How to Write With a Knife

woman with sword

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.

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Reader Comments (122)

  1. says

    I have to believe in what you said there about the creep-in words. I use them a lot and while I am commenting here, I am already thinking whether some word is gonna creep in and make this absurd.

    Hope none came in the above comment :)

    Nice post again.Thanks.

  2. says

    EB White would be proud.

    A book on writing that doesn’t get enough credit is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s half autobiography and half writing advice; all of it is very worthwhile. At $7.99, it’s a steal.
    From the forward: “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”

  3. says

    I never gave it much thought but tip #7 is definitely sound advice. How many hours lost on deleting ‘bad’ content to be lost forever…my bad. But know I know.

    Great stuff and thx!

  4. says

    I like this idea –

    “Cut your first paragraph. ”

    This one will really work, but however if you want to get this kind of posts than you will have to practice a lot and time investment will increase as well.

  5. says

    Loved your left-overs point, Michelle. I like left-overs – juices need to mingle longer for more flavor, so it would be stupid to throw it out. So it is with writing; the stuff you cut out will get better over time or rot – surely we know what to do with the rotten stuff.

  6. says

    Excellent. I’m guilty of the “creep-ins”, so I appreciated the reminder.

    I do use a kind of leftovers file as well, especially when I’m writing longer reports. You’ve just given me the idea to go and read those files for ideas. Great stuff! Very zesty.

  7. says

    I add this step to my editing stage. I eliminate “the” every time it appears. I replace “the” with a pronoun or rewrite my sentence. You will be impressed with your results and so will your reader. I have passed this “nugget” on to several published writers and most wish they could write their books over again. Most poets hate this advice at first since a “the” helps their “meter” but those who are now eliminating “the” are ecstatic with their results. As this posting suggests, write your draft first. Include “the”, then rewrite.

  8. Sonia Simone says

    My creep-in word is “half.” Weird, but there it is. Probably because my first impulse is always to write from both sides of the fence.

    I’m another one who uses the leftover technique, too. Nothing nicer than having a good collection of snippets that can be grown into posts.

  9. Michael Smith says

    Once again, good stuff!

    One of the keys to being able to “wield the knife” wisely is being able to step away from the content and come back to it a bit later. The pace of business today, however, makes that very difficult. I’d love to hear thoughts on how others manage this–while staying on deadline.

  10. says

    “We’re all afraid of running out of something to say. But in my experience, that never happens.”

    Obviously you’ve never been paid to write a 5000 word article on an extremely BORING topic, with the condition that you don’t get paid unless you reach 5000 words AFTER editing. (There’s a special place in Hell for editors.)

    Trust me you CAN run out of things to say on a subject.

    Unless of course you are one of my ex-wives discussing my shortcomings.

  11. says

    I loved the quote “write for yourself, edit for your readers.” It really gets to the heart of that tension between creativity and having “customers.” It went in my quote book, with attribution of course!

  12. says

    Found myself nodding at ‘creep-in’ words. Guilty as charged. Agreeing on the Leftovers. I take notes regularly for the info that seemed useful yet useless at that time. Usually come in handy several posts later. ^^ Never ditch anything unless you’re 100% sure.

    Social/Blogging Tracker

  13. says

    I’m familiar with most of these but the cut the first paragraph rule is a new one on me. I probably need to cut my first paragraph more often. I often get into long preambles before getting to the heart of my writing. I’m going to see if I can’t take my knife to some of these monsters. Thanks for the tip!

  14. says

    This really hits home. One of the things that takes me so long to write is lamenting over every word. I am definitely guilty of creep-in words and I’ll be watching for them now.

  15. says

    Love the leftovers idea. I often go back to finished documents to find inspiration. This is faster!

    Writers labour over every word, especially when working on that important first paragraph. So if something needs to be cut, but it can be saved for another day – it eases the pain a little. 😉

  16. says

    Excellent article! I’m contemplating where I can tape it near my monitor to refer to while I’m writing. My favorite tips were to delete the first paragraph and eliminate creep in words.

  17. says

    You had me at “knife”, but not because of writing. I actually just love knives and ALWAYS carry 2 or 3. Yes, this is EXTRA information (lol), but as to the post, I printed it because I am guilty of over posting, so I really needed these reminders.

  18. says

    @Team Nirvana – Looks to me like you did just fine. ;o)

    @Jon Wortmann – Immediate applicability–thank YOU! That kind of feedback is immensely gratifying to me!

    @Paul Overton – Wow–thanks! (**blush**)

    @Anton Kozlik – Wow, that sounds like quite a radical technique! (But look–I just did it!)

    @Sonia Simone – I’m half-tempted to make a joke about that. ;o)

    @Mike Drips – You’re right, I haven’t. And since this is Copyblogger, even though I didn’t clarify it specifically, I was talking about blog-writing…where I’d hope a blogger is interested in what (s)he is writing about. Sorry–that sounds like one hell of an assignment you had there. :o(

    @Shane Arthur – Irony duly noted. LOL!

