Cutting the Fat: Trimming Flabby Writing
Writers and editors often have to trim writing. The reasons vary – but it’s almost always hard work and takes newcomers way too long. Word trimmers hunt redundancies, make verbs active, and prune phrases. These are all very useful tactics, but they don’t often trim the text by much. If you have to really cut the fat – or want to know how a pro does it — let me show you my technique:
- Take a step back from the writing – put it away for an hour or a night or during a walk to the water cooler.
- Mentally review the answers to the What? Who? Why? How? Where? questions. (See Services for more about these questions.)
- Reread any written feedback.
- Print out a hard copy of the text.
- Bring out the machete—well, the highlighter. Use the techniques in “How to Cut” below.
- Only after you have cut out the big chunks of fat, move on to trimming. You likely know the routine already – change “At this point in time” to “Now”, check all passive verbs, and so on.
How to Cut
- Use the highlighter to mark all key ideas and sentences on the hard copy.
- Then, about each paragraph and sentence, ask whether it serves the goals of the writing? repeats a previous point? wanders off-topic? really pulls its weight?
- Go back to the What? Who? Why? How? Where? answers to use as criteria for what stays and what goes.
- Mark Xs through anything that is not really working for the piece—and I mean “the piece,” not the person writing or editing the piece. (If these are your precious words, steel yourself to “kill all your darlings”—as Thornton Wilder would say—but console yourself that any darling phrases that do not serve today’s needs might serve another day.)
- Take an extra look at the first 10% of the draft – in first drafts, this is where most writers are still working up to their subject, stretching their muscles before the big run. Try cutting out (with your highlighter) the first paragraph or two or three or four.
- Cut, cut, cut. Cut some more.
- Ask the obvious—for example:
- If it’s an internal business report, ask whether you need to explain your company to the reader.
- If it’s instructions, ask if the history of the device should take precious space from how to use it.
- If it’s a novel, ask if a chapter about a secondary character’s cat really serves the story. When in doubt, cut the cat and read to see if the reader will miss the cat.
Brevity, Clarity, Compassion: 3 Goals for Any Communication
As writers and speakers, bloggers and bosses, we often hear that we should “keep it short” and “KISS – Keep it simple, stupid.” However, here’s an alternative: keep it brief, make it clear, be compassionate. These 3 goals work together to create powerful communications.
Off-the-cuff presentations or speeches, and unedited writings, are often long-winded and unfocussed—the “brain dumps” that serve no one. The audience is left wondering “What are you getting at?” “So…?” and “What do you want? from whom? by when?” The KISS alternatives can become barked orders that get underlings running in circles or opaque haiku trashed in a second.
Questions for Brevity, Clarity, Compassion
Reviewing your thoughts or notes or drafts with the questions “How can I make this briefer?” and “What’s the point?” will help you become clearer. Highlighting notes for the key points will help you refine your communication to get to the point faster and better. However, asking “Is this clear FOR my audience? Why or why not?” “Does it talk DOWN to them?” “Does it simply talk AT them?” “Do they have the background knowledge to make sense of this?” “Why does this matter for the audience?” and “What action do I want the audience to take and how can I help that happen?” are all questions that will help you connect with your audience—in other words, communicate WITH them, taking their needs into account as well as your own. I call this communicating compassionately.
Compassion is sympathetic. In communication, compassion is not false sweetness or manipulating platitudes. Compassion in communication answers the audience’s questions: “What’s in it for me?” “Why should I care?” and “Why does this matter more than the 1000 other things needing attention now?” Adding compassion to brevity and clarity can add words, but makes for a clear, targeted, results-oriented communication.