Cut the Crap and Write Better Now

image of two sheep

Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think.

If you want to ‘get in touch with your feelings,’ fine — talk to yourself; we all do.

But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts.

Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce.

The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts.

~ William Safire

That’s one of the best quotes about the craft of writing that I’ve ever read, particularly that deceptively simple final line. But then, it’s always the simple stuff that trips us up when we think we’ve got it covered.

Why is cutting out the crap in our writing so difficult?

More importantly, how do we do it? Let’s take a look …

Writing is a mind meld

You already know you should be writing to just one person, right?

If you’re, say, the Pope, feel free to pontificate (the verb was named for you, after all) and address the masses with all the eloquent turns of phrase you can manage.

Assuming you’re not a major religious figure, just write to me, your one, single reader. Even if you have a massive audience, your work is being read by one person at a time.

It’s nice to think that crowds are huddled around a computer screen raising a toast to our just-published post, but that doesn’t happen. Not even to Brian Clark. :-)

In order to communicate with this single reader, you’ve got to organize your thoughts before you send them on the journey from your mind to your reader’s mind.

The act of writing forces you to do this.

Determining your message, ordering its presentation, and refining it until it’s crystal clear all help to facilitate the trip.

Aim your pen

Aim your writing pen at the goal you’re trying to accomplish. Your objective will determine the path it takes.

Do you plan to persuade, or instruct?

Why not do both? Even learners need to be convinced your instruction is worth spending time to consume.

Do you want to discover something new?

The research and organized thinking needed to produce effective writing are a great way to expand your own knowledge. That’s why the Latin proverb says, “By teaching you will understand.”

Do you want to seduce and convince?

Use ancient techniques to persuade with the 1-2 punch of logic and emotion.

Establish your authority, provide proof in the form of testimonials, and weave it all into a compelling story line.

Think you’re done? Now … cut the crap

You have it, I have it, we all have it. Crap happens.

Every piece of writing starts out suffering from excessive verbiage, woolly thinking, and confusing tangents.

And that’s ok. Write everything down, crap and all. Then cut out the confusing parts. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Editing your writing by removing unclear, ambiguous or overly-complex phrases polishes it up and makes it shine.

Remember, using more words doesn’t make your writing better.

You’ll hold your reader’s interest if every word justifies its existence in your post by adding meaning and moving your reader closer to your point.

William Safire calls this “the secret way” to lend order to your writing so your message reaches your reader intact. But it’s not a secret any more, is it?

Want to keep these concepts in mind as you write?

Download a nifty printable version of the William Safire quote here. Perfect for taping above your computer screen.

About the Author: Pamela Wilson helps small businesses build big brands with great design and marketing at Big Brand System. Get her free Design 101 e-course here.

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  1. hey Pamela, you really cut through the clutter with this post . Congratulations! :)

    P.S. Since we’re on a copywriting blog, does you or somebody else know of a good WP editor that enables copy-paste the content from Word straight into WordPress, with all the boldings, and editing functions?

    I find it super time consuming to go back and edit or include background colors on some key phrases. I use tinyMCE plugin, but looking for other/better solutions. Thank you.

    • Hi Codrut,

      I’ll let someone else answer your question: I’m not sure about that one!

    • Codrut:

      There is a icon on WordPress posts, which is used to strip the Microsoft formatting from Word. Not sure if that’s what you are looking for.

      Pam:

      As Niki says, “just do it.” When I spend many years taking creative writing courses at the College of DuPage – there was one element to success – just write each day.

      You did cover persuasion. But the key to good writing is editing and rewriting, based on feedback. It’s another thing that COD taught me.

      Good food for thought in your post today.

      Randy

      • Thank you Randy, I tried that icon, and it looks like not caring on background color text for example, or font seize.

        Still looking for alternatives/plugins.

        • Why don’t you write \straight in WordPress using the blue toggle button somewhere on your right in the toolbar. I used to write in Word and had the same problem. Don’t do anymore.

        • Copying and pasting directly from Word can create issues with the way it displays online — and could also damage your RSS. Word inserts strange formatting, which can display oddly on a web page and sometimes even prevent your RSS feed from being valid. I agree wholeheartedly with Ivin, but if you absolutely insist on writing in Word, use the icon that Randy Kemp suggested, as it pastes the Word text as plain text. You will have to go back and format your bolds and italics, but you will never run into any issues.

