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.

Subtle Choices = Big Differences


If someone said to me, “I have red roses and yellow daisies in my garden,” I would think of red roses as the focal point and daisies as ground cover.  However,  if they said, “I have yellow daisies and red roses in my garden,” I would think of yellow as
dominant with red as mere highlights.
The order of information can dramatically change interpretation and perspective.


I was recently working on an email campaign, and as all responsible freelance writers do, submitted it for review. The edits were minor but one stood out. The call to action had been changed on one of the targeted pieces. This altered the motivation from empowering (I’m smart; I want to do this) to obligatory (We, the authority, strongly suggest you sign up) Now, there was nothing wrong with that statement, but did it belong here?

I’ve always felt that direct response requires a delicate balance between inspiration and persuasion. A subtle suggestion can alter the impulse to act and turn it into a dead stop. Too much information can kill the spontaneity by making the decision weighty. Not every writer — and certainly not every client — can appreciate these subtle differences,  but we can at least be aware of the choices we make.

Here are a few ways to shape the message:

Placement – is your statement the major thrust of the message or used as a reminder?
For example, does your email announce an event as the lead: “Greetings friends, Be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, February 25th at 2:00 when we will host a webcast about XYZ” OR does it intentionally present product news up top with a PS that says, “Don’t forget our webcast about XYZ will be held…” Both are right. It’s just a matter of emphasis.

Punctuation – do commas identify key information in a way that is irrelevant or important?
For example, does your press release play it straight: “Big Enterprise CEO, Mr. Jones, announced today that they have acquired ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere” OR might your inset information lend color and credence? “Mr. Jones, CEO of Big Enterprise and also an avid diver, pledged to acquire ABC Company on the Island of WishIWereThere, once he saw the blue waters and coral reefs.”

Aggregation – can the way you combine information work to your advantage?
For example, is your contest copy bland because you are trying to meet legal requirements, or could you say it differently to create excitement? “A $1,000 cash prize will be awarded to each of the first five correct entries drawn” OR might you say, “$5,000 up for grabs! Be among the first five correct entrants drawn, and you could win $1,000.” You’re not making any promises, you’re still explaining the winning process, you’re keeping language legal, but you’re aggregating the total prize value for more impact.

Details – do your descriptive phrases intentionally add value or are they used as “throw aways” to draw attention elsewhere?
For example, does your ad say, “This hand-woven hammock, made by expert craftsmen from the Village of Ropeville, is guaranteed to last for life.” OR – do you shift the emphasis from the guarantee to the workmanship? “This lifetime-guaranteed hammock was carefully crafted by Ropeville artisans who enjoy a 300-year legacy of hammock-making. “ Neither is wrong, but it’s your choice as a writer, to control the benefit you promote most prominently.

With that, I’m going to step away to focus on some other work… or might I say, “Stepping away from her desk, she paused to look at the sunlight dancing off the snow.” The latter is far more interesting.

Prepositions — The Secret of Good Infographics

I grew up in a small town, but it wasn’t until my pre-teen years, sleeping on a cot in a screened porch one summer, that I awoke to the realization I lived in a valley.

I had never really thought about it before, but on that day for some reason, I noticed mist hanging in the hills and I watched intently as it dispersed with the sunrise. I was dwarfed by the magnitude of it all, and yet I found my place in it.


Last week I ran to the window because deer were sighted in the woods. I didn’t see any, so I reached for binoculars in hopes of getting a closer look. Still, I couldn’t find them.

Then someone said, “Look higher” – and sure enough – I saw the backsides of two handsome deer moving slowly across the hilltop. Once again, I had forgotten that I lived in the curve of the earth. I needed to be reminded of my relative position.

That’s what prepositions do for nouns. Prepositions describe a spatial relationship and include words like above, under, beyond, and through… during, over, inside, near.

I’m not one to write “by the book,” so I give very little thought to prepositions, but I was recently reminded of their importance when trying to have an infographic designed.

Most of us know that infographics are schematics that help tell a story or explain a concept, but like many things we take for granted, most of us don’t think about the precision of language that influences their design.

When a writer provides input for an infographic, there must be clarity and accuracy in description — and sometimes the writer must push for it by asking repetitive questions.

