Kady Potter

12 October 2015

Just a minute! (the editor’s version)

There is a reason that I describe myself as a copywriter and not an editor. I (obviously) check my own work regularly, and the most prolific copywriting advice out there is to read everything in sight. That said, I generally prefer the writing bit to the reading bit.

StopwatchI’ve been doing a lot more proofreading and editing than usual recently.

Spending a few days a week doing nothing but read and rework other writers’ copy has been a proper eye-opener, if you’ll pardon the joke.

It might be that I’m only reading copy for one project, but the same issues are coming up again and again.

Conveniently for the purposes of this article, the aforementioned proofreading problems sound just like the things you’re not allowed to do on classic radio show Just a Minute.

So let’s start the clock.

Hesitation – expect severe delays

Ever worked with a style guide that included a maximum sentence length? I’ve used a few in my time. Some of them are pretty strict – ten words or fewer per sentence. Like the quick basket-only aisle at the supermarket. The toughest ones want front-loaded sentences, in which the first three words should contain the most important information.

It’s tricky, but undeniably effective. In the never-ending quest to meet the word count, it still amazes me how long it takes some people to get to the point. I can be ten words into a sentence and be yet to learn anything about the product or service being described.

Don’t get me wrong. Some sentences need to be longer. Short isn’t always best. And that’s from a short woman. These sentences just plod along. Thud. Thud. Thud.

But at the same time, if I were to make every sentence in this blog post as long – if not longer – than this sentence is, then you’d probably already be bored and nodding off by now and the point that I was intending to make right at the end of this line would never get read by anybody.

Balance is key. (See, those are three important words.) The sentence can be long, but introduce the idea, feature or benefit early. And if the client’s asked for ‘active voice, not passive voice’ then don’t ignore that.

Repetition – everything is ‘awesome’

I’ve found that relatively new writers will do one of two things with their adjectives. They’ll either use as inappropriate yet impressive a word as possible, or they’ll cling to the same five descriptive words like a sinking raft.
Neither of those approaches works in the long term.

Most of the rewriting I do is switching out an overused, awkward or frankly bizarre word or phrase for something else. This is particularly important to do in big batches of copy.

Not every product can be ‘ideally suited to a variety of uses’, for example. It’s unimaginative, doesn’t tell the reader much, and for online copy it’s not good for SEO.

The writer isn’t always at fault here, though. The client can say “I don’t like that word.” for pretty much any reason. Maybe their arch-nemesis used that word last week while doing something mean. Nobody ever puts that in the style guide. ‘Avoid colloquialisms and anything ever uttered by Steve.’ What if you’ve never met Steve?

Having the confidence to make the call on which word to use just comes with time. It sucks to hear that, I know. If you don’t feel like you have the authority to make a decision on that one uncertain adjective, trust that you eventually will.

Deviation – where am I? What year is this?

Imagine a sentence. Go on, I know you have to do that all day but indulge me.

In the very middle of this sentence, there is a comma. It sits there, unmoving, like a security guard in a hi-vis jacket. The bits of the sentence before and after the comma do not link to each other. There is no logical connection between them, no matter how you look at it.

Cue total panic. Not even a semicolon can save this disastrous coupling.

The ‘one idea per sentence’ rule can feel basic but it does keep things simple. It amazes me how people can get so befuddled between the start of a sentence and the end. Like a marathon runner who misses a signpost, their intentions were good – but somewhere en route they sadly lost their way.

I’ve started using that pesky comma as a line to snip through. Most of the time, that one confused sentence will work better as two.

Time’s up

The sheer volume of the copy I’ve been reading means there isn’t time to dissect every paragraph like it’s a dead frog. I have to make snap decisions on each word. Even so, in the vast majority of cases my quick edit is functionally better than the clunky phrasing that was laboured over for far longer than necessary.

If you recognise any of the above writing styles in yourself, you might well be overthinking your copy. That doesn’t make you a terrible writer. Spending time on your work is not a bad thing in itself. (And we don’t want to put our beloved editors and proofreaders out of a job, now do we…) Learning when to stop is often what makes the difference.

What do you think?

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