When we write blog posts, we want them to turn out perfect the first time around. We wish we could produce great articles right out of our stream of consciousness. We wish it could be effortless.
But unfortunately, that’s not the case. According to Ann Handley, writer and CEO of Marketing Profs,
“Brilliance — or anything close to it — comes on the rewrite.”
Great articles come from a combination of writing sloppy sentences, then making those sentences better through lots and LOTS of rewriting. In her book, Everybody Writes, Ann tells us exactly how we can transform those sloppy sentences into something brilliant.
And it all starts with a chainsaw.
Editing By Chainsaw
Before you start tweaking the little details of your piece, you have to look at the big picture. That’s where “editing by chainsaw” comes in.
Editing by chainsaw is the process of ensuring that the sentences and paragraphs you use in your article support your main points and flow together nicely. Ann recommends starting the process by taking a close look at your intro:
Whittle the intro
When you first start writing a piece, it may take a while before you enter into your stride. That’s normal. But, that “warm-up” phase usually leaves you with a bunch of unnecessary information near the start of your piece.
“You might’ve gotten bogged down by setting up an idea with too much introductory explanation, instead of just getting right to it”, Ann says. “If so, remove that introductory text, whittle it down, or (if it’s good) use it elsewhere.”
Slash anything extraneous
When we write about something we’re passionate about, we tend to go off on tangents. We want our readers to know EVERYTHING about our topic, even if it doesn’t necessarily support the main point of the piece.
But that only makes readers exhausted.
So cut anything that doesn’t support or further your argument. Make every sentence and paragraph earn its keep. Be ruthless.
If you save your reader’s time, they’ll thank you later.
Move things around
While reading over your piece, ask yourself:
“Do my sentences and paragraphs belong where they are, or would they serve a better purpose elsewhere?”
This is the part of the rewrite where you fix the “flow” of your writing. It may help to read your writing aloud during this phase.
Once you’ve cleaned up the big picture, it’s time to hang up the chainsaw and bring out the scalpel.
Editing with surgical tools
Editing with surgical tools is the process of fixing the minor details of your piece, things like word choice, transitions, and cadence. Ann recommends starting the process by finding the “fatty” parts of your article:
Trim the bloat and fat
“Are you potentially using far too many words to say things that you can say more concisely?”
Now that’s a terrible sentence.
If you were to remove the words “potentially”, “far”, and “more”, the meaning of the sentence wouldn’t change at all. That’s what Ann means when she mentions “bloated” and “fatty” words.
Shed the obvious
I’m sure you’ve seen phrases like these before:
- “In this article, I’m going to talk about…”, or, “In this post…”
- “To sum things up…”
- “In conclusion…”
- “I’ve always felt that…”
Stay away from those.
Your reader isn’t stupid — if you write clearly, they’re going to know what your article is about, when it starts, and when it concludes. It may make sense to include those phrases for extra clarification, but it’s best to leave it to the reader to piece together.
It’s easy to throw cliches into our writing because they’re embedded in our society’s dialogue. Everyone uses them. But that’s the problem: Everyone uses them.
“Lazy writers use clichés as business platitudes and seem to insert them almost reflexively, without much forethought or intention”, Ann writes. “Their use is often redundant and vacuous — in other words, they don’t add a lot to a discussion.”
So instead of writing other people’s words, stick to writing your own.
Sub in single words for phrases
We don’t realise it, but a lot of the phrases we use in our writing can be significantly shortened without losing any meaning. Phrases like…
- “Despite the fact that” can change to “Although”.
- “When it comes to” can change to “when”.
- “There will be times when” can change to “when” or “at times”.
- “Continues to be” can change to “remains”.
- “In regard to” can change to “about” or “regarding”.
I know, most of those are similar. But it’s important that you still remove them — the added effect of drawn-out phrases can put a huge strain on your reader.
Ditch unnecessary adverbs
Adverbs, according to Ann, are words that “describe more fully what’s going on with the words around it.” They usually in end with an -ly (like the word at the beginning of this sentence).
Adverbs can be an awesome tool when used correctly. But they frequently aren’t.
As a general rule, Ann recommends cutting adverbs that don’t significantly alter the meaning of the word that follows it. For instance, in my previous sentence, I used the adverb “significantly” to describe the degree of the word “alter”.
There’s a big difference between “altering” something and “significantly” altering something.
But on the other hand, telling your readers that your “grandma’s crepes are truly spectacular” is unnecessary — “truly spectacular” and “spectacular” mean the same thing.
Transitions are what keep your reader’s attention locked on whatever you’ve written.
They help with the flow and cadence of your writing, they guide your reader from paragraph to paragraph, and they show your reader that you care about their experience. They’re awesome. But here’s the thing:
Many writers never move past the transitions that they learned 10 years ago.
Words like “however”, “thus”, and “therefore” plague articles all over the internet. Those transitions, however, suck. When we read them, we’re reminded of the time when we had to use them for our midterm papers in 10th grade English class.
So instead of inducing repressed memories, you can create transitions by building onto the ideas you present in your previous paragraphs. To do this, Ann suggests thinking of writing like an elderly couple:
“[Elderly couples] don’t talk over each other; they expand or elucidate what the other before them said.”
That’s what your writing should mimic.
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