Sharpen Your Pencil, Then Sharpen Your Skills
By Susan Goodsell - May 18 , 2009
“Begin at the beginning,” the king said, gravely, “and go till you come to the end; then stop.” This whimsical quotation from Lewis Carroll can be appreciated by authors everywhere. If only it were easy to apply such succinct advice to our writing!
Keep this quotation in mind when editing and doing rewrites of your work, especially if you submit articles or keep a blog or other online posts where brevity is necessary.
Reader demographics are changing. Baby Boomers are being outnumbered by Gen X- and Gen Y-ers who have grown up with personal computers, cell phones, instant messaging, text messages, and now Twitter. If you don’t catch their attention immediately, and keep it with clear, short sentences, you’ve lost your audience.
Here are six simple and effective tips to strengthen your writing during the editing and rewrite process:
1. Check for favorite words or pet phrases that pop up repeatedly. As our favorite words are just so darn near and dear to our hearts, we may not even notice them, or we may notice them with fondness rather than annoyance! Your editor will not find them so charming, however.
I often do editing for a business professional who loves to say that something is a “moot point.” He not only uses this favorite phrase in virtually every e-mail or correspondence, but, to make matters worse, he writes it as “mute point.” I find myself scanning for it every time, because I know it will be in the text somewhere and probably more than once. Bottom line is, instead of writing, “This issue is a moot point. What needs to happen…” he could more concisely, more effectively write, “Regardless, what needs to happen…”
Another example is an article in which the author used the adverb “really” repeatedly. (Really trendy, really difficult, really important, etc.) It was used so often that it became really, really annoying!
Ask a friend or writing partner to read your work, with specific instructions to let you know if any words or phrases seem repetitious.
2. Find a friend or mentor in the book industry who will be brutally honest with you in making editing suggestions. I have learned that having my family proofread my writing leads to many compliments and high praise as they point out my obvious superior genetic make-up, but results in very little actual useful advice! You don’t want platitudes or warm, fuzzy hugs, but rather, concrete, constructive criticism.
Writing is often an example of not seeing the forest for the trees. You are too close to your writing to see it with objective eyes. You need someone who not only has the willingness and writing skills to help you, but also the technical knowledge of your subject matter to make suggestions that will take your work from good to great. This is why finding someone in your own industry is important.
3. Proofread a printed version of your work. I always catch things in a printed version that I overlooked on my computer screen. (Plus, I must admit, there’s something about taking a red pen to fresh manuscript pages that brings out the high school English teacher in me!) This strategy also allows you to set your piece aside, rest your eyes, and then go back to it any time, anywhere, no computer required.
4. Read your work aloud. We become so adept at reading that our mind automatically ‘fixes’ errors or incorrect usage as we skim through a piece. Reading aloud forces you to slow down. For a great example of this phenomenon, try the “Say the Colors” brain teaser at this address: http://www.coolopticalillusions.com/optical_illusions_images_2/say_the_colors.htm
5. Avoid “bureaucratese,” the tendency to use a longer, more complex word when a shorter, more common word works better. My grandmother, in her infinite wisdom that only much-loved grandmothers possess, used to say, “Never use a quarter word when a nickel word will do.”
One personal pet peeve is utilize, as opposed to use:
- The writer utilized her laptop to do her rewrites. (ugh)
- The writer used her laptop to do her rewrites. (better)
- The writer did her rewrites on her laptop. (best)
When in doubt, use use, but keep an eye out for both utilize and use and when you see them, consider whether your writing could be strengthened by not using them at all!
Other examples to watch for:
- Communicate versus tell
- At the present time versus now
- As a result of versus because
- In the event of versus if
- In spite of the fact that versus although
Brevity is a must. Remember, the longer the sentence, the less comprehension. In general, keep it to short, simple, direct sentences so you don’t lose your reader’s interest.
6. Know your audience.
“As a senior FRG leader, expect to receive information from your FRL on AFTB and FPA conferences. If you need USARC Reg. 608-1, it will be provided. The FPM will be available, along with a CYS coordinator. ITOs will be issued as the training is eligible by the AASA.”
Did you just read this and scratch your head with a response of “Huh?!” As a former military spouse and FRG (Family Readiness Group) leader, these acronyms were part of the lexicon and these sentences would clearly get the intended message across. Written for a non-military audience, it is “clear as mud!”
You need look no further than those previously mentioned Gen-X and Gen-Yers to understand the importance of knowing your audience. Teen texts to friends are filled with abbreviations which would only serve to frustrate this Baby Boomer non-techie. (For a list of text message abbreviations, check out the list at webopedia.)
My 16-year-old daughter, Kelsey, does know her audience, however. Texts to mom are written with proper spelling and grammar! Thank you, Kelsey!
Check to see if your writing is filled with any jargon or acronyms that need to be removed or spelled out to aid in comprehension. If possible, have someone in your target audience read your piece. If you’re using vocabulary specific to a profession and that is familiar to those readers, you must make sure that you are neither talking down to your audience in an effort to impress them, nor insulting their intelligence with verbiage much below their technical knowledge.
Put these six tips into practice. The difference between a mediocre piece and a good piece is in the rewrite. Focused editing and rewrites can ultimately move it to from a good piece to a great piece.
And the difference between you, as a writer, moving from good to great is just a little extra effort!
So sharpen your pencil, then sharpen your skills.
Susan M. Goodsell is a referral marketing professional, trainer, and author, based in Southern California. She is Executive Director and owner of BNI Riverside & San Bernardino Counties, CA. Her focus is helping entrepreneurs and business owners reach higher levels of success through word-of-mouth marketing.