Do you want to write better emails, presentations, memos, reports and speeches? Do you want people to actually read or listen to them? Learn how to edit your writing.
Writing is craft, not art – it’s about chipping away at the block of marble to reveal the sculpture within. Knowing how to edit is learning to use your chisel skilfully.
Editing is where the magic happens. It’s not just about checking for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. Rather, it’s an organic, dynamic process that aims to improve a piece of writing in a number of different ways. And about 90% of good writing boils down to good editing.
In fact, if you think you’ve written something – sat at your computer and typed it out diligently – even if you think you’re all done with just a spellcheck left, I’ve got news for you. The writing begins only now, as you revise and edit and shape it into something beautiful.
Start with the ABCs
You learned to read by learning your ABCs, and they’re just as important when you’re learning to write (i.e., edit). The ABCs are just a handy little acronym I use to remember that what we’re aiming for, is these three things:
Yes, accuracy refers to your grammar, spelling and punctuation, of course, but that comes later. We’re going to look at the big picture first – at the content.
Start by keeping an eye out for ambiguity, which really means trying to read it as if you’re seeing it for the first time – or as if you are someone who doesn’t know much about the content – to ensure it says what you mean and means what you say. This is one of the most difficult things to do, because by the time you’ve written something, you won’t be able to see the wood for the trees anymore. So you might want to rope in a “cold” reader who can flag anything that doesn’t make sense.
Next, consider who’s going to be reading (or listening to) what you’ve written. Will they have all of the information they need to understand the topic, or have you made assumptions that will leave them scratching their heads, because they can’t quite follow without some additional information? You want to aim for the following balance: everything there is necessary, and everything necessary is there.
Finally, is the jargon use appropriate for the person reading or hearing the content? If two civil engineers are discussing how to build a bridge, a high level of engineering jargon is appropriate. If they’re writing a report for the company’s CFO, however, they might have to tone it down a touch. Okay, more than a touch.
Shakespeare knew a thing or two about writing, and as he wrote in Hamlet, brevity is the soul of wit – in other words, clever people can say intelligent things well using very few words.
Here’s the guiding principle: never use two or more words when one will do, or complicated words when a simple one will do.
We all know people who talk a lot – and how easy it is to tune out of all that verbosity. Choose quality over quantity and keep simplifying as you go. It takes practice.
If you’ve done a good job of accuracy and brevity, chances are you will have a very clear piece of writing. How clear? Well, clear enough that your 90-year-old grandmother would be able to understand it.
Here’s a fun example of how a lack of clarity can ruin your writing. Isn’t the original far more effective and memorable?
A trio of sightless rodents
Observe how they perambulate
They hotly pursue the agriculturalist’s spouse
Who severs their after-appendages with a sharpened culinary implement
Did ever you observe such a phenomenon in your entire existence
As a trio of sightless rodents?
Here are some examples of simplified sentences:
- Every thinking person seems inclined to agree with the notion that the more expensive a product is the better the quality will be. → Everyone links cost with quality.
- In order to succeed in the accounting profession one must be able to be of an adaptable nature. → Successful accountants are adaptable.
- All of the recruits who are new to this company are required to attend a meeting that has been scheduled for Friday, the 22nd of September. → New recruits must attend a meeting on Friday, 22 September.
Editing – some things to look out for
Once you’ve conquered your ABCs, here are some things to look out for as you read through your writing again:
- Are all names (including your own) spelt correctly?
- Is the date correct?
- Do the page numbers agree with the contents page if you have one? (Remember that Word won’t automatically update the table of contents if you move things around, for instance.)
- Are the sub-headings consistent in terms of style and typeface?
- Have you eliminated the unnecessary? (Content and language.)
- Did you get to the point early?
- Does the text flow logically?
- Are the sentences short (one verb only) and simple?
- Have you changed the passive voice to the active voice?
- Have you checked grammar and spelling, and rechecked after making any changes?
- Are all graphs and calculations correct?
- Have you checked that all figures have been correctly entered?
The writing/editing process – (at least) seven steps to success
Yes, I know you hate me just for the heading and think you don’t have time for seven steps, but I promise, you do. This may seem like a lot of reading and checking, but it takes less time than you think, and it’s worth it if you produce something that is well-crafted, properly structured, and a pleasure to read.
- Write without correcting or editing at all. Just write your document from beginning to end.
- Go away and do something else – for at least an hour, but preferably overnight.
- Come back and read through your work and make sure it makes sense and flows logically.
- Read through it again, removing extra words and information, and checking grammar and spelling, correcting where necessary. (Remember your ABCs as you do this.)
- Give it to someone else to read and ask them to make corrections.
- Read it again, because when you’re changing things, you might introduce more errors.
- If it’s practical, print out your final copy and do a physical proofread. If not, change the typeface temporarily to confuse your brain into thinking it’s reading something new, and give it a final read.
Stylistic points for easy reading
Every newspaper and magazine out there has a style sheet – a kind of Bible that every writer or editor on the publication can refer to when they have questions about how to properly format certain words and phrases.
These stipulations are usually compiled in the service of two things: 1. Consistency – so that there is a uniform style and tone across the publication, and 2. Readability – to make the publication as reader-friendly as possible. The print media were doing UX long before UX was a thing.
Your company should have a style sheet if possible – so that your employees produce consistent, accessible copy. And someone needs to be in charge of constantly updating it as new questions arise: Do we write “cyber crime/cybercrime/cyber-crime”? How do we format dates? Do we separate the thousands in big numbers with commas or spaces? Do we use decimal points or decimal commas?
Here are some examples of styles you could consider adopting, but this is just a small sample:
- Numbers: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 … except where used in calculations, for example.
- Millions and billions: R1-million, but one million people.
- Periods of time in history: 1960s/the sixties/’60s.
- Population groups: black, white, coloured and Indian.
- Long hyphen/en dash to be used as punctuation, e.g., The man – who loved apples – walked away, but short hyphen to be used for compound words and hyphenation, e.g. Film-maker, etc.
- Dates: 28 February 2000.
- Separating out units of 1,000 with commas. The exception is the year.
- Using decimal points instead of decimal commas to align with much of the world.
- Using a % sign instead of writing out percent/per cent.
- No upper case in job titles: managing director, producer, chief executive.
- No full stops in acronyms: PACT, SABC, HIV.
- e.g. and i.e.
- Time: Use am/pm (6am, 6.30pm), or use the 24-hour clock: 06h00 or 18h30 – but be consistent, whichever you choose.
- Using UK spelling if your company operates largely in South Africa, Europe and/or Australia, and US spelling if you have a more global reach outside of Europe and Australia.
If it all seems too much
I get that you just want to get that policy document, report or presentation done – you don’t have time to get all nitty-gritty about things. But you also want to produce something of the very best quality. Well, I’m assuming, but I think it’s a safe bet that you’re not aiming to produce something shoddy.
So when you’re ready, get in touch. I can help in one of three ways:
- I can help you draw up a style sheet for your department or the company as a whole.
- If you have a lot of raw material that needs to be drawn together into a coherent document, I can write it for you.
- If you’ve written something and need someone to give it a critical eye, make sure it flows, and correct any typos or grammar gremlins, I can do that for you too.