Usually when I sit to write an article I expect to finish it quickly. I have what I consider a useful article and I feel inspired. Yet each article consistently takes one to three hours to write.
I spend most of that time editing. I believe most writers do. So what do I edit besides the stuff everyone does?
I remove judgmental language. Most of the stuff below you might find in Strunk and White, but I rarely see others practicing this rule or the next one and I wish I did. I’ve written extensively on how counterproductive I believe judgment is to improving your life and relationships. I’ve removed a lot of it from my regular speech, but I still try to remove it. The telltale words I look for are
- Ought to
- and a few others.
I don’t mind stating my opinion, so I try to replace things like “that book was bad” with “I didn’t like that book” or “that book said it would convey X but it didn’t.”
Exception: when I make clear the criteria for judgment I’ll judge, as in “if you want to pollute less, a fan will work better than an air conditioner.” Or “exercising regularly will improve your life” — the word improve implicitly defines goodness and badness, but in the case of your life, only your judgment matters, so I presume readers understand I mean “improve by whatever standards you consider relevant.”
Exception: when I believe a statement clearly expresses my opinion, as in “Facebook is creepy, its practices are creepy, and its policies are slippery.”
I try to reduce evaluation and judgment to how it affects the relevant person’s emotion. If something isn’t good, bad, right, wrong, or whatever judgmental term you prefer, how do you evaluate it? If you think someone should do something, what do you convey if not that they should do it?
I believe values emerge from the individual evaluating something and those values stem from the emotions the thing being evaluated evoke. Someone can argue with you if you call something right or wrong, but they can’t as easily if you say you like something or not. So why provoke arguments? Do you think you know absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil? Then why are people disagreeing with you?
Instead of saying you should do something, I prefer to say, “if you want to achieve X goal, doing Y will have the effect you’re looking for” or something like that.
You know how when you learn a spelling or grammar rule everyone gets wrong you notice it everywhere and it grates on you? When I read something judgmental — especially when the writer doesn’t mean to be but the language makes them — I cringe inside. As much as I want to help you improve your life, I hope unintentionally and counterproductively judgmental language starts to affect you the same way.
I try to remove lingo and jargon. I try to write in plain English as much as I can. I don’t like confusing language. I don’t feel I’m particularly smart, but I feel no need to show off my vocabulary or inside knowledge of anything.
I find people use bigger words when they have less to say or know less about something than people who speak in simpler words.
I try to shorten. I don’t think I do enough of this. Everybody tells me I repeat myself too much. I think I’d benefit from an outside editor, but I only write a blog. I look to remove adverbs.
I try to use active words instead of to be and to have. My writing software checks for this too. I try to switch from things like “I am a New Yorker” to “I live in New York” or to include that information elsewhere in context.
I highlight important points. I’m not writing the great American novel here. I expect some readers will skim to see if they want to read in detail while they’re busy at work. So I’m not shooting for literary acclaim. I want readers to improve their abilities to improve their lives by reading what I wrote.
I reorganize. For a long time I would put the most important points at the end. I used to talk that way, probably because in physics, when you present the results of an experiment, you start by pointing out how you did it, how you analyzed your data, what problems could have come up, etc. If you present physics results with the results first, no one will take you seriously. I still feel natural presenting a lot of information that way.
But I think people prefer seeing results first in daily posts so I try to go the other way. Often I start writing results last, then move them forward after I finish.
I also try to put headers in important places. I start with Header 1, then 2 and so on, but I think they’re too big. Sorry about that, but starting with smaller ones creates other problems.
I look for links to old posts, Wikipedia, and related places. I figure people may want to find more if I make it easier. A lot of what I write stems from my Model and Method posts. I don’t know what other people think, but figuring that stuff out improved my life more than anything, making it easy and fun. Maybe regular readers are tired of all the references, but I consider those posts among my most useful for people who want to lead themselves or others.
I reread many times. I reread each post so many times before posting! No matter how many times I’m ready to post, another rereading will reveal a way to improve the post. I know I could improve every post, but at some point I have to get the thing online.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book