June 18, 2007

How To Edit Like A Pro

Supposedly, Ernest Hemingway rewrote the final chapter of "A Farewell to Arms" nineteen times. That may seem like a lot, but he wanted it to be right.

How many times did you rewrite the executive summary of your last proposal? Did you even edit it at all, or did you just check it for typos and mistakes?

That's our subject this time: how to edit like a pro.


When I was young, I had an English teacher named Mrs. Whipple who had a simple, inflexible rule for grading: if you had more than two misspelled words, you got an F.

Maybe you had a Mrs. Whipple in your life. If so, you may have unconsciously learned to equate proofreading with editing. It's good to proofread, of course, but it's not the same as editing. Editing is the most difficult part of writing and one of the two most essential steps. (The other is organizing your thinking.) Editing means looking objectively at your writing from the perspective of your audience, and then improving it so the audience fully understands it and so that it accomplishes the purpose for which you wrote it.

Poor writers often believe that good writers do not need to revise, that letters and reports simply pour forth in their complete and final forms. That's not true and until a writer gives up this delusion, he or she has little chance of improving. Even the most gifted writers, Nobel laureates and Booker Prize winners, edit their work carefully.

Some general tips: You must let your writing "cool" before you edit it. If you look at it immediately after finishing the first draft, you'll see what you meant to say and will be unable to realize what you did say. This is some kind of Gestalt phenomenon, I guess, where our brains superimpose an expected pattern or order on the actual evidence in front of us. I used to recommend to people that they print out their text, then mail it to themselves. In the couple of days it takes for the manuscript to arrive, they will have gained enough detachment to edit effectively.

Unfortunately, most people are often under tremendous time pressure and can't wait a couple of days to finish a project. That being the case, it might be a good idea to partner with somebody else and be "editing buddies." You edit his or her work, and that person edits yours.

When you do get down to the actual task of editing, I strongly recommend you proceed in five phases. These phases will move you from general to specific and, if possible, they should be handled discreetly. If you try to combine them, you'll lapse into proofreading again, and that doesn't accomplish much.

First phase of editing: During the first phase, a writer should ask three questions:

  1. Have I said anything obviously dumb here?
  2. Have I provided all the information that my reader needs?
  3. Can I cut any of this material without interfering with the reader's ability to understand or my own desires to persuade?

The sad fact is that you don't have to be dumb to sound dumb. A slight slip of the pen and you provoke laughter: "Every facet of our company is focused on servicing you, the customer." Servicing? Like an oil change?

The other two questions are a bit tougher. Are we making assumptions, and thus leaving out the information the customer needs? Are we doing a data dump because that's the easiest way to fill our binder? Either way, try to read like a customer and use that red pen mercilessly.

Second phase: The next phase of editing should be a hard look at the document's structure:

  1. Does the overall organization of this material make sense? Is it suited to the audience's attitude and needs?
  2. Have I used a pattern appropriate to my purpose?
  3. Have I highlighted my structure and key ideas sufficiently?

For example, have we put the customer's chief concerns, in order of priority as the customer sees them, up front? Have we used the persuasive structural pattern to organize our content? Have we used bold type, headings and subheadings, call-outs, and other tools to highlight the main points?

Third phase: During the third revision, a writer works for clarity, conciseness, precision, directness, and emphasis. In particular, the writer examines:

  1. Word choice
  2. Sentence lengths and patterns
  3. Readability

Try to simplify your writing as much as possible. Make sure to challenge jargon, eliminate as much passive voice as possible, and keep your sentences short.

Fourth phase: The fourth time through, try to add a little pizzazz to your writing. See if you can develop a clearer, more readable style. For example, you might try varying the kinds of openings you use, offering a helpful analogy or metaphor to explain a complex idea, or introducing a little humor or drama.

Fifth phase: Okay, now Mrs. Whipple gets her due. All the other changes have been made, we've keyed in our new content, cut the extraneous, rearranged it to strengthen the structure, and feel pretty good overall about what we have. Now we examine the final draft for mechanical or typographical errors.

In an earlier message, I characterized these kinds of mistakes as "background noise." Your job in this phase is to eliminate as much background noise as possible. Don't rely solely on your spell checker to catch problems, either. One of the nastiest little errors you can commit is having the wrong customer's name in your proposal, and the spell checker is not likely to find that one for you!

We have carefully edited our marketing materials and our product demos to communicate clearly the value of proposal automation software from Sant. You can see an interactive, Web-based demo of them at our site, www.santcorp.com. Now is the time to automate the creation of your proposals, sales letters, RFP responses, and presentations!


Jeff said...

Tom's editing process is great. Getting the time to actually follow it is another story.

Jeff said...

On my blog - http://proposalsarechaos.blogspot.com - I compared proposal editing to checking ones tire pressure.