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Quick Edit Tips

by Lester Stephenson

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Technical writers need a quick way to proof and edit their work to meet a looming deadline. Here are four tips and techniques for quick and accurate editing that work.

Writing Too Much

I learned this tip early in my writing career. A local business publication gave me a writing assignment on a topic that I knew quite a bit about. With minimal research required, I sat down to write. In a couple hours, I had 1500 words or so. One problem, the editor wanted no more than 1200. I had worked with her before and knew she was a stickler for word length—1200 did not mean 1201.

I began to cut. What I found was amazing. Many fine sentences had words and phrases that were unnecessary. There were places I had used twenty words when ten or twelve would do—and sound better. At about 1250 words I could read the article with pride. It was pretty good writing, clear and concise with an economy of words. And, all of my major points were intact. Still, it was not 1200, more had to go.

Rereading the editor’s guidelines, I discovered a major point (important only to me, not the editor) that could come out. Delete! Now 1210 words. At this point, I had to remind myself, this is supposed to be a short article, not a tech manual explaining every detail surrounding the inner workings of a complex machine. That reminder made it easy to find and remove some more superfluous detail on the remaining key points.

The final product was about 1190 words. As a rookie writer, I outdid myself. It was good writing!

A final note: I did not actually delete anything. I cut and pasted it into a separate document. I reworked it and submitted it along with the document. The editor used it as a sidebar.

Hiding the Original Draft

This one I discovered by accident—a power failure when I had not been saving my work often enough. A page and a half of an important report (everything is important) disappeared into a bottomless digital pit. Of course, it was among my best work ever, catchy intro and well laid out points, followed by a dynamic conclusion that would propel anyone to action…gone forever.

There was nothing to do but start over. I can do this, no problem, I did it once already. Struggling to remember every word in the lost document, I began to type. It quickly became obvious I couldn’t remember the exact words. Still, I knew the idea, after all, I’d done my research. I typed and saved. I typed and saved. It was done—again and saved. Time to proof read.

Oh no! The rewrite is less than a page. What did I leave out? Quickly reading through the report I can’t find anything missing. I read it again, making minor adjustments as I go. Whew! It’s all there, but why is it so short?

A first draft requires thought, research, fumbling starts and stops, but finally, it is done. On a first draft, we don’t always know exactly what we are writing. It takes longer because we have to refer to notes, think deeply about the material, and put a lot of effort into crafting the text. Words don’t always flow smoothly so we often use more words and write longer than necessary.

That first draft is stuck somewhere in the brain. Upon writing the report the second time, it was all there. I was able to effortlessly write concise sentences and cogent thoughts. Why? My mind knew the material much better than the first time. I was already organized and the rewrite was easier.

Of course, this only works for short pieces or small portions of larger works. Nevertheless, when having difficulty making sense of a topic, hide the draft and start over. You will be amazed at the improvement in quality.

The Perfect Sentence that Doesn’t Fit

Every now and then we write a sentence, or two sentences, that shout Pulitzer Prize. Hemmingway would be proud. Mark Twain would be jealous. Edith Wharton would be envious. The problem is it doesn’t fit the text unless altered significantly, and, you are not going to do that. It’s too perfect. So you rewrite the paragraph around that great literary masterpiece of a sentence—but it will not work. Deep down, you know you should delete and move on—but you can’t. What to do?

Here is where the computer becomes your friend. Cut, not delete, that perfect sentence. Go to the end of your article, space down nine or ten lines, and paste it in. Now you have safely stored it nearby so you can use it at the appropriate time. Go back to the uncooperative paragraph and make it the best, on topic, forceful, convincing, and clear piece of writing you can.

Upon finishing the article, scroll down to the end and read your perfect sentence. Read it two or three times. Go back and see where it will fit—it almost never will. Read it again. Congratulate yourself on being the best Scrivener the Pulitzer committee doesn’t know. Then delete it. When comparing your world class sentence with your quality finished product and you accept that it isn’t necessary, it is much easier to delete.

Always Read from the Beginning When Returning to the Work

When returning to work on a large project do not pick up where you left off. Instead, begin reading from the beginning. There are a couple of reason why this is beneficial. It serves as a review to get your mind around the project and focuses you on the progress of your writing. The most carefully thought out draft has flaws. By reading from the beginning it becomes obvious when key foundational ideas are missing. Also, it exposes items that are out of order, reveals missing material, and illuminates text that makes no sense.

Perhaps the best benefit is more cerebral. You have spent time on the project and it is residing in your memory. You have an organization plan in mind. Reading from the beginning will quickly reveal how well you have met your objective.

Make corrections as you reread or highlight troublesome areas so you can find and fix them later.

This tip works best for small projects. It may be too cumbersome for a lengthy book, but is still a valuable technique for chapters, major sections, and sub-sections.

These four tips help the writer to focus, organize, and tighten the text. By the way, I used three of these tips in writing this article. I didn’t hide the original draft, and there was no power failure.

About the author

Lester Stephenson is a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer.  He served on six ships and a patrol plane squadron in the electronics field.  After his Navy service, he worked eleven years as a trainer and tech writer for a packaging machine company.  Then he founded Stephenson Services LLC where he provides tech writing and training services to business and industry as well as teaching manufacturing and industrial maintenance courses at two nearby colleges. Lester can be reached through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com.

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