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.

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.

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.