Cut It Out — How to Self Edit



I’ve always liked the phrase that’s been attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.” According to Quote Investigator, there are many great thinkers who value the concept of brevity and realize that being succinct isn’t easy.

Recently I embarked on a journey – writing a book that’s been in my head for ages. Now I understand why first-novel guidelines are around 80,000 words. That’s what it took to tell my story – but I also realize that writing 8 or 80 words can be challenging.

That’s where most of us get into trouble. We have information to share, experiences to convey, products to sell, so we say a lot. TMI!

How to find the key selling point?

Early in my career I was pulled aside by a veteran sales director who had roots at an ad agency. He whipped out a notepad and wrote on it. “Fresh Fish For Sale Here Today.” Although he knew I had been a copywriter, he wanted to show me how to find the strongest selling word. He proceeded to cross out “Here” because we knew where we were standing, and then he X’d out “Today” because clearly, it was just that. We could see that the featured item was “Fish” so he removed that word. And certainly, we could deduct, the flounder was “for sale,” so away that went – which left us with “Fresh” – our strongest selling word.

Here are a few other tricks I use to self-edit:

1. Beware the ‘its’ and ‘theys.’ If these pronouns do not follow the precise entity, rephrase the wording. Wrong: “Hal approached Bob because he wanted an apple.” Who wanted the apple? Hal or Bob? Better: Hal was hungry and wanted an apple. Bob had one.” OR “Hal had a bag of apples and knew Bob wanted one. Walking over to Bob, Hal selected the biggest fruit.”

2. Beware convoluted phrasing. “This company doodad is for customers so they can prepare apples for cooking or serving, and because it is a bright red color, it goes nicely with the fruit.” Instead try: “This bright red doodad cores and slices apples.” Who needs the rest?

3. Too many voices. “We think, you want, they need…” Ouch. Explain without ‘person.’ Use a neutral voice. Second person (you) can appear condescending. So rather than, “We think our product is the best, and you should use it so you can figure out how to do thus and such.” Try: “Here’s a way to do thus-and-such with ease and efficiency.”

4. Tense and conditions. Shifting tenses make me tense. “This company built widgets in 1883. They learned their widgets can be better if they fix them, but that will make them cost more.” Did this company stop building widgets after 1883? Actually, these widgets could be made better but that would make them cost more. Try instead: “This company has been selling widgets since 1883. Ten years ago, a new team of engineers (‘companies’ don’t have hands) found a way to build better widgets. This product upgrade increased price but added value.” Yes, positive spinning is generally good.

5. Avoid adverb angst. This tendency was flagged as a rank amateur mistake in novel writing. I had never really thought about it: Skip post-verb description. Don’t have your character say anything ‘longingly,’ ‘impatiently,’ etc. Instead, convey the feeling using other words. “As his eyes lingered on her silhouette, he said, ‘I’ll meet you there.’ ” OR “ ‘I’m waiting,’ she snapped, letting her pencil tap out a rhythm on the desk.” Same meaning, more interesting.

6. Don’t reuse words in close proximity. There are plenty of words to go around, so pick different ones. “The frog sat on a lily pad in the quiet lake as a dragonfly sat on another lily pad, because there were a lot of lily pads in the lake, and every frog and dragonfly needs a lily pad of their own.” Painful. Consider, “The frog and dragonfly sat side by side in a sea of lily pads.” OR even: “The frog sat on a lily pad as the dragonfly landed on a nearby flower.” Ahh… much better.

The Ten Commandments of Reporting

I never thought I’d write a post              kitty-with-blue-eyes-not-a-reporter-c2012-wordsonthefly
about the basics of reporting
because most journalists I know
are extremely professional —
but last week I had an
eye-opening experience.

An otherwise credible trade publication featured an
article about a well-known company – and got much of
the information wrong.
Not only was the writing
careless but there were
breeches of etiquette.

I don’t think their actions were intentional but remarkably naïve. My guess is that the Publisher gave a production person a chance to write an article, and while this author was well-versed on her side of the business, sadly, she didn’t know much about the business of reporting.

So this is a good reminder:  just because we can write admirably in some situations doesn’t mean we’re journalists. Here are Ten behavioral Commandments to keep us on track:

1. Thou shall talk to a high level spokesperson. Talking to the receptionist, custodian, sales rep, or project manager does not constitute “talking with the company.” Instead, go through proper channels to make your goals clear, request mutually convenient interviews, confirm times and call-in numbers, follow with a thank you, recap or further questions. Quote several people for perspective; verify their names/titles and spellings.

2. Thou shall not steal – corporate content without permission and attribution. Just because you are reporting on a company, doesn’t give you carte blanche to use their material. An attribution typically reads: “Reprinted with permission. © Year, Company Name, first published in Source Here with Date.”

3. Thou shall do the legwork. Research the company. Check their website. Read industry articles. Listen to presentations. Access their collateral or annual report. It’s important to know how they describe and position themselves.

