When editing …
Give editing sufficient time
I often say to people that they should expect editing to take 20–30% of the total time they take to write something. Why so much? Because we don’t get the words out right first time, we think of better ways to say things, we forget about what a reader most wants to know, etc. So, don’t interpret editing as ‘I’m no good at writing’; instead, think of it as a normal and necessary process … always remember how much you are improving your text.
I once heard someone compare the work needed to polish a piece of writing to how much work professional musicians need to practice, before giving a performance. Maybe that it is taking it a bit far?
Help readers to understand
There is no harm in breaking long sentences into two – and the same can be said of long paragraphs. After all, if a reader has to read something twice in order to understand it, you begin to lose their support.
Also, don’t be afraid of saying the obvious. Use topic sentences to introduce what a paragraph is about (e.g. ‘Now let’s look at the arguments against.’), and signposts to guide the reader through your text (e.g. ‘There are three reasons for this.’) Such phrases consolidate readers’ understanding.
Beware your article’s beginning
Readers’ attention is greatest when they first start reading something (it then drops, but it can increase later on, when they ‘get into’ reading something in more detail.) This means that your opening paragraphs need to be your writing at its best – with content they will find relevant and engaging; without any annoying waffle or clichés that turn people off; and without any mistakes etc. that would reduce your credibility.
If you ADD, make sure you SUBTRACT
I often find businesses love to add in extra phrases and details when editing their first drafts. My message is ‘Be careful!’ For while adding words and refinements are sometimes needed, it usually results in less clarity and longer sentences (which equates with being harder to understand). Your aim should be to improve your document’s flow, which usually means shorter rather than longer sentences.
Similar to this, a common mistake is to write introductions that are too lengthy – we are overly tempted to demonstrate our wider knowledge and desire to ‘set the scene’. But the chances are your readers already know this. And as a result it means you take too long to get to your key points. In fact, be alert to this tendency everywhere, not just in introductions. As the saying goes: ‘Be careful of your backstory taking over.’
- The most common question I am asked is: “Can you start a sentence with ‘And..?’ .” [ANSWER: Of course you can; just take a look at some books and newspapers.]
- And (Just to prove you can start sentences with ‘And…’!) the most common mistake I encounter is misuse of the semi-colon. Check it out; get it right.
- Other things to be careful of are, for example, raising readers’ expectations. So, if you something is ‘exciting’ or ‘interesting’, make sure you live up to your words.
- Also be on guard for double meanings (Outside the office staff were assembling) and make sure you keep related words together (Being in a terrible state I was able to buy the business cheaply / He liked the analytical section of the report towards the end.)