5 editor’s secrets to help you write like a pro

colorful-booksI do a lot of copyediting, both of books and advertising collateral. I’ll let you in on a secret that still surprises me, although I’ve seen it hundreds of times now. If you looked at the raw work of most professional writers, you’d be pretty underwhelmed.

Professional writers get work because they hit their deadlines, they stay on message, and they don’t throw too many tantrums. Some pros have a great writing voice or a superb style, but as often as not, that gets in the way. When you know that the best word is “prescient,” it’s hard to swallow when an account manager tells you the client won’t know what it means.

Professional writers rely on editors to fix their clunks. Like good gardeners, sensitive editors don’t hack away—we prune and gently shape. When we’ve done a great job, the page looks just like it did before, only better. It’s the page the writer intended to write.

Editing, like writing, takes time to learn. But here are five fixes I make with nearly every project. Learn to make them yourself and you’ll take your writing to a more professional, marketable, and persuasive level.

1. Sentences can only do one thing at a time.

Have you ever heard a four-year-old run out of breath before she can finish her thought? I edit a lot of sentences that work the same way. You need a noun, you need a verb, you might need an object. Give some serious thought to stopping right there.

Sentences are building blocks, not bungee cords; they’re not meant to be stretched to the limit. I’m not saying you necessarily want a Hemingway-esque series of clipped short sentences, but most writers benefit from dividing their longest sentences into shorter, more muscular ones.

2. Paragraphs can only do one thing at a time.

A paragraph supports a single idea. Construct complex arguments by combining simple ideas that follow logically. Every time you address a new idea, add a line break. Short paragraphs are the most readable; few should be more than three or four sentences long. This is more important if you’re writing for the Web.

3. Look closely at -ing

Nouns ending in -ing are fine. (Strong writing, IT consulting, great fishing.) But constructions like “I am running,” “a forum for building consensus,” or “The new team will be managing” are inherently weak. Rewrite them to “I run,” “a forum to build consensus,” and “the team will manage.” You’re on the right track when the rewrite has fewer words (see below).

(If for some insane reason you want to get all geeky about this, you can read the Wikipedia article on gerunds and present participles. But you don’t have to know the underlying grammatical rules to make this work. Rewrite -ing when you can, and your writing will grow muscles you didn’t know it had.)

4. Omit unnecessary words.

I know we all heard this in high school, but we weren’t listening. (Mostly because it’s hard.) It’s doubly hard when you’re editing your own writing—we put all that work into getting words onto the page, and by god we need a damned good reason to get rid of them.

Here’s your damned good reason: extra words drain life from your work. The fewer words used to express an idea, the more punch it has. Therefore:

Summer months
Regional level
The entire country
On a daily basis (usually best rewritten to “every day”)
She knew that it was good.
Very
(I just caught one above: four-year-old little girl)

You can nearly always improve sentences by rewriting them in fewer words.

5. Reframe 90% of the passive voice.

French speakers consider an elegantly managed passive voice to be the height of refinement. But here in the good old U.S. (or Australia, Great Britain, etc.), we value action. We do things is inherently more interesting than Things are done by us. Passive voice muddies your writing; when the actor is hidden, the action makes less sense.

Bonus: Use spell-check

There’s no excuse for teh in anything more formal than a Twitter tweet.

Also, “a lot” and “all right” are always spelled as two words. You can trust me, I’m an editor.

Easy reading is damned hard writing.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Comments

  1. James says:

    Great article, very useful. I can use all the help I can get!

    Jamess last blog post..Early 1871 Connecticut Valley Railroad Company Time Table Schedule

  2. Fantastic post! I love the short examples you gave…
    I think it’s worth mentioning Elements of Style, an amazing book worth every pennie…
    Thanks and thumbs up!

    Jon EnlighenYourDays last blog post..The beauty of photography captured in a kiss

  3. Cathy says:

    “Perhaps it’s just Americans on the Internet…”

    Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t judge Americans by Internet comments. I can’t bear to look at anything on YouTube, simply because it’s so horrifying to read the comments and know such cruel, small-minded, and illiterate people own computers (or their parents do).

    “There is, after all, a reason why writers are writers, and editors are editors.”

    I agree with the statement if not the implication that writers are holy artists and editors are somehow lesser mortals who merely aspire to criticize them. Writers are the guy hanging the picture frame, and editors are the helpful friend, standing back a few yards to tell you which way to adjust the picture so that it looks its best. The wise writer acknowledges that pure genius does not flow polished to perfection and sacrosanct from her pen, and is thrilled (if occasionally embarrassed) when a talented, supportive editor makes her look good by polishing away the rough edges that passed unnoticed in the frenzy of creation.

