Think it’s impossible to write with a knife?
Not at all. You might even say it’s essential.
Well, to be more precise, no one actually writes with a knife. But good writers do edit with one.
For them, writing involves two separate but closely intertwined mindsets: crafting their message and then cutting away everything that’s not their message.
Yesterday, Jon Morrow talked about why you need to tighten up your writing. Today we’re going to talk about how.
Write for yourself, edit for your readers
Really good writing always begins with the desire for self-expression. Let your mind and heart say what they want without restriction. You’re rough-hewing the shape of your thoughts.
But once the broad contours have emerged in your first draft, you take your knife and carve off all the extra bits. Sculpt your article until the important details are clear, not hidden by chunks of irrelevant or uninteresting verbiage.
It isn’t easy. As writers, we all have a tendency to fall in love with our words. So here are seven tips to help you cut to the chase.
1. Find the spine of your content and stick to it
A blog post is a focused piece of writing — it shouldn’t aim to address more than one tightly focused topic.
Yes, that story about your telecommuting co-worker and her embarrassing webcam moment is pretty darn funny. But if you can’t make it 100% relevant to the point you’re trying to make, don’t use it.
You can’t make your audience chuckle if they’ve clicked away.
2. Cut the first paragraph
This advice is often given to novelists, who are counseled to write a rough draft and then ditch their entire first chapter (ouch!).
The reason? We often need to crank out a paragraph or two before we truly get a grip on the piece and where it’s going. Those first words are really just preparation for the good stuff.
Try cutting the first paragraph or two from your post and see what happens. You may find a much more powerful opening.
3. Don’t over-spice your words
Many writers liberally pepper their sentences with adjectives and adverbs, and it ends up like over-spiced chili. They think this intensifies their writing, but really, it just numbs the reader’s palate.
(Side note: Take a look at the paragraph above this one. Did you catch where it was over-spiced? I didn’t need the word “liberally.” The verb “pepper” and the simile “like over-spiced chili” were more than enough to get the idea across.)
Remember that just like chili, a little seasoning will add yummy zing to your writing. Too much will make it unpalatable.
4. Watch out for “creep-in” words
These are the unnecessary words you use without even realizing it. Two of mine are “just” and “actually.” And yes, it’s
actually true that when I read through my first draft of this post, I just went back in and removed several of each.
Getting rid of creep-ins is a painless way to cut the fat out of your copy, and no one will ever miss them.
What are your own personal creep-ins? If you don’t know, ask a professional editor to clean up one of your posts and pay attention to what they take out.
5. Cut exaggerations
Were you so angry that you “literally had smoke coming out of your ears?” Was the sunset “heart-stoppingly beautiful?”
No, not really. Your readers will see these phrases for what they truly are: lazy exaggerations. Cut them from your writing, and use more precise words (see #6) instead.
6. Find a more precise word
Sometimes, we use a lot of weak words when one or two of the right words will do much better.
If you’re publishing a review of your local taquería and you write that “their burritos are really very good,” reach a little deeper into your vocabulary. Are they authentic? Zesty? Flavorful?
Picking the right word won’t just make your writing shorter. It’ll give your readers deeper insight into what you mean.
7. Reuse the leftovers
Ever notice how the best cooks don’t seem to waste anything?
Professional writers work the same way. When they edit, they don’t delete their writing forever. They put it aside and often use it as inspiration for something else.
I’d recommend starting a “Leftovers” document where you paste in your cuts. Whenever you’re searching for an idea, you can poke through it, and something will probably grab you. Use it to start a new post.
You can do it!
I know it’s hard to cut words. We’re all afraid of running out of something to say. But in my experience, that never happens.
Trust me when I say that there will always be more words where those came from, and you will find them when you need them. Just remember to carry your knife with you.
You’ll need it.
About the Author: Michelle Russell blogs about the perils of perfectionism — with and without knives — at Practice Makes Imperfect. You can also follow her on Twitter, where the 140-character limit forces her to keep her knife sharp whether she wants to or not.