How to edit, part 2

Do you struggle with rewriting yourself? Here is part 2 of my series on how to edit like a professional.

Following up on last week’s column about how to edit, let me revisit the passage I rewrote and explain what I did and why.

Here again is the original piece, excerpted from an interesting but poorly edited book that I’ll keep nameless.

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.

Here’s how I rewrote it:

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.

And here’s why I made the changes I did: 

* I broke the first sentence into two — not because, at 18 words, it was too long but because any piece of writing is more readable if it has a good range of sentence lengths. Some super short sentences (of one to six words) give your work better rhythm.

* I added italics in the next sentence to increase the emphasis and to make the text sound more like the spoken word.

* I removed the next two sentences (beginning with the word “marketers”) because they took an awful lot of space and said not very much.

* One of the sentences I used as a replacement was only one word long: “How?”

* I added a whole pile of “bridges.” Bridges are words and phrases that pull you through the text by raising questions in your mind or by promising to answer questions that already exist. Examples from above: “How?” “the secret is,” “therefore,” “for example,” “let us consider,” and “but.” (Re-read my re-written text above to see how this works.)

* I more clearly defined the phrase “behavioral data,” which had not been adequately explained in the first version.

* I added an extra paragraph space to make the text look less intimidating and more visually appealing.

* I put Lisa’s purchase of the toy in chronological order — that is, I explained she bought the toy before explaining that Amazon put it on her list.

* I added the word “measly” to add life and colour to the final sentence.

While making all these changes, I also reduced the average number of words per sentence from 18.71 to 10.27 (without really trying to do this!) As well, the number of characters per word went from 5.09 to 4.80

Yes, this was a fair bit of work to perform — and the thought of having to do this for an entire book (usually 80,000 words +) is exhausting! But my number one piece of advice is that you should be removing as much time as possible from your writing, and putting it into your editing.

This will not only make writing much less painful — it will also make your readers much happier.

Next week I’ll address a question a subscriber raised with me: are we not just dumbing down our writing by trying to edit in this way?


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