    Feel free to write however you wish and ignore any advice offered by informed, intelligent editors. Then feel free to whine when your egocentric, poetic, obscure, wordy work of heartbreaking genius isn’t published because all those money-grubbing publishers only care about commercial writing that isn’t as beautiful and intelligent as yours. In the meantime, my editor and I can deposit our grubby royalty checks. And laugh at you.

  4. Sonia Simone says:

    I am in love with Cathy. That is all.

  5. Sorry, Diamond; it was a joke or pun.

    The first advice an editor gave me, was to cut my introduction, and instead get straight on with the story.
    He also told me to remember that I am not writing to impress myself, but to make things clear to strangers. Of course, I often forget this when I write on Discussion Boards.

  6. Rashid says:

    There’s one thing that I can’t help with and that is the long sentences. I love to stretch the sentences and have sometimes one sentence in a whole paragraph. I don’t think of it as something not good though.

    Rashids last blog post..Role of Internet as a Gatekeeper

  7. Ned Harkey says:

    Great information! Wish I had known a few of these before writing the last few posts on my blog. I was busy trying to stretch out my sentences to make them more flowery!

    Ned Harkeys last blog post..Brain Bucket Organ Donors…

  8. Uisgea says:

    I’m not an expert on anything, but I am a college English teacher in the US Midwest, and I can tell you that I am really fed up with a few things.

    1. Where’re you at?
    2. People have studied of . . . .
    3. Due to the fact that at that particular point in time . . . .

    And the passive voice drives me absolutely batty.

    I apologize for the inconvience.

  9. Stu says:

    Great advice. It is difficult to be an objective critic of your own work.

    Stus last blog post..Anxiety Disorder Solutions

  10. Lady writer says:

    Many writers follow the above rules. This dried up style is everywhere, from newspaper articles to scientific literature. It’s a good style. As a talentless writer, I can hide behind it and still earn a decent living.

    As a scientist, on the other hand, it drives me nuts that I have to find the relevant information hidden in a 4-word sentence on page 3, just because whoever wrote that paper wanted to respect all the rules of good writing, and, at the same time, make sure the text does not exceed 4 pages. Redundancy is so underrated.

  11. Thank you for the tips. Hopefully I can apply what I’ve learned here. If I’m successful, my blog readers will benefit.

    Cheers

    Photoshop Nuts last blog post..Removing Zits in Photoshop – Blemish Removal

  12. Todd says:

    I really need to focus on not writing content in a passive voice. It helps having people read over my articles before I actually post them.

    Todds last blog post..Why you need a podcast

  13. Not P says:

    “All right” over “Alright” in an “I’m alright” kind of context?

    How very prescriptivist. Even for an editor.

  14. Kaushik says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I write about awakening, which like writing, is utterly simple, but not always easy!

    Kaushiks last blog post..The Second Obstacle – The Search

  15. Sonia Simone says:

    Great point Kaushik!

  16. Transtextuel says:

    “French speakers consider an elegantly managed passive voice to be the height of refinement. ”

    Actually, in ESIT (translation university), teachers warn us against using the passive voice and they show us how to find alternative phrasings. :)

  17. Nestor says:

    But what if you get paid by the word, what then??

  18. Dew says:

    It is important to remember that when protraying a weaker arguement (especially in scientific or any other objective literature) you should use -ing verbs when necessary.

  19. nemo says:

    one of the most civilised set of comments I have ever read on the net.

  20. JR says:

    Great tips! I try to get rid of the passive voice, but my clients put it back in. This gives them “wiggle room” when things don’t work out as planned.
    Here’s a great story about the passive voice from the James C. Humes book “The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill”. (p.219)
    An American general once asked Prime Minister Churchill to look over the draft of an address he had prepared.
    The speech was returned with a note saying, “Too many passives and too many zeds.”
    Later the general asked Churchill to clarify his criticism.
    Churchill replied, ” Too many Latinate polysyllablics like ‘systematize’, ‘prioritize’ and ‘finalize.’
    “And then the passives. What if I had said – instead of ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ – ‘Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter’?”

  21. Dave says:

    Copy editing is two words.

    There’s no such thing as, “copyediting” any more than there is such a thing as a “website.” (It’s two words, also, with Web capped– i.e.: “Web site.”)

    And don’t whine about common usage. Common usage is for the rabble of monkeys out there hooting and hollering about their, “Bling!” and whatever else passes for culture these days. knowhutI’msayin?

  22. Dave B says:

    I’m also a professional copy editor. I agree with your list. Since these are pointers for beginners, I’d also like to see a word on adverbs (or, rather, three: DON’T USE THEM).

