“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorised every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity...edit one more time.”
Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 endings to his classic A Farewell To Arms before he was happy with it. The reason he gave for coming up with so many versions: “Getting the words right.”
So, if you’re struggling to write a blog or copy for your website you are in company. Even the best don’t get it right first time.
Writing is difficult and it’s easy to get disheartened when the words aren’t flowing across your screen. I like this quote from American writer Cheryl Stayed: “I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.”
Thinking like this takes the pressure off. Just get words on the page, you can tidy them up later. That tidying up is the key to good writing but how do you go about it?
Here are 6 editing tips to boost your writing. I’ll come up with more in the next few weeks.
- Read what you have written out loud. It’s best if you have an audience for this but even on your own it’s worthwhile (however much it makes you feel like the nutter on the bus). You’ll notice things you’d failed to pick up on a read through such as missing or duplicated words, long sentences that leave you out of breath, and sentences that sound plain wrong. Most of all you will get a sense of the rhythm and tone of what you have written. If it sounds stilted, it will read badly too. Time spent reading your work aloud is rarely wasted.
- Use a good grammar book. I know this suggestion opens me up to ridicule as a grammar Nazi (in fact double ridicule as my poor grammar makes me prone to make mistakes) but I’m with French philosopher Michel de Montaigne on this one: “The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar." The ‘bible’ is The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, which has been in print since 1918. If this is too old fashioned for your taste there are several modern grammar books around that manage to take a lighthearted approach to what is, let’s face it, a rather dry subject. These include My Grammar and I (or Should That Be Me?) by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Or should that be Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoot and Leaves?
- Cut your sentences in half. Not all of them obviously but most people seem to have a morbid fear of full stops. Get over it. One idea per sentence. Full stop. New sentence. Full stop.
- Use simple words. Hemingway was a great one for this. Criticized by William Faulkner for never being known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary he replied: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Simple words make your writing easier to read. That’s the number one prerequisite. Sorry. That’s the number one rule.
- Remove redundant words. ‘Absolutely’ essential, ‘advance’ planning, ‘completely’ destroyed, ‘final’ ultimatum. These are hard to pick up when you are writing but easy to look out for when you read through your work.
- Cut out “just’, “really” and “very”. It’s really amazing but when you just cut them out you very rarely, in fact never, notice they were there. Delete them and your writing is cleaner.
Happy writing, but more importantly, happy editing.