How to edit, part 1

Do you ever struggle with rewriting yourself? Here’s the first installment in my 4-part guide on how to edit.

There are pros and cons to moving house, as I did recently. On the one hand, you inevitably lose some stuff. I’m still mourning the disappearance of my Kitchen Aid dough hook — where is that darn thing? I could have used it when we made hot cross buns last week. I’m also missing two enormous pink serving platters I’ve used for virtually every dinner party we’ve hosted in the last five years.

On the plus side, however, I’ve experienced the joy of uncovering some hidden treasures — for example, my children’s letters to the tooth fairy (which, amusingly, always began “Dear The Tooth Fairy). I’ve also found dozens of books I’d even forgotten I owned.

One of the tomes I unearthed was written by a well-known Internet marketing guru. The book has a fantastic name, which I’m afraid I’m not going to tell you because I don’t have much good to say about it. I think the writer is smart and has some excellent points to share, but the work desperately needs a good rewrite.

Interestingly, it took me awhile to realize the problem because I initially blamed myself. When I first tried reading the book my eyes would glaze over. I thought I lacked attention and stacked it away.

Post move, I gave it several more tries and encountered the same difficulty. So, I finally decided I should do a deeper analysis of the work. To start myself off, I pulled a couple of paragraphs from the book at random and ran them through readability statistics. Here’s the text I used, which I believe is representative.

Read it to see what you think of the writing style. 

Competent marketers crave insight; they want to know what customers are doing and why they are doing it. Marketers depend on all kinds of data to create an environment that will move customers to take action. Of all the data available, behavioral data holds the most promise of creating predictive models of customer behavior.

Marketers use behavioral data to look at an individual’s past activity in an effort to predict future activity. Of course, that doesn’t mean marketers always apply this information effectively. It’s a problem when Amazon uses behavioral data to place children’s toys on Lisa’s recommended product list because Lisa once bought a toy for her nephew through Amazon. Lisa had purchased hundreds of books and one toy, yet that toy purchase influenced her recommendations for a long time.

And here’s how it scored on the readability stats: 

Number of words: 131

Flesh Kincaid grade level: 12.16

Flesch reading ease: 41.24

These scores show there’s a problem. Good non-fiction writing is usually written to a grade 9 or lower level and earns a reading ease score of at least 60-65%.

Readability stats are available at no cost in MS Word (consult your Help menu or check pages 75 to 78 of my book, ) or get them via this website . Please note that while readability stats are not enough for completely analyzing a piece of writing, they’re an excellent place to start.

And here’s how I rewrote the passage: 

Competent marketers crave insight. They want to know what their customers are doing and why they are doing it. Once they’ve answered these questions, they can then persuade the buyers to take action. How?

The secret is behavioral data. This is data that looks at how customers have behaved in the past and therefore predicts how they’ll behave in the future.

But marketers don’t always use this data correctly. For example, let’s consider Amazon. When someone named Lisa buys a toy for her nephew, the purchase goes on her recommended product list. Lisa has bought hundreds of books over the years. But that one measly toy influences her recommendations for a long time.

Not perfect, but better, I think. And here’s how my rewrite rated:

Number of words: 131

Flesch Kincaid grade level: 6.80

Flesch reading ease: 64.64

Many people who rewrite will simply shorten words, sentences and paragraphs in order to improve their sores. But I didn’t begin that way. I simply went through each sentence and then asked myself “If I were reading this for the first time, what would I want to know next?”

I’ve just about hit my newsletter’s three-minute limit now, so I’ll walk you through a more detailed description of this job next week.


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