(More) tips for writing well
As an editor, I’ve noticed several
recurring bad habits you heathens would do well to disabuse yourselves of immediately. Almost without exception, these bad habits instantiate themselves as a series of stock phrases and constructions that reflect a lack of focus, a lack of fully developed argument, or the kind of intellectual laziness that sets in as you slog through your first draft.
These things happen,
That’s ok. Editing helps you save yourselves from these offenses before your thoughts hit the world and everyone knows your dirty secrets. but you can edit yourself, and you should. Use the following checklist as a guide to tighten ing up both your words as well as and what you mean.
16 things to check when you edit
Be vicious when you edit. Vicious. Follow these recommendations with zealous fervor. They help your writing say what it should in a way we’ll understand.
1. I think, I’d say, im my opinion, what I’ve found, in my experience… Yeah. We know. You wrote this. These are your thoughts. If they’re not, provide a reference. If they’re yours, the byline is enough to remind us.
2. Delete all adverbs and adjectives unless they’re absolutely, totally, inherently necessary. Each unnecessary word weakens your impact and clarity.
3. Remove prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases are less important than your main point. If it’s not important enough to deserve its own sentence, it’s not important enough to read.
4. Active not passive. Kill “to be” verbs. All of them. Always.
5. Kill -ing words. Restructure your sentence so the -ing is an active verb.
6. Lead with the bottom line up front: BLUF. Then include an example, re-state the bottom line, include an illustration, and when you end restate the bottom line. For every point you make, follow this pattern. That’s bottom line, example, bottom line, another example, and then the bottom line (again).
7. Telegraph and signpost what you will say and why we care. We’re not reading mystery novels. We want to know who died, how, who killed them, and why we care up front. That way, we know why we want to read before we begin.
8. Use clear, informative headers. Cute or artsy might be pleasant on the first read, but when we reference it later, the cute header makes it a pain to find things. What you’re writing is worth going back to, right?
9. Introduce new terminology in the intro. If you’ve created a new term or applied a new phrase to describe something, define it at the beginning, and use the new terminology throughout your writing. Readers need the entirety of your piece to learn and assimilate the new phrasing.
10. Typically, sometimes, often times, usually… Yeah. We know. You don’t have to tell us.
11. Say “you” and “your”. Don’t use nouns when talking about your audience (like “User Experience Practitioners”). And don’t use “one”. Speak to us.
12. Ditch clunky words. Instead of “via”, write “using”. Instead of “upon”, say “on”.
13. Remove cliches and common phrases. Every time you take a common phrase shortcut, you’re telling us it’s not worth our time.
14. Use contractions. Write with proper grammar, and people will read. Write like you talk, and people will listen.
15. No pronouns. Repeat the noun over and over again. If you get tired of that, use synonyms.
16. Delete your best lines. We don’t care about poetry, wit, or slyness. We care about what you want to say.
After you edit…
The finished piece should be so tight, terse, concise, and clear that it’s boring.
Then sand off the rough edges.
Write like you talk. Where the concise feels awkward, add conversational. Where tight lacks nuance, tease details. Where terse is cold, be warm.
The first 16 recommendations remove fluff and force you to think and communicate. Once you’ve finished editing’s intellectual work, go back and make sure you write like you talk. Writing begins a conversation. If we feel like you’re talking to us, we’ll listen.