    @Stephanie Smith – Erm…I kinda have a thing for knives, too. So if that’s TMI, we’re now in it together. ;o) (I was really jazzed by the photo they chose to accompany this post!)

    @Ron Givens – That’s…just(?)…hysterical! :o)

    Thanks to everyone for your comments so far, even if I didn’t reply specifically (yep, I’m at my day job–shh!–and looking over my shoulder here).

  19. says

    These are great tips, Michelle! Will definitely have to look at them while I edit the post I’m working on.

    My creep-in word seems to be “So.” As in, “So how does this work in real life…”

    Working on not using it SO damn much. :)

  20. says

    This a darn good post. I’m hanging onto this one. I definitely need to work on my creep ins. I have a tendency to do that. Need to concentrate on tightening up things around here.

    Thanks for the post!

  21. says

    One good exercise for writing is to give yourself a word limit, say 1000 words or less and stick too it! It’s hard at first to cut down your original post but in the end it makes for tighter, more powerful writing. You gave some excellent tips on tightening your writing, especially about cutting out the “fluff” words. Thanks!

  22. says

    Great post. I am in the middle of writing today’s post and found myself flipping from your post to mine deleting creep-in words, and trimming the fat. Thank you for the instant improvement in my writing.

  23. Karen says

    I am forwarding this post to someone at work who is writing a Power Point presentation – I was trying to make this same point to her, so good timing! Of course, it is even more true with the PPS!

    As for the tips: I love #7 – I am going to start a “Leftovers” document for my writing!!

  24. says

    Excellent reminders! Makes me feel like I’m back in my college journalism class!

    I would argue, however, that there are SOME times when a little “extra” is appropriate, particularly if you’re doing a feature article on a person or event, something meant to tug at the emotions a bit more. But such times are FEW AND FAR BETWEEN.

  25. Malinda says

    Awesome post–good advice. As a professional writer and editor, I tend to cut as I write. A little maddening, but it results in blog posts with very little “fat”. :)

  26. says

    You don’t appreciate my just-warming-up first paragraphs?! You prefer interesting verbs to those easy-peasy adjectives and adverbs?! And no more verbal crutches?! You are so right. Word count be damned.

  27. says

    These are awesome tips. In grade school and college, students are taught to write more. You get out of school and find out less is more in writing. I’ll be using these tips to hone 16+ years of bad writing habits that I’ve been taught.

  28. says

    This is probably the best advice a writer can get. I send my articles, blog posts, etc to my father because he doesn’t have a knife, he has a editing kitana. Your point about creep-in words rung especially true for me because my dad always finds mine and he tracks his comments so i can see the edits. Very useful exercise if you have an editing resource.

  29. says

    Actually, I have a lot of “creep-in” words as well. I’m trying to fix it, but I just can’t seem to get there.


  30. Sonia Simone says

    @SuccessfulCatholic, I agree with that. It takes experience, judgment and a good ear to know when to let yourself go a bit “offroad” and when to stick to the track.

    I’d say the same for the occasional nonessential word. Sometimes pruning too much can destroy a sentence’s rhythm. It’s all about balance and being conscious, IMO.

    @Jon-Mikel, laughing at “editing katana.” Nice.

  31. says

    Good to put a focus on the editorial process, which should be taken more seriously in blogging.

    One word we can cut from our writing is “that.” You don’t need it as much as you think. So cut that out.

  32. says

    Best piece of advice you gave… Throw out the first paragraph. I do that all the time. It’s almost always a waste. The other day I cut out the first 3 paragraphs!

  33. says

    This is the second blog I’ve seen with a katana picture in one week. Seriously.

    I agree, and this is why I complain when my professors require papers longer than 750 words. I don’t need that many to make a simple point.

    Thanks for taking my side.

  34. says

    @Charles Bohannan – I like that as a bumber sticker or t-shirt for copyeditors: “Hey! Cut ‘that’ out!”

    @Jeffrey – I’m definitely on your side. Holding a katana. ;o)

    @Sami – “Life, Laughs & Lemmings”? I **had** to click through. And you had me at your About page when you wrote, “Besides, if life gives you a lemming, make a lemming meringue pie!” :o)

  35. says

    “that” is one of the words I was taught to cut.

    I took a communication course almost 20 years ago and the most powerful exercise we did was to write something personal in 100 single syllable words. The next day we had to read them and OMG, it was powerful. People were crying over some of them.


  36. Anna says

    this post rocked my freakin socks off. I was nodding and oohing and oh!ing the whole way through.

    I think the main thing for me was, “write for yourself, edit for your readers.”


    That was the sound of a gaggle of hard and mixed-up thoughts suddenly falling into place.

    Also the overspiced chili metaphor – perfection. I had a writing teacher who said ‘verbs are worth a quarter, nouns are worth a dime, adjectives and adverbs a nickel’. I liked that. But your explanation is so much more sensual and less arbitrary.

  37. says

    “Ever notice how the best cooks don’t seem to waste anything?” :)
    Great tips.
    Is that Sonia in the picture?
    I need to get a custom mouse cursor that looks like a knife.

