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.

143 and Other Nonverbal Communication

I had never heard of “143” until I saw it written in a good-bye book for a colleague. Upon searching it, I learned that it became nonverbal shorthand in 1894, long before friends ever texted BFF or LOL. As described in this post, the digits represent lighthouse code for “I Love You” or “I Miss You,” with the numerals indicating a sequence of flashes.

That’s made me think how often we convey meaning with no words at all –a stern glance, a wink, a roll of the eyes, a tapping foot. The translation is easy: “don’t you dare,” “yeh, sure,” “you’ve gotta be kidding,” and “is this ever going to end?”


From the first days of infancy, a child learns to communicate without speaking. A baby quickly discovers that a smile begets a smile, a touch begets a touch. I found it interesting to learn in talking with a new mom that she was using American Sign Language in tandem with voice to communicate with her eight month old baby. It makes perfect sense. Just because the baby can’t articulate doesn’t mean he can’t express his needs.

So it is with writing – we don’t always have to be blunt. As writers, our words are a touch… they can be a gentle caress, an accidental brush, or a suggestion of something more.

Mimes, of course, are masters at nonverbal conversation. “Help, I can’t get out of this box,” is a message that comes across loud and clear… or rather, silently and clear. Dance conveys emotion with nary a word. A symphony raises the spirits and conjures up images of victory just as easily as it instills a sense of fear and chase. Graphics that dissolve slowly or pound and pulsate create very different messages without language.

Those of us who use words could learn from our nonverbal counterparts. Perhaps comics do it best – with that intentional, prolonged pause… what professionals call “timing” in order to maximize the punch line.

How does this apply to writing? We might think of it as restraint.

Some of the most effective writers craft their messages as one would fishing… letting out the line, reeling it in. Letting it out, getting a bite, reeling it in – but not before a little play.

I happen to be reading The Magus by John Fowles.  Not sure how it escaped me all these years, but somehow it landed in my hands and sucked me in like quicksand. I see this technique at work and am enjoying the nonverbal tease. The main character meets a mysterious millionaire and finds himself at the fellow’s estate. There are hints at unusual activities, but nothing is certain. There’s the vague scent of a woman’s perfume and footsteps on gravel, but no immediate reveal. There’s talk of war, philosophy and classics but without hard edges. What a joy for the imagination. All so subtle.

While this technique would fail in online writing where we have to convey information fast, we could use it in a long form fundraising letter or in an image ad. For example, “every day 1 in 4 children” etc… “once a month, 3 out of 5 employees.”   Here we set the stage and then stretch it out:  this is the situation… this is how the situation feels … can’t you just empathize with the victims in the situation?… and then we bring it on home: “And that’s where we come in.”

Sometimes it’s hard to give a nonverbal cue in writing. A nod or a nudge doesn’t translate well in e-mail. But behold the parentheses! Give your recipient an “aside.” For example: “Here are the facts, Joe. (I’ll tell you how I got them, later)”or “Let me tell you what happened today. (You know I’m smiling, right?)”

And then of course, let’s not forget the ellipsis: … (dot, dot, dot)… As writers, we can create time to pause, to ponder, to leave room for thought. So rather than impose our definitive conclusion, we can give readers a gentle hug that says, “go on… you can do it … take a moment and read between the lines.”

Descriptive phrases can fill in where words fall short. A narrator or interpreter can carry the plot when a character is silent. In press releases, authors used to signal the conclusion with a simple number:  -30- (two digits that in old newspaper days meant “end of story.”)

Don’t Bury the Lead… Except…

burying-the-lead-illust-c-wordsonthefly-smA few days ago I was working on a direct response campaign for two offers. We’ll call them Super Deal and Super Deal Plus. My gut instinct was to tout them in the headline, but when I saw the design, I realized an inherent flaw: I knew what these deals meant but nobody else would. These were not household words.

I ended up flipping the emphasis by calling them New Customer Offers (another slight deviation from the actual headers) and then described what they were. I figured if I didn’t grab the prospect at the outset by saying, “this is a deal just for you,” they wouldn’t stay long enough to figure it out.

That’s made me think of the adage, “Don’t Bury the Lead” – or should you?

LEAD WITH IT: Most of us who write for commercial purposes know that words like “New,” “Free,” and “Announcing” are critical components of the header (or at least should be used in a graphic call-out.) It’s important to feature words like these for product launches: “New gizmo. Free trial.” OR “First Remedy for This Affliction.” Those who test copy may learn that combining the key phrase with a price incentive adds power to the punch: “Announcing Blue DooDads: Buy one, get one free.”

But there isn’t a hard, fast rule. The writer has to be intuitive.

MAYBE BURY IT: One good exercise is to imagine several scenarios from the prospect’s point of view: “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time – I’m intrigued – so what’s it all about?” OR “I’m seeing this ad/mailer for the first time — I haven’t a clue what it is so I’m moving on,” OR “I know this company/product and they always have interesting offers, so let me look,” OR, “I don’t know what this item is but it’s 50% off so I that interests me.” OR “I don’t need this thing, but I’m intrigued by the hologram on the front/the goodie inside/the black on black design so I’ll remember this company in the future.”

LEAD WITH IT FOR COPYWRITING: Sometimes a plain vanilla lead is best, especially when the client is all business and you have to get to the point quickly: “XYZ 2.0 now available” OR “Legal Amendment.” But sometimes copywriting is most effective when you tease: “Hands-free driving” OR “Ever hear of Gritzlefritz?” Kind of makes you want to read further.