          Really, it’s just easier to write in WP. Besides, you can then edit your posts from any computer during your writing process! (:

          • Hey. Why not try just using Open Office and outputting it as an Open Office document? Then just cut and insert it using the WordPress Word Icon I mentioned? Open Office is free and Oracle is behind it.

          • My only caveat is that if you’re writing in WP, you can lose your work if you have a server burp. I compose in any text or WP program, then paste in as plain text.

            I’ll edit in WP but not compose, I’ve lost too much work that way. (Major sad face.)

          • I have been blogging for years and always use the platform editor. Even with occasional connection issues I have never lost a single post. The editor doesn’t have a lot of features, but if you use Firefox, it will highlight any spelling issues, and you can always use Google in another tab to check correct spellings. If you want to insert links into a post, the platform editor will do that easy, and you can check them right away to make sure they work.

      • In wp 3.1 I have been able to post from word directly into the post editor. Then just switch to HTML and delete the formatting from the top. All should be good.

    • You could try to save your Word doc in RTF, close, reopen the file, and paste.

  2. The best thing you wrote in this post is writing to a single person. This makes the writing not only easier, but more productive in terms of converting readers into long term fans.

    Always remember to write to a particular audience of one person and try your best to get into their head and speak directly to them.

    • I’ve never heard of this writing to only one person idea. It makes perfect sense as there will only be one person reading your blog post at a time. In the past, I’ve thought about all my readers while writing. I’m definitely going to change that. :)

      • I can say from experience that it will make a bigger difference than you might think. I’ve found in my own analytics that under-performing posts are generally written to my audience, while the best performing posts read like a personal letter. It’s rare that the rule doesn’t apply :-)

        • That’s really interesting, Daniel. I think I’ll revisit my analytics from the “personable posts” angle to see if that’s true for me, too.

          I tend to write that way naturally, but I’ll bet I can find some examples where I’ve strayed from my own rule and taken a preachy tone. Thanks for the tip!

          • To quote John Steinbeck (always an excellent writing role model): “The reason I write to Alicia [then the editor of a New York newspaper], is that it gives me a focal point, a person to address. I can’t write to everybody. You end up writing to nobody.”

  3. Good advice, but it’s harder to write less, than it is to write more. Editing is the hardest part. I hate that part.

    • I agree Conrad: it is harder to write less. But the result is worth it if you end up with a piece that’s read all the way through by more people, don’t you think?

    • Conrad, I’m the opposite. I love editing, but hate the first draft.

      Pamela, I’m definitely printing out that quote and worksheet. Thanks! It’s beautiful.

    • 90% of the editing we do with CB posts is trimming, then trimming again, then trimming again, then trimming again. Word by word.

      To me it’s sort of like woodworking or knitting — I have to pay attention to what I’m doing, but it’s more craft than art. And I enjoy seeing the final version emerge. Drafting is the hard part for me.

      • Pamela Wilson :

        Michaelangelo said when he looked at a piece of marble he knew there was a figure inside, and just had to remove the excess stone to reveal it. So even he knew about cutting the crap! ;-)

      • Sonia, I’d love to see an example of the changes that go from draft to draft here at Copyblogger. It would be a killer lesson to be able to see the evolution.

    • Editing to cut something down is my worst enemy, but someone gave me awesome advice regarding editing fiction once, and I think it easily applies to copywriting as well: Remove one unnecessary word from each sentence. When you’re done, go back and do it again, and again, until you have the most concise piece possible.

      • Oooh, that’s a great idea, Elizabeth! It’s easier to commit to editing out a word at a time than whole paragraphs. Sounds like a good way to trim in baby steps. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I’m working on writing more concisely. The times I feel most successful is when I write a post, then I go back and delete about half of it. Then I go back and delete some more. Glad I now know that “cutting the crap” is the technical term.

  5. Wait a minute. What is crap? Crap is every sentence, or paragraph you write that isn’t awesome.

    Yes, if you want to win you need to be awesome. Therefore, cut the crap. All of it! (even if you have nothing left)

  6. I am constantly trying to cut out the crap and your post is a great reminder that it’s OK if my first draft isn’t brilliant. It’s the crap cutting that makes me a better communicator. I’ll continue to cut and re-cut.

  7. Good advice!

  8. Cutting the crap is the hardest thing ’cause we all think we are literary genius’.

  9. I love this picture. Great post, too.

    The single most important aspect of writing is re-writing. That means you need to cut the crap.

    Thanks!

