Earlier, I ranted about killing all the adjectives and adverbs you can. To find those “ly” words you must go over what you just wrote. Thus begins the editing/revising phase. It is every bit as vital as putting the words on paper in the first place. To get maximum results from a piece of writing, never, never, never quit after you’ve finished the first draft. Always, always, always edit and revise to make it as good as you can. Like many human activities, the first attempt is almost never as good as the final product. Good writing is iterative. It requires previous versions, each one better than the last. The process should become as automatic as breathing.
Here’s how I define what is the best writing for day-to-day situations: clear, concise, and compelling language that expresses exactly what you want to convey in a logical way and enables the reader to get it the first time he/she reads it.
You may be pleased to learn that editing and revising doesn’t mean starting from scratch each time; it usually means improving what’s already there until it’s as good as you can make it. How long it takes varies. The factors include the type of piece (e-mail, letter, comprehensive report, etc.), how much time you have for it, how important it is, and your level of perfectionism.
Editing and revising are well worth it. The more time and thought — even a little more — you put into it yields ever improving results. Clear and compelling prose can mean the difference between keeping and losing your audience, making a sale and losing a customer, solving a problem and making it worse. Mark Twain knew. He wrote that “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” You don’t have to rewrite one page 39 times like Ernest Hemingway did for Farewell to Arms. But two or three editing/revising passes will raise your writing. And raising your writing can raise your level of success.
Here’s some timeless editing/revising guidelines:
- Short words – if you’ve a word of more than two or three syllables, replace it with something shorter. Example: “encourage” vs. “coax.”
- Useless words – That includes most adjectives and adverbs (the “ly” words). Poor: “It’s terribly and quite simply great!” Good: “That’s great!”
- Short sentences – two short sentences are better than one long sentence.
- Short paragraphs – Heaven help the reader facing big blocks of solid grey type.
- Active voice – Order the words in a sentence this way: subject+verb+object. Poor: “The football is being thrown by the quarterback.” This is passive voice. Passive means weak, which this sentence is. Good: “The quarterback is throwing the football.” This is active voice. It has more punch. It’s also shorter, another readability plus.
I could write a book on editing/revising, but many masters already have. They include William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, who authored The Elements of Style. It is a timeless classic. Focus on the 17 pages of Chapter 2, “Elementary Principles of Composition.”
Don’t believe me? Look at this (with thanks to Ms. Shirley Taylor, author of Model Business Letters, Emails and Other Business Documents, seventh edition):