When a client says, “our software ‘supports’  their hardware,” the writer is going down a slippery slope. Just what does ‘support’ mean?

When I think of “support,” I think of architecture. “That’s a supporting wall, the beam supports the roof” – but if I’m asking a designer to create an infographic – my words need to be more explicit. “The doo-dad sits on top of the watchamacallit” – and therefore the watchamacallit supports the doo-dad.

Or is it that the doo-dad leans on the watchamacallit? Maybe the watchamacallit encloses the doo-dad and supports it as an exoskeleton.

Good writers must be persistent.  Are we even sure there’s physical proximity when talking about this “support?”  Perhaps not. Maybe the “support” is virtual or spiritual. “The social worker supports the family in need.” That might be conveyed with two-way arrows, to imply a dialogue.

Then again, “support” can be in the form of an umbrella, an over-arching canopy: “The professional association supports its members by providing training and health care.” That’s a different visual.

Support can come from within: “His faith was his greatest support.” Or it can come from “around”: “Her support network was extensive.”  Another interpretation could require a three-dimensional illustration:  “The earth’s surface supports vast oceans.”  Or maybe the support is microscopic. “A crystal is supported by unique chemical configurations.”

So when we write – and when we work with designers who depend on our words – we have to remember that we live in a valley and to look up the hill – because to take phrases at face value will fail to convey the meaning – and that leads to misunderstanding — and unnecessary revisions.

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.

Words Gone Wild: Gamification, Brinerate, Cyborgization


I thought things were bad when “impact” became a verb. I cringed when I first heard “incentive” turn into “incentivize,” or even worse, “incent.” I’m not sure when nouns lost their clout, but here they are, getting verby all over the place.

Add to that the influence of technology, and we have a whole new language. Where were we without “Google?” And how could we have possibly conveyed humor without “LOL?”

This past week I was hit with an onslaught of new linguistic configurations. A colleague told me she was leaving her job to join a company that specialized in “gamification.”  (Looking that up, I see it relates to marketing around a rewards principle; I think we used to call that “promotion.”)

Leafing through the grilling issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine , I noticed that a person can marinate with brine, thus the term “brinerate.”

In Timothy Leary’s esoteric Design for Dying, he uses “cyborgization” to describe the replacement of body parts. I’m not sure which is scarier — the concept or the word.

Yup, words have gone bad, and we careless, linguistically lax individuals are making the situation worse. We go to business meetings and come back with buzz words that make us feel smart. So we use them a lot. Soon they migrate from boardroom to water cooler. Folks start talking about “forward and backward leaning media,” “long and short tail experiences.”

Actually, the staff at Miriam Webster adds dozens of words to the dictionary each year.  It’s interesting to see what now falls into the common lexicon. Terms that used to be reserved for scientists and mathematicians, for example, are commonplace. If “giga” is too small, we simply invent “ginormous.”

Yup – my Spell Check is lighting up like a Christmas tree! Clichés and coined terms seem to be easily accepted but the newer selections are still unapproved. I can type “WYSIWYG” without getting a red underline because Microsoft Word obviously knows that What You See Is What You Get, but does it recognize “Activia” (i.e. yogurt with a marketing spin)? Nope.

Remember “Farfenuggen?” (OK, I can’t spell that either) That was an ad agency-contrived word designed to convey the “Germanness” of Volkswagen. (See, I can invent words, too) I thought it ironic that a house guest who happened to speak German failed to see the humor.

I know I’m not alone in observing the language shift.  At a recent Media Innovation Day sponsored by the Boston Ad Club, speakers from Droga5 — a highly innovative ad agency — talked about their reality-plus-media-mix partnerhsip campaign for Microsoft’s bing, Random House, and Jay Z.  In alluding to their competitor, Google,  one  posed the same question I ask: “How do you fight against a verb?

But maybe the verbization of nouns and blatant word creation aren’t so bad after all. I mean, why sit on the couch with your uncreative cookie and dog when you can “couchify” a Snickerdoodle with your Labradoodle. Couch + cookie + dog = boring. Oodles of doodles enjoyed on animated furniture are much more fun.