Put Your Writing On A Diet: Strategies For Leaner Communication

Put Your Writing On A Diet: Strategies For Leaner Communication

Put Your Writing On A Diet: Strategies For Leaner Communication

Welcome to the third in a series of four articles about the power of editing. In my February 2006 Onwords column Copy Editing in Three and a Half Easy Steps, I offered strategies for quick and easy copy editing. In this article I focus on the power of content editing to create more compelling communications.

Content editing is a process of addition by subtraction. It's no coincidence that edit and diet are spelled with the same letters. Success in either case requires cutting some things and keeping others.

Here are some professional editing tips to help you keep your writing lean and your readers interested.

Eliminate Unnecessary Words

The most important thing to remember when editing is that every word leads the reader. Since people generally want the most direct route, cut every word or sentence that wanders, meanders or leads to a dead end.

Consider this weighty sentence:

I've noticed that one project that I and many other people undertake during the winter months is rededicating themselves to an exercise program for such reasons as to get in shape, improve their health and have a good time.

A bit of editing trims the fatty passage to:

Many people rediscover exercise as a way to get fit and have fun during the winter.

I've retained the key message, but eliminated extra words that make the original sentence feel like a workout.

If you're not sure which are the unnecessary words, look for "I" statements - I've noticed, I and many others, etc. These can often be eliminated without losing the meaning of the sentence.

Cut words that are repetitive or that state something obvious. Winter months becomes winter; exercise program becomes exercise.

Be aware of calorie-dense language. Phrases like in spite of the fact and because of the fact make your writing feel heavy. Substitute although and because to keep your writing lively and your reader engaged.

Use An Active Voice

Active voice means beginning a sentence with the subject rather than the verb; identify the person first, then the action. Instead of saying that a meeting was held or an award was received, say we held a meeting or we received an award.

Active voice is important because our brains automatically create mental images of the words we read or hear. (Don't think of an orange elephant. See what I mean?) It's easier for readers to follow what was done if they know first, who did it.

Which of these statements do you prefer?

A presentation on motivating employees was given by Chris.

Chris gave a presentation on motivating employees.


A resume writing workshop was conducted by our training department

Our training department conducted a resume writing workshop.

I'll wager my orange elephant that you chose the second sentence in each pair. The power of the active voice.

Use Positive Statements

Positive wording prevents confusion. This is especially important if you are trying to make a specific impression or compel your reader to take action. If I write use positive statements, you know exactly what I want you to do. If I write don't use negative statements, I've told you what not to do, but I haven't told you what to do instead.

Don't send press releases to this department leaves me wondering where to send them. Send all press releases to the news department tells me where to send and where not to send my press releases.

I'm not suggesting that all written communication should express a positive sentiment. The sentence that you just read is a negative sentence. What I am suggesting is that you substitute positive wording whenever possible.

Although editing and dieting are alike in some ways, editing is actually much easier than dieting. Dieting requires careful attention to calories, portions, hunger, habits and lifestyle. Editing requires careful attention to only one thing. Your reader.

Subscribe to receive my monthly Onwords™ column, and join me next month for a humorous look at the power of word choice to make or break your written communication.

Copyright © 2006 by Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.