  23. Joe H. says:

    The passive voice? I spent a dozen years writing for various pharmaceutical companies. You don’t know what the passive voice is until you’ve written for that business, e.g.:

    “It has been ascertained that the possibility of toxicity may be overstated in reference to certain agents, depending on the validity of the testing methodology in use, but that should not necessarily be considered to encourage their use in situations where evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio might suggest otherwise.”

    Translation: Go ahead and use them if you want; we don’t know if they’re safe either, but our ass is now covered.

    This is why so few novelists spring from the pharmaceutical industry.

  24. Noud says:

    Great article! I enjoyed reading it.

    Keep going.

  25. Max B. says:

    I was taught at school that it was wrong to start a sentence with the words “Speaking as a [former] X …” butspeaking as a former copy editor on British tabloid newspapers and for an American magazine online, I do have some experience of making copy more readable. Sometimes I even got it right.

    So, with that qualification, I’d agree with ALL of your tips except for …

    “She knew that it was good.”

    Sometimes it just works better to leave “that” in: think of it as a form of punctuation. For example: “I was taught at school that it was wrong to start a sentence … ”

    As for writing concisely, I always advise people to imagine that they’ve just bumped into a friend in the street as they dash for a train: how would they get across important information in the limited time at their disposal? Certainly not in the stilted and formal way that most people write, and certainly not leaving all the important information to the very last words of the very last sentence of the very last paragraph.

    What is important to to any trainee reporter is doubly important to anyone writing from the web: get all your most important information into the first three paragraphs, after that most of your readers will have moved on anyway.

    Twitter is a good practice ground for anyone wanting to tighten up their prose: think War and Peace in 140 characters.

    I’m sure it was Oscar Wilde who said: “I sat down to write you a short note, but I didn’t have the time.” In essence, writing concisely (usually) takes more effort and more time.

  26. “1. Sentences can only do one thing at a time.”

    Sentences can do only one thing at a time.

  27. Nestor,
    Kipling, like me, was paid 50p per word. One day, some witty university students wrote to him, enclosing 50p, asking in return for his best word. Kipling wrote back with “Thanks.”

  28. Eddie Gear says:

    Hi there,

    Nice article, I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing it. The aspects to good writing skill vary and you can be a good writer only if you are continuously learning new things that enhance your skills.

    Cheers,
    Eddie Gear

    Eddie Gears last blog post..Monetize your website using BidVertiser

  29. Lex says:

    The passive voice is aristocratic. The active pedantic. Consider your audience.

  30. Thomas says:

    While I agree that writers should keep an eye out for the five things you’ve written about, I have a couple of objections.

    You write that nouns ending in -ing (i.e. gerunds) are fine, but then give a gerund as an example of one that is not fine: “a forum for building consensus”. (“Building” follows a preposition here, so we can treat it as a noun.) The change you make also changes the meaning slightly. The gerund suggests an ongoing, continuous process of building consensus, while the infinitive suggests the consensus will be built only once.

    There are times when the continuous form (past, present or future) is unnecessary, and therefore weak, but there are times when it is necessary.

    “When I arrived, they were eating.” This means that they were in the process of eating.

    “When I arrived, they ate.” This means they waited for me to arrive before they started eating.

    Weakness and strength have nothing to do with it. It’s all about using what is needed when it’s needed.

    Other examples:

    “Give me that letter — I’ll be going by the post office later.”
    “Give me that letter — I’ll go by the post office later.”

    Only the first one expresses the idea that my going by the post office does not depend on whether you give me the letter.

    “I have read that book.”
    “I have been reading that book.”

    Only the continuous form conveys the idea that I haven’t finished it yet.

    The simple form is “stronger” when there is no need for anything more than the simple form. It’s the right choice by default. It’s more direct in narrative, since it conveys a sequence of events:

    “He walked in the room, looked around, and put away his gun.”

    But I am curious to know why the continuous form of a verb is “inherently” weak . To say this is to suggest that the sort of context I’ve been talking about has nothing to do with it. Could you explain this?

    You also say that only 10% of the passive voice should be left in. Which 10% would that be? The justifiably muddied cases? It would be more helpful if you gave examples of when the passive voice is actually serving some purpose instead of giving a bad example of it.

    You tell us not to hide the actor. But ironically, you use the passive voice in the same sentence: “When the actor is hidden, the action makes less sense.” Some people would say that “hidden” is an adjective here, but it’s also grammatically correct to say that this is the passive voice. Few people, I think, would say, “When [someone/a writer] hides the actor…”, so here we have a sentence when the passive voice was necessary, and clear. And here it’s fine because the question of who is hiding the actor is either obvious or of no concern.

