I spend quite a bit of time editing other people’s writing. When I do, I put on my editor’s hat, and I’m a different person. Aaron said once after I edited something for him that it was like a total stranger wrote the comments on his manuscript–it didn’t seem like me, apparently. My alter-ego, Super Editor Woman, isn’t trying to be unkind, nor is she trying to rip my victim’s writing to shreds, although it may come across that way. I’m trying to make the piece sing by getting rid of the extra fluff and helping the writer communicate more clearly. Balancing the editor role and the kind, caring person role is no easy task. I realize that I have to be careful to handle someone else’s writing gently (writers are very sensitive people, if you haven’t noticed; myself included). But on the flip, I want to help them make their writing better. Doing both doesn’t come naturally to me. To protect you from ever having to have me as your editor, I’m going to provide you with 7 ways that will improve your writing. Practice these 7 tips, and while you may not become the next Tolstoy, I can promise that your writing will be more readable, more interesting, and more professional.
1. Avoid jargon and big words.
If you’ve spent any time in a corporate environment, you know that business people like big words. They throw around terms like utilize, return on investment, core competency, empower, actionable, and the list could go on forever. A year ago, as a newcomer to the corporate setting, I believed I had landed in Timbuktu. Seriously, what language are these people using? I’ve come to realize, however, that while some jargon is necessary, much of it is simply an attempt to fit in with the rest of the business world. If possible, limit yourself to using simple words in place of larger ones. Can you say help instead of assistance? Then by all means, do! (However, I won’t blame you if in your next meeting with that uber cool Cali entrepreneur you say “Why yes, we assisted the business development team in their core competency of utilizing the newest version of your software to create actionable items that will engage and empower our audience and deliver the highest return on investment possible.” They’ll like you. I promise.)
2. Practice conciseness. Get rid of the fluff. Really. I mean it.
Those five extra adjectives that you tag to the front of your nouns, they need to go. Forget about the word count (sorry, freshman English professors everywhere!). I have a firm belief that the reason so much fluff exists on blogs, in papers, in business literature is because we attach an arbitrary number and say “you must use this many words or else.” SEO is another culprit: yes, longer articles get better rankings, but if you don’t have more than 300 good words to write, don’t write 1000 just to do better on Google. I’m practicing conciseness and ending this section before I wax too eloquent.
3. Use a variety of sentence structures.
This one is a biggie. I edited a piece once that only used simple sentences. I felt like I was driving down an Illinois highway after the thaw. If you’re Southern, I’m sorry that you’ve never experienced that before; it’s like those one-hundred-year-old roller coasters that we all ride just to say we did, except not quite as smooth. Another time, I edited a piece that only used compound sentences. That was more like a winding north Georgia road with no purpose or final destination. Here’s the moral: mix them up. Use a simple sentence here and there. They’re nice. They break things up. Then throw in a compound sentence, and then use another one. After you’ve written a compound sentence or two, it’s time to take advantage of those handy complex sentences.
4. Be yourself.
I’m sorry, but you’re you, and that’s never going to change, as much as you try to sound like Leo Tolstoy or William Shakespeare. You’re never going to be them. So don’t try. You have your own personal voice; find it and use it. Are you inherently funny? Or purposefully straightforward? Are you Mr. Professional? Or sort of sentimental? (Please, though, don’t go overboard on the sentimental. Life is too short.)
5. Write quickly, revise ruthlessly.
Don’t drag out the writing process. Know what you’re going to say and say it. Don’t spend large amounts of time editing while you write, or else you’ll struggle remembering where you were headed. When it’s time to revise, revise ruthlessly. Can you get rid of fluff words? Are your ideas sound? Is someone else going to understand that ridiculously long sentence?
6. Cite sources.
Guys, be professional and tell me where you found that statistic. And please don’t take credit for that totally awesome quote. And don’t steal ideas from other websites just because it makes your job a little easier. If you take an idea, a statistic, or a phrase from someone else, give them credit. They deserve it, not you.
7. Be logical.
Sometimes I feel like every other article I read is based on illogical principles or draws illogical conclusions. Use plenty of data and don’t make assumptions. Especially don’t automatically assume that your conclusion follows. For instance, if you’re writing an article about how coffee causes insomnia, make sure your proof shows cause and not just a connection between the two.
You’re not born a writer; you have to work hard to become one. These 7 tips, the dictionary, and a good stylebook will put you on your way.
I know there’s plenty more I could add to this list. What would you add?