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Columns on editing & revising techniques

“Use five techniques of style to revise”
First published March 13, 2006

“If you’re editing only on screen, you’re missing the big picture”
First published May 8, 2012

“Keep a scrap file when winnowing down to a specified length”
First published July 31, 2012


First published March 13, 2006

“Use five techniques of style to revise”

By Stephen Wilbers

After you’ve drafted your message, what do you do? If you’re like most writers, you read it over, check for typos, and send it on its way.

 

Instead of this hit-or-miss approach to revising, I recommend you review your copy more systematically by using five techniques of style:

 

Make every word count. As Strunk and White advise in their classic little book, The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.” The foundation of a good style is economy of language. Change until such time as to until. Change during the course of to during.

 

Prefer action verbs to nouns. Check your draft for nominalizations, or verbs made into nouns, and change them back to verbs. Change “It’s important for you to make a connection with your audience” to “It’s important for you to connect with your audience.” Change “Please take under consideration my proposal” to “Please consider my proposal.”

 

Dont trust modifiers. Both Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway offered this advice. They didn’t say don’t use modifiers; they said use them carefully. They’re the trickiest part of speech to use well. Change end result to result, general consensus to consensus, terrible tragedy to tragedy, and personal opinion to opinion.

 

Trim sentence endings to create emphasis. To take advantage of the natural stress point at the ending of each sentence, trim excess words. Change “We need to respond to the complaints that are occurring” to “We need to respond to these complaints.” Change “Let’s listen to the ideas our customers are offering to us” to “Let’s listen to our customers’ ideas.”

 

Take advantage of opening prominence. Sometimes the wording can be rearranged to take advantage of opening emphasis. Change “She blamed her colleague once again for the error” to “Once again she blamed her colleague for the error.” Change “Customer service is even more important” to “Even more important is customer service.”

 

Obviously, these applying these five techniques improves the writing in the examples above, but how much of a difference do they make in an actual message? Compare the following passages:

 

“The end result of disregarding our shareholders’ concerns may be disastrous in nature. In the event that you are unable to attend the meeting, please put in a call to me. It is my recommendation that we have a good discussion of the changes that have taken place recently, take under consideration their financial implications, and undertake a study of the possible harm they might do to future sales. We need to take action in with all due alacrity given the volatility of the marketplace that we are presently experiencing. Our shareholders as always deserve the utmost accountability.”

 

“The result of disregarding our shareholders’ concerns may be disastrous. If you are unable to attend the meeting, please call me. I recommend we discuss the recent changes, consider their financial implications, and study how they might harm future sales. Given the volatile marketplace, we need to act quickly. As always, our shareholders deserve accountability.”

 

Can you hear a difference?

 

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First published May 8, 2012

“If you’re editing only on screen, you’re missing the big picture”

By Stephen Wilbers

Dear editors:

My apologies for submitting this column late. I know you prefer to receive my column a week earlier than I’m sending this one. Please forgive my delay. I’ve been frantically busy -- editing.

Not this column (although I will edit it before I send it to you, I promise), but a 52,840-word manuscript. I have a book deadline. Tomorrow.

As you know better than anyone, no matter how carefully you edit and proofread, no matter how many times you work your way through 150 pages of text, you still miss things. A dozen people have read my manuscript, four with an eye to proofreading errors, and I still found two little typos in a single sentence as I went through my copy. I know there are other errors and plenty of sentences that could be better written, but deadlines are ... Well, you know what I mean. Sorry.

Part of the problem, of course, is editing and proofreading on screen rather than on paper. As you know, it’s not the same. You see things on paper you don’t see on screen, and vice versa. On screen you get all those little prompts and aids, red and green wavy lines and auto-correct spelling. On paper you see your text more clearly, with less tendency to skip over individual words. Somehow text counts more and seems more real when you print it out. (I print my drafts on the reverse side of used sheets to save paper.)

But it’s more than that. As I made multiple passes through my manuscript, I realized my text read differently according to how it was delivered to me.

When I revised on screen, my conceptual frame was narrowed (it was limited literally by the size of my screen). As a result, I saw it differently. I tended to revise according to what worked well in a particular sentence or paragraph, with limited awareness of how that change fit into the flow or broader framework of the entire piece.

Similarly, I’ve noticed how cumbersome it is to find a favorite sentence or passage on my Kindle, even though the device allows me to search for individual words and phrases, and how much easier it is to find something on paper. (Let’s see. It was about a third of the way through the book, on the upper left page, in a fairly short paragraph. There it is.)

So here’s what I’ve concluded:

Edit and proofread both on screen and on paper.

When you change something on screen, reread the entire paragraph to make certain you haven’t created a new problem or introduced a new error.

When you edit on paper, mark your revisions by hand and enter them later -- the moment you begin keying things in, you alter (and narrow) your conceptual framework.

To move farther from the writer’s perception and closer to reader’s experience, edit longer pieces on paper.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I better write that column. Again, I apologize for the delay. I’ll do better next time.

 


First published July 31, 2012

 “Keep a scrap file when winnowing down to a specified length”

By Stephen Wilbers

Nearly every book on style offers the same advice: Make every word count. Eliminate wordiness. Concise writing is the foundation of good writing.

"Omit needless words," William Strunk and E. B. White advise in The Elements of Style. "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%," Stephen King writes in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Even yours truly identifies 14 patterns of wordiness in his book on style. (Google "wilbers wordiness" for a set of free exercises illustrating these patterns.)

In the 21 years I’ve been writing this column, nothing has improved my writing more than – week after week, month after month – eliminating unnecessary words to stay within my 500-word limit. I know concise writing has more power and emphasis than wordy writing – I teach that concept in my writing seminars – but it’s a lesson I relearn with every column I write. Sometimes I delete just a word here or there. (The first version of that sentence was, "Sometimes I delete just a word here or a word there.") Sometimes I cut an entire paragraph from my draft, and even if it’s a good paragraph, what remains is tighter and stronger.

And then, invariably, as I check my word count, I find I’ve cut too much. Typically my first draft comes in around 600 words, and then as I begin cutting, condensing, and compressing I end up with around 450 words. It takes some fiddling to hit 500 words on the nose. (The first version of that sentence read, "It takes some fiddling to hit 500 words pretty much on the nose, give or take 5 or 10 words.")

What helps me bring it home is to go to a scrap file of deletions I’ve kept along the way. My file allows me to reconsider my cuts, evaluate their merit, and reinsert the text that seems to contribute most significantly to the overall piece. In contrast to recreating from memory something I’ve deleted and then decided to use, working through my file is systematic, quick, and efficient.

There’s another benefit to keeping a scrap file. Often in the process of drafting and revising, I’ll cut a sentence or phrase I plan to use elsewhere. Sometimes I’ll forget I’m "carrying" that text and then I’ll lose it when I cut something else on top of it. Keeping a scrap pile allows me to safely park my text until I find a home for it.

And now, as usual, having written a draft for this column that was too long, and then having condensed it, I find I’m 60 words short. Here’s a paragraph I parked in my scrap file:

"To identify the non-functioning elements, I typically look in two areas: wordy expressions such as until such time as for until or during the course of for during, and unnecessary content that comes from telling the reader something the reader would know without my saying it."

Let’s see. That was originally my fourth paragraph. As soon as I reinsert it, I’ll be finished writing this column.

 

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