know—I have a huge issue with this one!)
- Overdone “voicey-ness.” A little goes a long way.
- Repetition. Avoid using the same word many times in a paragraph, or in consecutive paragraphs.
- Passive voice. “The ball was caught by the dog” = awkward. “The dog caught the ball” = just fine. Note: If you’re writing a research report, this voice will need to be used by you, and pity for you is felt by me. (Heh. Just kidding. Kind of.)
- Unintentional rhyming. It just sounds weird.
- Verbal hedging. “Sort of”; “somewhat”; “I suppose”; “kind of”; or their more academic counterparts like “one could claim”; “I would argue”; “it could be said that.” Disclaimer: Yes, these words and phrases have their place. But please use sparingly. And if you’re not willing to make some real, strong statements in your piece, you may need to re-assess why you’re writing it in the first place.
- Any words you’re not 100% sure about. I learned this the hard way on a high school paper, when I used “penultimate,” thinking it was a cooler way of saying “ultimate.” Nope.
- Anything that’s clunky. Just cut it. If the words are clunky, your ideas will seem clunky, too. If you trip over a sentence when you’re reading out loud, it’s a good sign it needs to be re-phrased or deleted.
With these three phases of editing, your writing will be stronger, clearer, and much easier to read.
I hope these tips help you get your editing off to a good start for 2016.
Have questions or want to chat? Feel free to get in touch via email at email@example.com or Twitter.
Happy writing and happy revising!