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 Marvel is in The Details

I gladly forfeit that old ‘devilish’ phrase for something more uplifting – and that is a reminder to all writers:  bank those glorious details for a rainy day!


I recently changed jobs which doubled my commute, but rather than complain about slow roads and traffic jams, I decided to use the time wisely.

Each day, I try to notice something new — one small detail that had previously eluded me – an image, a name, a nuance that could enrich future writing.

I’ve become aware of changing light and discovered that early morning sun dapples some roofs more than others. One stands out like a French cottage, its shingles a mosaic of pale grays and soft greens, a playful mottled contrast to the somber colors nearby.

I’ve noticed how “ghost leaves,” as I’ve started to call them, still hang in the trees even though fall and winter are gone. Tan and translucent, they flutter on brittle stems — delicate and wing-like in their demeanor. They remind me of dry moths caught in spider webs.

I’ve become more aware of birds, too, smiling as I often do, when a flock of small budgies launch from a telephone wire and toss themselves like a handful of pepper against the sky… and I’ve noticed red tailed hawks circling slowly with fringed wings splayed, riding the updrafts like gliders … and I always enjoy geese falling into formation, usually with two stragglers at the end doing double time to catch up.

Maybe my quest for details is propelled by reading David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This has been a treat for me … a big, hefty hardbound volume with a finely illustrated cover and thick, tactile-pleasing  pages … purchased for $2 from a Library book sale shelf.  For me it’s been an indulgence; it’s not about work. It’s not cool and digital. I didn’t buy it for the action or steamy plot. I was intrigued by the liner notes and a few phrases that jumped out.

I notice the reviews range from 1 to 5 … that is “not so good” to “great.” I’d be on the greater side, not just because of characters and conviction, but because of the rich, “effortless” writing style. I want to be able to use descriptive phrases like this, without a sense of phoniness or contrivance. I want to describe that “alder-choked ravine” and creek “filled with pale green grass laid over in the current like mermaid hair.” I’ve seen that creek before, pulled my shoes and socks off and plunged my hot feet in. What a gift that someone could conjure up that raw sensation and give it back to me.

Isn’t that what makes some writing resonate while other attempts fail?  Details recover memories and deep emotions. They trigger something imperceptible but vital. Today, in writing content, we talk about “reader engagement.” The term may be new but the art isn’t. Details have been doing this for ages.

Details are like fine tailoring. They require work, but stitched together and strategically placed, they add quality and structure.

A good writer knows when to share and when to withhold details because they can be used in two important ways: (1) to provide a vivid picture so the reader sees exactly what you want them to see or (2) to tease them enough so their imaginations can run wild.

When “When” is Enough


Several weeks ago I had an opportunity to hear Newsweek/Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief  Tina Brown speak about changes in content delivery, shortly before  announcing their plans to discontinue print publication of their well known news weekly.

I had already grabbed a copy of the magazine and tossed it into my tote, which for me, was like catching up with an old friend. I’m one of those people who received a student-rate subscription in high school and continued subscribing well beyond college graduation. In more recent years, I’ve been a casual reader.

In flipping through my issue later that night (September 24, 2012), I fell into my usual bad habit of thumbing through the magazine back to front to see if anything caught my eye, before settling down to “read it right.”

I must have noticed Damon Linker’s article on page 53 first which started “When Tori Amos set out to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her seminal debut album…” because I soon came upon the top left page of an article about hospitals (page 46, by Marty Makary) which started “When I was a medical student.”

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until I flipped back to page 42, to find part of an article about the television program ‘Homeland.” It started “When Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa set out in early 2010…” (this section was part of a larger article about Secret Weapons by Eli Lake) and on page 41, it contained a paragraph that began, “When asked why more women make it as targeters than men, Graham said…”

I don’t think the similarity in sentence structure hit me until I backed up to page 34 and saw an interview by Leslie H. Gelb with economist Paul Volcker that stated, “When Paul Volcker speaks, Republicans and Democrats, Labor and Business, listen.”

All of a sudden, I realized it was “when this, when that.” That’s a lot of “whens!” Merriam Webster says that this adverb derives from Middle or Old English, or perhaps Old High German, citing “hwanne” and “hwenne” as the origin. “When” denotes a period of time broadly or specifically.