    Joseph

  10. Picture appreciated.

  11. Excellent reminder. And yes – as the Queen of Loquacious, I’d be in deep doodoo if I couldn’t start off blathering from the hip, peppered with most every blessed four-syllable adjective and adverb (not to mention a boatload of parenthetical phrases) in the English language. Ah but fortunately, like Marlene – I ADORE editing. It’s like sculpting a Rodin for goodness sake. Scraping away whole paragraphs and whittling/tweaking every word.

    That is not to say I get it even close to “right” every time (nor that I don’t get frustrated with the tediousness of the process), but it’s a joy to watch the “crap” fall away, and the very essence of what I’m trying to convey emerge.

  12. Cutting the crap is one of the most painful pieces of writing. I want to apologize to every word, every letter, that I remove from a post. I convince myself that I need those extra words, that they are “part” of the post. I honestly feel bad when I edit. But, it has to be done, and so I do it….but not without a little suffering.

    • A sneaky way that crap can get it that hasn’t really been mentioned yet is jargon. When you are really familiar with or really good at your topic, it’s easy to throw around industry specific words with hardly a second thought.

      The problem can be that if you’re writing to people with less experience than you, or complete newcomers, they’re going to get really lost really quickly. If you are explaining the term, obviously you need to use it. However, if you’ve just loaded down your piece with insider language, “geek speak” or your industry’s equivalent, take another look to see if you can rephrase in a way that your readers will truly comprehend and benefit from.

      BTW, this whole concept is great if you’re writing a book too!

  13. I should probably read this post everyday as a gentle reminder. Your rule can also be applied to speech…regular conversation.

    I have a question about the photo. Pamela, did you use the photo because sheep really are the least annoying with regard to your topic? That is, their “crap” is really minimal as compared to others. I raised sheep, pigs, a Jersey cow…had wild ducks, etc. Never had trouble getting someone to “muck” the sheep stall(s) and no one ever complained about stepping in sheep “crap”.

    Love the photo!

    Judy

  14. Ray Bradbury once said something to the effect that he wasn’t a good writer, he was a good re-writer. Now, if that ain’t the truth about pretty much any writer or artist out there!

    Excellent, crap-free article.
    Thanks, Pam!

    Peter

  15. Pamela, I loved this post. Crap cutting is my addiction.

    You know, someone should start a site to help people hack the flab from their writing. ;)

  16. Editing is such a lost art on the Internet. Everyone seems so focused on creating large quantities of content that they forget that if their content is not of high-enough quality, they will lose. It definitely takes more time to go over all your work with a fine-tooth comb, but if you don’t, all that hard work will have been for nothing! It can be a very painful lesson to learn.

    • My theory is that since people don’t have to pay for extra paper and ink when their writing goes long here on the Internet, there’s no motivation to trim it down.

      But reading on the web is so different than reading on paper. People tend to skim when they read on screen.

      Editing all but the best parts of your writing makes for a piece that will hold readers’ attention. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

  17. “You already know you should be writing to just one person, right?”

    Well, I do now!

    I think I write in this fashion, but I will certainly have a focused method of writing in the future. Thanks for that.

    Without mentioning either of these two words, this article screams concise and confidence… Two things that can only be gained by consistently attempting to do this in your writing and improving over time.

    Practice makes perfect and thank you for these tips Pamela, much appreciated : )

  18. Another deceptively simple piece of advice is “start at the beginning and stop at the end.” So many people make assumptions about the topic they’re writing, they unwittingly start in what might really be the middle, expecting the reader to fill in any blanks and follow sometimes obscure logic. Likewise, some writers spend so much time filling the page with prose, they lose track of how to end the thing. Nail a strong conclusion. If you expect a response, finish with a clear call-to-action.

  19. Cool!

    Will keep that in mind. :)

  20. Excellent post, with some good advice. You might consider adding something about planning. You wouldn’t write a dissertation without doing some research and making an outline. Sure, it’s great to just start writing and see a bunch of words, but you have to consider what those words mean to the reader. Good writing that conveys useful information is a lot of work, and a good portion of that work happens before the actual composition of the piece. I need to work on this myself when writing informative articles. If you have no good points in your original work, when you go to cutting, there will be nothing left.

  21. Patrick Vuleta :

    You can avoid much of the problem by not writing freehand. If you have a tight structure which is progressively built up, much of the extraneous material doesn’t even get in.

  22. We agree that your advice is profound and an opportunity to reflect on our craft, but understand that we are humans and see no reason why a verbose blog post is not interesting to your readers too.