  38. Kim Wood says

    Great post, Michelle!
    Lots of great advice and a great picture, too. I’ve enjoyed reading all the great comments.

    Yes, my creep-in and imprecise word is great. I have banned the use of great in my writing. So it is really great to have an excuse to use it seven times in the one comment. (Just to illustrate the point, of course.)

  39. says

    Helpful tips. One more: make sure adjectives and adverbs sit beside the words they describe. In the heat of writing, they can end up in lonely or disjointed places and require more words to restore the connection, eg Bad: I will go to the store after work, the one with the blueberries on special. Good: After work I will go to the store that has blueberries on special.

  40. says

    I agree, especially for those who don’t write too much. Quite often, I find that I get bogged down trying to get my thoughts onto the screen AND trying to write them well. I find it is often faster if I just start writing about my topic without worrying about the quality, organization, etc. and then go back and tighten it up. It generally leads to a better final product.

    The problem is that it makes me write poorer for small things like this that I don’t go back and edit, since I’ve lost the mental discipline to come up with a top-notch version on the first try.

    Another thing to look for when reviewing and tightening content is the passive voice – your content is immeasurable improved when you use the active voice. Or, I should say, using the active voice immeasurably improves your content!!!

  41. says

    Good advice! Always good to hear again. The creep-ins bit is good advice. Just did a bit of cutting with my rough draft. Definitely flows better after removing these stop words, though using words like actually is part of natural conversation. Maybe a couple in dialogue?

  42. says

    @Harrison Schmidt – Can’t be Sonia. Her hair isn’t pink.

    @Kim Wood – Thanks for the great comment! 😉

    @Andi – Hmm. I actually (see? there I go again!) rely on a thesaurus quite a lot. Often even when I think I know a good word to use, following trails of potential words through the thesaurus leads me to something even more precise. Kinda fun–but then, I’m a word geek.

    The other suggestion I have isn’t exactly a short fix, but the best way to increase your vocabulary is to become a voracious reader (if you’re not already). I also do something now which I never did as a kid or young adult…back then I’d just keep reading when I encountered a new word, and try to pick up the meaning from its context. These days I’m likely to pull down the dictionary and look it up. Again, word geek. But words are my medium, so it’s worth the effort to me.

    @Barb Sawyers – You’re absolutely right. But sometimes dangling participles are just sooooo much fun! “After being whipped fiercely, the baker spread the cream over the cake.” :)

  43. says

    I’m a novel writer and find your suggestions true for editing a book as well as a blog. Publishers relish pithy content. Cut adverbs and nouns (pick better verbs and nouns). Don’t repeat. Trust readers to remember.

    Thanks for your summation.

  44. says

    Great post, Michelle.

    With good writing, less is often more.

    I spent 26 years in the legal profession, and as an advocate of clear and precise writing, I believe I have learned well how to trim the fat, especially when it comes to legalese!

    I am now a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, and I’m saving your tips for future reference.

    Something for all writers to remember: sometimes, you just need to step away from what you’ve written; sometimes, all it takes is a set of fresh eyes; sometimes, you may just need a copyeditor. :-)

  45. says

    Keeping a leftovers document is a great idea. I’m starting today. I have a hard time letting go of some sentences that just appeal to me and probably not the reader.

  46. says

    I was surprised to read about cutting the first paragraph. As well as most of the people who left their comment. Really going to try it to see if it really works.

  47. says

    Cutting into your text can be very painful. But if you put it away for a few days the carving gets easier. The “cut away your first paragraph” works if you feel the need to “make friends” with the reader first and you’re not schooled to start with a crafted lead.

    I agree with your “focus on one thing” point.

    The best advice one of my former editors gave me – to use whenever I happen to bla bla too much around a topic – was to imagine explaining the story to a friend in one sentence. It makes you focus your idea and understand what you’re trying to tell your readers.

  48. says

    Got a kick out of this one! I especially like #7 “Leftovers”. I’m starting to use that one right now! Thanks for these awesome tips!

  49. says

    I once did some copyediting for a client whose original draft was a mountain of redundancy. After I handed him my rewrite he said, “You didn’t do very much.”

    “Wrong,” I replied. “You see all that white space on the page? I did that.”

  50. says

    That’s a post well-written. I have to say, it does give me an idea on how to work on my future posts. As I have a deep passion for writing, I intend to make each of my piece worth reading. For that to happen, I need to, like you have emphasized, eliminate clutter. I still find it a challenge to write precisely and interestingly but I’ll keep on trying though.

    By the way, the idea of The Best of Copyblogger 2009 is beneficial especially for readers who have only recently “tuned in” to this blog. It helps us catch up on whatever we have missed. Thanks again.


  51. says

    I once did some copyediting for a client whose original draft was a mountain of redundancy. After I handed him my rewrite he said, “You didn’t do very much.”

  52. says

    @kobe – Too funny! It reminds me of something I heard years ago and have always remembered because it’s so true: “An editor’s job is to walk through a manuscript without leaving any footprints.”

    As frustrating as client comments like that are, it sounds like you fulfilled your role nicely. 😉

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