I was quite young when I learned that Americans say “When” to indicate when to stop filling a glass.  That always seemed silly and somewhat random, until I realized it was variation of “Say Goodnight, Gracie” followed by “Goodnight Gracie.” (Credit that to George Burns and Gracie Allen.)

“When,” if used with beverage pouring, is really just a sassy response to, “Tell me when to stop pouring.”

As a writer, “when” offers an easy way to set the stage. “When Mrs. Springer was a young girl, her family used kerosene lamps.” But could we say it another way? “Even as she started to lose touch with the present, Mrs. Springer could still hear the crank of the old kerosene pump that fueled the lamps in her childhood home. She remembered painstakingly bringing her mother a can of the precious liquid each afternoon before the sun set, alternating between relishing the smell and being repulsed by it.”

“When” comes in handy when writing historical accounts or conveying parallel timelines. “When the czar’s foot soldiers stormed the village, Hannah was already gone.” Try it a different way. “By time the Cossacks arrived at the village, Hannah was clamoring up the hill, clinging to a bundle of food and clothes, perceptible as no more than a speck on the horizon.”

Don’t get me wrong. “When” is a perfectly adequate word, but it risks being overused. One exception:  The Beatle’s “Rain” . “When the sun shines, they slip into the shade… when it rains… when it rains and shines.” Can’t quite get enough “when” there.

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.

The Man in the Mill

I’ve run into people who appreciate words. I’ve met them at bookstores, classrooms, podiums, and theaters.

Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to meet a word enthusiast in such an unlikely setting – an 83 year-old gristmill, off a quiet country road, on a random Saturday morning.

You see, this man was a guide at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA. The Inn dates back to Colonial Times (built in 1716) and was later (1863) immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his “Tales of a Wayside Inn.”

In 1923, Henry Ford bought the building and surrounding 3,000 acres of land in hopes of turning  the Wayside Inn into a living museum of Americana. During the years that followed, he imported a one-room school house, built a fully functional gristmill (1929) and constructed the Martha-Mary Chapel (1940).

Although there were only five of us inside the mill that day (including a Mom and two smart, earthy children), the miller/educator gave us an in-depth presentation, focusing not on the mechanics of the mill (as others have done in the past), but on the origins of the words related to milling.

Quite the entertainer, he shot questions out to the kids, challenged them to be smarter than “us adults,” and took divergent twists and turns in his thinking.
First, he pointed out the differences in the colors of wheat product …brown whole wheat vs white wheat flour. He dispelled the myth of bleaching, and showed instead by sifting, how removal of the bran would leave the finer flour white.


He posed a trick question and asked what part of the wheat was most nutritious, delighting in the fact that most people got it wrong by saying the bran. Hah! Bran is cellulose and non-digestible, he explained, so while it was “good for you” in terms of providing fiber, there was no nutrition in it at all.

(And so we’re reminded about the power of Marketing)

Much like a teacher (though he claimed he wasn’t), the miller asked if we knew the difference between “flour” and “meal.” We all came up with reasoning relating to the grind. Nope. He explained that “meal” was a Franco-German derivative that simply meant “grain” – as not to be confused by the term “Indian Corn” that was neither Native American or corn, per se. He explained that “corn” used in this context, also drew from Germanic roots, and also meant “grain.”

Here are more wheat-related terms for those interested.

I learned a lot that morning, not only about the by-products of milling, but about how words can convey a passion – and breathe life into something that could have been mundane. This experience offered a bridge to the past. There was a connection and energy in the conversation. Something bigger than the items at hand. Simple household goods like bread and cereal suddenly possessed historic importance. The humble work of milling rose to the stature of science.  Through this man’s story-telling expertise, it became clear that bread sustained life – in more than a few ways.

As I moved out into the light, my mind was heightened with word-awareness. I kept thinking about the importance of precision in writing and about wheat (or the metaphor of it) in much grander terms:

Up from the earth, the wheat sprung. Absorbed sun, rain, and blue skies. Grew sweet, plump and yellow until the heavy heads drooped. Enter mankind… with nimble fingers, blades, and threshers. Usher in industry, silos, and conveyor belts. Add one small grain to another to sustain a society. Granaries.  Groceries. Bakeries. Worn kitchen tables with striped bowls and the smell of yeast rising… wooden cutting boards and checkered cloths. Melted butter, spilling over crispy crust.

Ah, bread, “The Staff of Life.” … and words, the crux of communication.