BURY THE LEAD: Sometimes saving the punch line or potential lead for the end is the way to go. I find this particularly helpful when writing for fundraising. Don’t tell the whole story but create an emotional connection at the outset, roll out the facts, then seal the deal with a tug at the heart strings: “Timmy really isn’t asking for much, is he?” OR “When we finally met Samantha, she held out her hand with a shy smile.” Probably more effective than saying, “Timmy and Samantha want your spare change.” (But then, you could do that. It’s just a different technique.)

LEAD WITH IT FOR NARRATIVE WRITING: Sometimes you can achieve a “wow” moment when you start strong and use the lead to establish the premise. By doing this, you are letting the reader in on a secret, helping them feel smart as the plot unravels. That kind of lead might sound something like, “As Clifton sat alone in the Boardroom, night fell over the city, turning his penthouse view into a laser light show. His pinstripe suit and shock of white hair reflected oddly in the polished table as he ran his fingers absent mindedly over the surface. A slow, halting sigh escaped from below his moustache. How he arrived here is a story that’s hard to believe.”

BURY IT AT THE END: When looking for that perfect close to a novel or editorial piece, your lead can become the clincher. While you could certainly start by saying, “Rachel left Tiny Town, USA, when she was just sixteen,” you could also lead up to that moment, then end with a line like this: “She shut the door behind her and never looked back.” OR “She said good-bye to Fido and walked into the wee hours of the morning, tapping the mailbox as she went by.” When you want an ending open to discussion, create some doubt: “As the car drove away, a small voice could be heard coming from the field. It was hard to tell whether those muffled sounds were cries of sorrow or ironic laughter.” Doesn’t that just leave you wanting a sequel?

As a writer, you usually know when you have nailed it. You get a chill, a shudder, a fist-pumping “yes” moment that tells you there’s nothing else to say.

Writing for Results: Customer Communication

How do you get results? There are two rules of thumb: (1) Determine the action you want (different actions warrant different writing styles) and (2) make it easy for people to do business with you (offer flexible response options boldly included in several places)

Good writing is not a haphazard selection of words. Effective copywriting works like a well-oiled machine:  Clean, precise, durable.


Help your clients clarify their goal.  Ask:
Do you want the reader to pick up the phone and call you? Click a link or go online and order something? Visit your store? Do you want the reader to e-mail you for more information or perhaps, provide information to you? Do you want the reader to do nothing more than think good thoughts about you, maybe change their perception of you? Do you want the reader to spread the word about you and join your social community? Give to your cause or volunteer?

Fine-tuning the desired results will shape the way you write. It’s not enough for a client to say, “I want the flyer/webpage/postcard to drive business.”

They need to drill down– so probe:

  • Are you trying to attract a new client/member?
  • Upsell a current client/member?
  • Woo back a lost client/member?


  • How did you lose this client – to competition, faulty product, or poor customer service?
  • Was this a long time client who may just need a graceful way/a good excuse to return?
  • Was this a short term client who ran into some snags and didn’t have a chance to see your good side?
  • Was this a client with a legitimate gripe?
  • Was this client a complainer you could never satisfy?

Adjust your copy points accordingly so your message is loud and clear:

  • car-horn-with-flag-reflections-sm2 A client lost to competition needs to know about the value, convenience, or price advantages you offer.
  • A client lost to shoddy workmanship should receive an apology, a make-good, and a warranty.
  • A client lost to poor service should receive high-level outreach to better understand the situation and then an invitation to participate on an advisory panel or in a survey.
  • A long-time client might return with a “We miss you” mailer, coupled with a good offer.
  • A short-term client might respond to a timely, “boy, is our face red” letter owning up to the problems – and a request for a second chance.
  • Nothing says lovin’ like a refund – so if your client’s complaint is legit, stand behind your brand.
  • If this client can’t be satisfied regardless of your efforts, steer them to the competition.

Need some phrases? Try these:

  • Dear Customer, Two years have passed since we serviced your furnace, and we miss ensuring premium heating and safety standards for you. Were you aware that last year we started a new environmental program and a “rate holder” option?  We also won a “Best in the Business” award from the local Chamber of Commerce. We’d welcome a chance to tell you about our enhanced service and new fuel purchasing packages. We realize you’re busy, so if you’ll give us a half hour of your time, we’ll give you a $25 gift certificate to (favorite local restaurant) – a happy client who is thoroughly enjoying their A+ Service & Pricing Plan.
  • Dear Customer, We understand you had a problem with our  blue widgets, and boy, are we embarrassed! We received a manufacturer’s recall notice after receiving our latest shipment and immediately removed them from our shelves. However, it appears that you purchased a display sample that had been inadvertently tossed into a clearance bin. That’s why you had a problem. Please accept our check for $31.80 to cover the cost of the widget plus tax, along with a coupon for 10% off your next purchase. We hope this will help reestablish your trust in us.
  • Dear Customer, Thank you for contacting us regarding the stitching on the pillow you purchased from us. We’re sorry the seams have failed to meet your needs. Our records show that we replaced the pillow at no cost six months after purchase in keeping with our return policy. You mentioned in your e-mail that you discovered the torn seams after your children had a pillow fight. In that we sell this pillow as a decorative item, it is not constructed to withstand the rigorous usage of athletic gear. You might try“Outdoor is Us” for heavy-duty camping pillows.