Many people (including us) have written about how bad corporate writing often is, and the pitfalls to avoid. But if a poor draft lands on your desk, how do you fix it?
There are three levels of intervention:
- Restructuring – moving stuff around
- Line-editing – improving flow and readability by fine-tuning vocabulary and sentence structure
- Copy-editing – fixing grammatical and other errors, and checking facts
So, the first thing to decide is at what level you will intervene (or, as authors may call it, interfere). Let’s talk a bit about each level as it applies to a typical business article.
When you’re going to move stuff around, you begin at the beginning.
Make sure the lead (the first couple of hundred words) clearly states the problem or issue the article will address and tells the reader what is in it for them if they read it – the return on the investment of their time. If the problem or ROI statement is too far from the beginning of the article, move it up to the lead. For an example of a lead that does this, see the section above!
Then, improve the example-to-theory ratio. If a piece is mostly theory with few (or no) examples or data, there is not a lot you can do without finding more material. An executive once said to me, “If the examples are good, I don’t need the authors’ framework, I can figure out the lessons myself. But if it’s all theory, I have no way to tell if they are right or not.” If you’re fortunate enough to have an article with both theory and examples, consider pruning the theory to emphasize the examples.
If there is a Conclusion section at the end that summarizes (or repeats) what the article has just said, consider cutting it. Smart readers will skip it anyway. If you can insert a “Call to action” – i.e., what the reader should do Monday morning with the information she’s just absorbed, or a little parting joke (often called a “kicker”), do that instead. Otherwise, don’t worry about endings; they are not as important as many imagine and most articles don’t need them.
The job of a line editor is to turn draft copy into something someone would like to read. This can be a slog if the material is turgid, or a pleasure if the writing is already sprightly.
When line editing, you’re trying to:
Make it active. “The CIO collected his team.” Not “The IT team was collected.”
Shorten sentences, and vary their lengths. It’s hard work to read sentence after complicated sentence, each packed with a multitude of ideas, written by authors who don’t realize they should break long sentences into shorter ones, simultaneously varying the sentence lengths to fend off monotony.
See what I mean?
Try a few sentences (or paragraphs) of just a few words, such as, “See what I mean?” or “So, then what?” You may be surprised at how more interesting an article becomes.
Delete redundant words. George Orwell advised that “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” (Better put as, “If you can cut a word out, do so.”) Mark Twain did better with “Eschew surplusage,” though his words are a little 19th century.
Use the right words. A commonly used word is much better than a buzzword. For example, you might read a sentence that says, “Company X is driving the adoption of standard Y.” Do you speak to your friends that way? (If you do, stop.) Instead of the over-used and somewhat vague “driving,” there are a whole lot of perfectly appropriate, hearty, and commonly-used English gerunds such as leading, encouraging, pushing, or promoting that will do a better job. If you’re stumped, Word has a thesaurus to help you find a good one.
Avoid any word or phrase in fashion. Curate, across (e.g., industries or functions), silos, shift, impact, ecosystem, space (as in the retail space), digital disruption, key, evolve (as a transitive verb), drive, and a hundred others have all become white noise to readers’ ears. Because readers are battered by these words in almost everything they read, and because they are all vague (saving the author the trouble of figuring out what he really wants to say), they cause readers to slip into a coma. That’s not what you want.
Replace long words with shorter ones. Long (often Latin-derived words) might impress the author’s mother (who will likely never read them), or her now-retired English professor, but they are just one more way to tax readers’ brains and put them to sleep. Instead of transformation, try change. Instead of perspective, try view. Instead of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, try good.
OK, so then what?
We copy-edit last to eliminate errors. While line editing is an art, copy editing is a science, and it requires someone trained for it.
You can only copy edit against an agreed standard such as the Associated Press or your company’s own style guide. Without an accepted baseline, we don’t know if we are allowed to split an infinitive. Several of our clients have style guides that are 200 pages long. Mere mortals such as I do not have the attention span to check a 10,000-word report against the rules in a 200-page style guide that covers among a thousand other things, serial commas, the capitalization of sub-headings, and when to use a semi-colon instead of an m-dash. These matters are better left to professionals. Many large companies have in-house proofers who know their house style. Otherwise, there are excellent freelance proofers who memorize style guides for fun. Really. (That last is a one-word sentence that’s an adverb. Quite unnecessary, but serves to emphasize.)
If you want to copy-edit yourself, you can cover most bases quickly and effectively with automated proofing tools. In Word, go to File, Options, Proofing and turn on all the checks you can find. Or subscribe to Grammarly. For around $10 a month, it will save you from most mistakes. But for the time being, it still takes a human being to fact-check an executive’s title.
Do you still want to edit? Of course you do. Have fun!
(And that’s a kicker, not a conclusion).