Writing clearly and effectively is difficult — in fact, there’s no chance that you’ll get it right the first time….which is why you get to rewrite. Rewriting isn’t about fixing your mistakes, rewriting is about adding excellence. Here’s a three-part plan for doing rewriting right.My buddy Mal Stiefel once said he was never at a loss for words when writing: He just typed in the word “The” and, now that he had something to rewrite, everything after that was easy.
I can’t recommend Mel’s approach but I think he was on the right track: Rewriting is key. I remember, for example, the first time that I wrote anything for money. My first step was to be frozen with panic for two weeks and not write anything until two or three days before my article was due. When I finally typed in my first sentence, I looked at it and thought, “Well, that’s the stupidest thing anyone has ever written in the history of the world.” But I had no choice (the magazine had promised to pay me money, after all) so I had to keep going.
Over the course of many, many rewrites — and no sleep — that sentence (a) got rewritten, (b) was moved to somewhere else, and, (c) eventually, deleted (it really was that bad). But the magazine bought the article and I made some money.
Not much has changed since then.
What has changed is that I’ve gotten better at using the time I spend rewriting: I turn out better work in fewer rewrites. I do that by addressing three key issues: my concept, my design, and my implementation.
If you’ve read some of my other blog posts on holding your audience’s attention you know that I’ve beaten the topic of “holding onto your readers” to death. But those rules about how to hold your audience’s attention also apply when you’re rewriting: You have to focus on what matters to your readers. Therefore, your first step in rewriting is to be ruthless about removing anything that isn’t about what your readers care about. If you want to have any chance at all of holding onto your audience’s attention (let alone changing their minds or getting them to do something) then you need to write about the topics that make sense to your readers and do that in a way they will value.
For example, if you’re talking about some business issue then you might think that you just need to focus on the costs and the benefits. Assuming that’s true, you need to think about what your reader (not you) regards as a benefit: Is it fidelity to your organization’s mission that matters to your readers? How about guaranteeing success for the project? Or ensuring that you’re implementing the most efficient design? Should you focus on keeping costs down or on increasing revenue? Is Public Relations sufficiently important to your organization that focusing on how the public feels about your organization is critical? And, perhaps, your readers don’t care about costs and benefits.
It’s your job to figure out what your readers care about and then write about that and nothing else. As I said: you need to be ruthless about cutting out anything that doesn’t matter to your readers. But you can also exercise your creativity putting in everything that matters to your readers.
Now that you’ve cut your email or blog post or article down to the “right stuff” (what matters to your readers), you should move to making sure that you’ve got the material in the right order.
I begin by asking what, of all the material I’ve written, should I put at the start? What will signal to my reader that this email/blog post/report is about something that matters to them? And, of course, what am I going to close with? How can I sum up the critical points that the reader will find valuable as “takeaways”? When it comes to wrapping up, I always remind myself of the advice I got Melanie Spiller when she was editing a book I wrote: “Sometimes you can just stop writing.” If, at the end, I have nothing to say that will be valuable to my readers then the best thing I can do is shut up. Don’t try to make a final decision about this until after you’ve written most (or all) of your material.
In between, I also need to decide what order will make sense to my readers. There are a couple of ways to think about this but one way I’ve found useful is to consider “What will my reader think is the ‘next obvious question?’ If I keep answering the questions in my reader’s mind, as those questions come up, then I can keep them reading (and, of course, I can influence what that ‘next question’ will be).
In a long, written document, the structure is less important because readers can (and will!) skip around in your document to find what they want…assuming you provide effective headings that stand out from the rest of the text. Even in this scenario, however, you want to make sure that your readers are always skipping forward and not having to backtrack to find what they want.
Finally, now that I’ve got the right stuff in the right order, I look at the words and pictures I’m using. In both of Learning Tree’s technical writing and business writing courses “getting the words right” probably takes up 60% of the course time. However, that’s not because it’s the most important part of rewriting; rather, it reflects how many different things can go wrong when your fingers hit your keys. Obviously, therefore, there’s more material here than I can discuss (though, I’ve discussed some typical problems in other blog posts).
What I can say, though, is that it’s important to recognize that this process is iterative, not sequential. As you work with your content you’ll come to understand better both it and what it means to your audience. As a result, while you may have started to revise your implementation, you may realize that you need to revise your concept or your design. This is why it’s impossible to make a final decision on your beginning and ending until you’ve got most of your material written.
But, regardless of what you’re working on, as you rewrite you should be constantly addressing the three key questions: Is this the right concept for this audience? Is this the right structure for this concept and this audience? And, once you’ve got the right content in the right place, are you doing a good job of implementing this section? If you do that, you’ll get the biggest bang for every buck you spend on rewriting.