4. Thou shall beware loaded words. If you are familiar with the niche you’re covering, you’re probably in good shape, but if you are facing unknown territory, choose your words carefully. Often there’s corporate lingo or fine distinctions that convey vital information to insiders. For example, if you’re talking about publishing, “readers” and “subscribers” are not the same. If you’re talking about technology, “Flash” and “non-Flash” are lightyears apart.

5. Thou shall covet clear writing. Aim to be precise. To say that a customer can “use,” “upload,” or “send out” implies they have direct access to the functionality. If the company governs these activities, designate the “ownership” to the company and say that they provide these services.

6. Thou shall check facts and check them again. If in doubt, ask the company spokesperson to clarify. Most are more than willing to help. Don’t make an assumption– especially if based on a unique situation or small sampling. For example, if you see blue cups on several desks, don’t assume the corporate color is blue. Someone may just have been cleaning house.

7. Thou shall use visuals that provide accurate examples. Just because an image is colorful or appealing, doesn’t mean it accurately describes the company’s product or strategy. It could be old or stylized. It could be phasing out or changing. Verify that this is the best image to use, clear permissions, and secure the highest quality rendering.

8. Thou shall love thy editors – for critical thinking and direction… for headline improvement and copy edits… for probes that help you become a better, more insightful reporter… for the push that forces you to answer the unspoken question.

9. Thou shall be objective unless thou art writing a review. Eliminate words that convey your personal feelings or are intended to sway the reader. For example, using a phrase like, “Their seemingly good solution” suggests that you think otherwise, much like “the alleged offender” implies the person may be innocent.

10. Thou shall own up to thy mistakes. If something was missed or misunderstood, it won’t be the first time. That’s why credible publications run corrections and why book publishers use Errata Sheets. You don’t necessarily have to apologize for your opinions, but if the product is “black” and you say it is “white,” then it’s smart to fess up.  Sometimes blaming an error on a typo is a gentle way to avoid taking the full hit as a writer – but in the end, being responsive and responsible will go a long way toward your success.

laptop-acer-small-clean-screen-c-2012-wordsonthefly Amen.

How to Write Under Pressure: 1,000 words in 2 hours

Sometimes an opportunity is too good to resist, so we say, “No problem” and then scramble like crazy to deliver. This happened a few weeks ago when the publisher of a prestigious journal offered a chance to write an article. The only catch was, it was 3:00 on a Friday afternoon and she needed it by end of day.

clockat3-300-x-281-hi So what’s a writer to do?

1. Clarify the topic, purpose, word count, and deadline. Ask if visuals will be needed. If the editor can provide 3 questions or copy points that should be addressed, even better.
2. Review the publication or website for style. If it’s sophisticated, opt for an erudite tone; it it’s grass-roots, be conversational and down-to-earth.
3. Establish a premise around the topic. Decide whether you’re informing about it or arguing with it. Make sure you understand the audience.
4. If you don’t know the subject area, locate experts for quick interviews or quotes. Keep track of your source information, including URLs, for proper attribution. Verify name spelling and titles simultaneously so you don’t have to go back. If you know the subject area, this will be easier.
5. Remember, there’s always more time than you think. Days don’t end at 6 p.m. and chances are, you can get a modest extension. Check the publisher’s time zone; that could buy you a few hours, too.
6. Clear your desk and your head. Step outside for a breath of air or open the window. Pour a beverage that puts you in a writing mood – to soothe or exhilarate. Shut out/turn off distractions. Don’t watch the clock or computer time bar; it will only make you nervous, but check it after a relevant interval: research completion, outline, or rough draft.
7. Create a voice and stick to it. Better to write authoritatively in third person than emotionally in first unless you are asked for a first-hand account.
8. Substantiate generously. Use concrete examples. Cite metrics. Include an infographic. Let existing information make you look smart.
9. Draw on transitional phrases to move smoothly from overview to details. Consider phrases like these: “To this point,” “From this perspective,” “One good example is…”
10. Include phrases that show balance and objectivity. “Despite this fact, one could argue,” “While many agree, some offer a different interpretation.” “Although this once was the case, new technology enables XYZ.”