    If I write, “The letter was sent by me”, then I’m shooting myself in the foot. (I am thinking of your example, “Things are done by us.”) I’ve started off the sentence as if I were not interested in or didn’t know who had sent the letter, but then decided to tell you anyway.

    My only objections are to how you’ve framed points 3 and 5. No one can argue that unnecessary words are needed, but to say that we should avoid certain tense forms or the passive voice based on inherent principles is to encourage the indiscriminate uprooting of them, and to end up saying things we didn’t mean.

  31. jack says:

    A good editor is rare. I rarely have run into one. I had the opportunity to hire a good editor. During the hiring process, I saw an example of his editing. It bowled me over.

  32. Mary Donnery says:

    I’ve been looking for something like this…very helpful article, thank you!

  33. Michael says:

    Excellent article. I write a lot, and have several books and hundreds of articles under my belt, and your tips are very useful and handy.

    Well posted!

  34. I like the post, and I agree somewhat with Andrew , To be very truthful. Someone on Yahoo Answers referred me here and Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

  35. Slater says:

    Thomas,

    Great post, but I want to comment on one of your examples:

    “He walked in the room, looked around, and put away his gun.”

    I wonder if you meant “He walked into the room.” Walking in a room and walking into a room are two different things. The above structure with the simple preposition “to” implies that he was already inside the room when he started walking, but I believe the intended meaning is that there was no delay between his walking through the doorway (into, not in, the room) and looking around. The proper choice of the compound preposition “into” drives away that ambiguity.

  36. Thomas says:

    I definitely agree with you, Slater.
    .-= Thomas´s last blog ..Stamp — a fiction =-.

  37. Will McNeice says:

    Just wait till you start having to edit articles written in TXT SPK! Who needs vowels anyway?

  38. Nice tips. Thanks for sharing it, i may be writing my own article soon..

  39. mk akan says:

    i am guilty of stretching sentences for the obvious reason of making post lenghty.now i know i need to change that…thanks

  40. Dorothy says:

    A year’s gone by since last comment, but had to say a little something. I always like how Sonia spells out her messages in simple, well organized sentences and paragraphs. And actually has something meaningful to say. But, the most fun in this post came from reading all the comments. Several gave me a good laugh, and others caused me to nod in agreement.

  41. Mika says:

    Excellent stuff. Let’s grab the bull by the hand and watch our mixed metaphors!

  42. One of the best articles I’ve found on editing, so thanks very much. I also mentioned this post on my blog today.
    .-= Moses Siregar III´s last blog ..Passion for Writing: April 12th, 2010 =-.

  43. Bre says:

    I am a 8th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about writing techniques for my English class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information and articles about writing, and let you know about a site we are putting together to help teachers find trusted resources.

    We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, but understand that you are probably busy. I have included a link to the site below in hopes that if you can’t write some resources for us that you can at least link to it, tweet it, or add it to your Facebook profile.

    http://www.thefreeresource.com

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming :)

    Bre Matthews

  44. Marianne says:

    Thank you for this article. I definitely need to remember less words = more! I tend to write as I speak which is a tad babbling. However, I do think it’s a part of my ” voice” yet I don’t want to be redundant. I’ll stop using very. It’s a beginning…

  45. Hi :) Thought provoking post.

    Quote: “When you know that the best word is “prescient,” it’s hard to swallow when an account manager tells you the client won’t know what it means.”
    Hard to swallow, but the account manager is right. For example, a doctor writes a piece about a disease for his patients – he can’t use the same words he would use, if he addressed a medical conference. Every writer should take into consideration his target audience, the background of the people to whom he/she addresses.

    #1 & #2 very good points, if only for the sake to spare the readers of “running out of breath”, when reading a sentence or a paragraph :) . Long sentences & paragraphs, might confuse and tire a reader.

    #4 I agree with your point, but I disagree on some examples provided. Many times words which seem unnecessary are needed for emphasis. In that case, they might become necessary. So I think that before rendering a word as “unnecessary”, one should examine the context as a whole.

    #5 Very good point. I’ll add that other languages profit too from dynamic voice, not only English. It’s about the voice, not the language. I think it has to do with our era. Everything happens at a fast and dynamic pace around us. So communication, oral or written, have to adapt in order to be in step with life’s rhythm.

    Thank you for the very interesting post :)
    Irene Vernardis´s last [type] ..Whose fault is it

  46. Gene Bowker says:

    I think the best suggestion is the one about eliminating wordiness, it is also the one i need to work on most.
    Gene Bowker´s last [type] ..NS Pocahontas 2011

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