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.

“Great” Ain’t So Great. Put a Macro Lens on Your Language.

Playing with a macro lens the other day, I was reminded that cabbage isn’t necessarily a dull green ball.  macro-red-cabbage-200-px-c-2012-wordsonthefly1 In fact, it can
be violet
, royal, laced with intricate, sensual patterns in white, a labyrinth of curves and crevasses. It’s certainly more than coleslaw and the makings for “Holiskhes.”

The same is true about words. Take the word “Great,” for instance. I’m so tired of hearing it, and yet I’m as bad as the next guy in using it:   “Great to see you!” “What a great idea!” “Isn’t that great news?” But what has “great” told us? Absolutely nothing, other than to convey a sense of elation.

“Great” is one of the biggest wastes of space when you’re counting words. Why use up a Tweet character or air time on a mundane word when there are so many others that add substance. “Great” is convenient but lazy.

Think about business writing, when you have to convey a message fast. Say you have the prospect’s attention for 5 seconds and you opt for a headline that reads, “Greatest widget around.” Well, woopdedoo! You’ve offered no concrete information. Put that phrase under a macro lens and look at it closer.

Consider: “New, portable widget” or “Blue widget at half price” or “The last widget you’ll ever need because it’s so durable.” Now you’re saying something.
Examine the widget further.

How does it feel?  Taste? Smell? What emotion does it evoke? Confidence? Delight? Nostalgia?

“Rugged widget for the serious outdoorsman,” “Widget just like Grandma used to make,” “Succulent widget with a hint of saffron.” You see, it doesn’t matter what the widget is, but as a writer, you must make it unique. “Great” just doesn’t cut it.


Now think about carrots. Gorgeous color. Refreshing crunch. Healthy, too.  Much like cabbage, when seen through a macro lens, there’s much more than meets the eye. There’s form and structure, rings of growth, a tuft of green at the top, and a root with incomprehensible persistence.

Now look at your widget as you looked at those carrots. “Widgets grown from the warm earth,” “Laser cut widgets for precision,” “Collectible widgets etched with the maker’s mark.”

Align your widget with a purpose to suggest value. “Widgets for the busy professional,” “Widgets to relax the mind and restore the spirit,” “Widgets that can be worn with red party pumps or beach sandals.”

Now mix it up. See what happens when you combine bright purple cabbage, bold orange carrots, and a few sweet dried cranberries for fun.  This is so much better than “great.” Under the lens it is a “canvas of color,” “a burst of unexpected flavor,” “a landscape of texture and taste.” So back to your widget.  Maybe it offers an “effervescent splash of citrus,” “an aura of mystery,” or “a playful combination of polka dots against crisp white cotton.”

So set aside your old widget and give it a word makeover. Look at it with fresh eyes. Turn it upside down, inside out.  Describe it as if your audience has never seen a widget before. Surprisingly, your widget will no longer be just plain “great.”

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!