    By the way, I have fond memories of reading William Safire’s column in the New York Times Magazine every Sunday morning… and laughing. He was brilliant.

    • Patrick Vuleta :

      Well, that comes down to knowing your readers. I need to respect that my readers are busy professionals who have 10 things to do other than reading my stuff. So I’m not going to go off on tangents.

      Yet brevity should never come at the cost of voice, which is where I think your Safire example comes from. I’d never write ‘Seven ways to be more boring with list posts’ because that’s just information overload which wouldn’t cut through the other things on the minds of my readers.

      It’s a line you need to draw, and I find ruthlessly culling words until only my intended voice is there is the best way to do it.

  23. I suffer from excessive crapage on occasion. This is a good reminder. I’m going to try the ‘cut the confusing parts’ tip on my next blog. thanks!

  24. Melissa Davis :

    Fabulous post. I remember a seasoned journalist telling me years ago that you have to ‘slaughter your darlings’, but did I listen? Sometimes. Thanks for the reality check and my new mantra … less is more aka cut the crap.

  25. Thanks for this reminder! Being concise is one of the basic things I had to learn as a student journalist.
    I would like to add one advice I clearly remember: Never fall in love with your work. Otherwise, it’s going to be really tough to cut out the unnecessary parts.

    P.S. I love Copyblogger! Keep it up! :)

  26. I’m doing A LOT of this lately. How much crap should there be ? MMM!

  27. I have heard from a few reliable sources that when you being to write, write down everything that comes into your mind. Then go back through, sort it out, and edit as necessary and “polish” it up.

    This is a great article, and I really like adding the Safire quote as a printable. Nice touch!

  28. I really liked this article. I’m not really a writer, struggle with words, have the blank canvas phobia.
    This sentence really popped out at me. And helped. Thanks

    >>>Aim your writing pen at the goal you’re trying to accomplish. Your objective will determine the path it takes.

  29. Writing to a single person. This makes the writing not only easier, but more productive. This makes a lot of sense when writing..you are not presenting to a team of CEO’s, you have to look at it as giving advice to a person. Great post!

  30. I really liked this. It applies to all types of writing, not just blogging.

    In fact, I am event printing out the William Safire quote PDF, to frame and put on my home office wall.

  31. Great post….loved it!

    I’ve never thought I was a good writer, but have just recently started a job with the local newpaper as a writer/reporter. It’s a small town which is why they have hired someone unexperienced…someone learning every day on the job, with my only teachers being blogs like this one.

    The hardest part for me in writing a story, is getting started, and brevity. I love the investigation of the story, so I am never at a loss for information, but putting it all down on paper, in a form that others not only want to read, but gain something in the reading, is another thing.

    Thanks for your post and all the wonderful comments. I have learned much. I even found myself reading back over this comment and “cutting the crap.”

    • Your comment made my day yesterday, Beth. Good luck in your new position!

      There’s a lot of great information about writing here. If you haven’t clicked on the Headline Writing tab at the top of the page, it’s a good place to start.

      The more you write, the better you’ll get. Here’s hoping your new job will give you plenty of opportunity to practice the craft of writing well.

  32. Wow, again I find myself genuinely impressed with the posts here on CopyBlogger. While I’d heard it before, I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of writing for just that one single reader until right now. Somehow that tactic had eluded me.

  33. Pamela-
    Never disappointed when I read an article of yours. I always walk away with a clear message. Readers are always surprised to hear my posts go through 10-20 edits (diets) I love the poster, can’t wait to print it out. ps get ++ co
    compliments on my site ;-)

  34. Thanks Pamela, I think I got it now; just keep it simple. I like the way you were straight forward with your main message. I think it’s difficult sometimes to cut the crap in writing because we are so addicted to it.

  35. Love this post, Pamela!

    I’m a blogger who’s known for writing short, sharp posts. I refer to them as “Pigeonhole” posts. I developed my signature writing style based on my audience’s preference to “read and run”! I’ll admit, though, it’s easier said than done to write less. The temptation is ever present to add tons of flowery jargon and buckets full of details.

    My suggestion if you want to aim to keep it short and sharp? Simple. Eliminate as many adjectives and adverbs from your writing as possible — especially the adverbs. :)

    I’ll second this motion …

    “Every piece of writing starts out suffering from excessive verbiage, woolly thinking, and confusing tangents.”

    Melanie