Keep Miriam Webster or another online dictionary in your Favorites, and have a style guide close at hand. When in doubt, change the word; don’t waste time agonizing over it.
12. Think of synonyms as you write. Don’t use the same word twice in close proximity.  Avoid: “While fishing, the fishermen catch fish.” Much preferred would be: “While at sea, the fishermen catch stripers.” If you’re writing about a survey, for example, be armed with words like, “study, report, poll, questionnaire, opinion, findings, and respondents.”
13. If something stumps you, note it in caps with a question mark and put it in parentheses as a cue to revisit. This could also signal that the editor should weigh in later, which will save you time now. My favorite is: (CK THIS!)
14. Avoid long, tedious blocks of copy. Keep your paragraphs short and punchy. You can always string them together if the body feels too sparse.
15. If your writing is to be reviewed before submission, give the reviewer a heads up about the urgency. Be very clear that you will need edits or approval by an exact time.
16. Label the document as a “Draft” but don’t rely on the file name or e-mail subject line. Documents are often extracted and passed along, so make sure your contact info is on it. All pages should be numbered and include your initials, time/date, and draft version.
17. Don’t worry about styling your copy. A designer will lay it out,  i.e. don’t bother thinking the about lead caps; just think about the lead.
18. Plan a clincher for the end. If this comes to you early in the process, jot it down. Simply set it aside and it will be ready when you are.
19. Do a quick internet search to make sure you’ve captured key words, but don’t borrow too much. Industry jargon can quickly backfire as clichés.
20. If questions come up while you’re writing, shoot the editor an e-mail. Don’t delay. A good editor can get you quickly back on track.


21. Use a simple font. This is not the time to experiment.
22. Print out a copy to proof. Read it out loud to help check tense and noun/verb agreement.
23. Back up your writing to an external hard drive andor USB stick. E-mail a copy to yourself for remote or mobile retrieval.
24. Don’t forget your by-line or copyright. You’re doing the work, so command the credit.
25. Mostly, cut yourself some slack. You may hit a few roadblocks, but keep the momentum going. Don’t stop. When in doubt, use a placeholder such as “Say something here about the company’s past connecting to the present.” Then move on!

Even if you have not achieved perfection, get your draft to the editor on time. Call out any “gray” areas. Offer to be available to edit. Take your hard copy home to read at your leisure with fresh eyes — and chances are, you’ll feel pretty good about your accomplishment. Next time: 1 hour, 45 minutes!

10 Ways to Write Better

Every once in a while even we prolific writers need some tough love. So here’s a quick refresher course. For those challenged by writing or just entering the field, hopefully these points will serve as practical guidelines.

1. Don’t write as you speak.
Even in speech writing or scripting, it’s important to parse words and focus thoughts. No room for stream of consciousness here. Start at the beginning, make a point, come to a conclusion, and propose a call to action.

2. Write what you know.
Most of us realize there’s a clear benefit to drawing from personal experience, but if you haven’t lived it, you have to learn it. There’s little room for B.S. Pick the brain of someone who knows more. Ask questions. If not possible, research, source it, and check your facts by using a second reference.

3. Edit Yourself – Be ruthless.
Most of us  proofread to catch typos and poor punctuation. It’s harder to edit ourselves as we would a film – in other words, leave beautiful scenes and treasured phrases on the cutting room floor. But advice is to do it and do it often. If you’re good enough, you can afford to lose a few words. You can always use them in something else.

4. Remember Your Audience.
This hits me over the head every time I encounter press releases. Some are well written, but too many talk to the end user. Remember, you’re not selling your product or achievements to the consumer. You’re trying to entice an editor to be interested enough to cover your story or at least run your PR. Load the important facts up top; leave quotes for the end.

5. Be Aware of the Delivery Channel.
What might be right for a blog or family newsletter is most likely not appropriate for business writing. Skip the cutesy comments. Eliminate the “I’s” and “we’s.” Talk business and use terms that sell. For fundraising, opt for kinder and gentler phrases. Tug at the heartstrings but don’t beg. It’s still business.

6. Say Something Useful.
We’re all guilty of it. When we’re on a roll, we love to hear ourselves talk (or more appropriately, write). But make sure you’re not spouting industry jargon because it sounds smart. We used to joke about seeing how many times we could get “synergy” and “paradigm” into one paragraph. Great that we know these buzz words, but sometimes Plain English is better.

7. Track Your Results.
The nice thing is, except for a few Commandments, most words are not engraved in stone – and thankfully, the web allows us to replace them easily. So if something is wrong or isn’t pulling response, no need to suffer. Fix it. Change it. Try something new.  A bit of tracking code on your online campaign can work wonders.

8. Sit on the floor. (Huh?)
You heard me. Get a fresh perspective. Once I had a Sociology professor who made us sit on the floor the first day of class. He wanted us to see the world differently – not in terms of positive or negative influences but in terms of the dynamics that played between them.  That’s a good trick when looking for a positioning line — or certainly a child’s viewpoint.

9. Write Visually.
That almost doesn’t make sense… but remember that words translate into images…both mentally (those conjured up by great description) and physically (as those words layout on a page or screen). Leave some breathing room… a place for the eye to roam or the mind to wander. Think about how your words will look or sound to the reader or listener when accompanied by bright visuals or by nothing. Big blocks of dense text rarely succeed.

10. Show Your Writing to Someone You Respect.
This is a tough one; none of us likes criticism, but it can be helpful to share a draft for concept even if not for tight editing. Rather than share it for approval, assume the presumptive stance, “I’m about to submit this proposal. Does it make sense? Is it too long? Do you feel like anything’s missing? I’ll copy edit it later.”

Run yourself through this exercise, then go boldly forward – and mouse on!