The common-sense way to edit your writing – without going overboard

Copywriter putting an axe to writingKeep your copy short. Keep it simple. Edit out this. Cut down on that.

It’s what all the top copywriting blogs tell you to do.

Just lately, practically every other post about blogging or writing seems to be giving out the same guidance on how to edit down your copy.

Don’t use long words when short ones will do. Ditch redundant words. Steer clear of the passive voice.

Again all pretty sound advice wouldn’t you say?

So what’s the problem?

Well it’s this:

Too many people are just plain stupid. They only see things in black and white.

Show them what to do in a particular situation and they end up doing the same thing every time.

You tell them to tighten up their copy and what do they do? They butcher the living daylights out of it.

They pare it back to the bare minimum. They strip out every last bit of personality. They remove subtle nuances that affect its meaning. And, in the end, they actually make their copy harder to read.

Now we all need to edit our content down before we publish. But how do we know when we’re going over the top?

So let’s take a look at this advice again and see where we might use a little more common sense:

→ Don’t use long words when short ones will do

Short and simple nearly always works best. But DON’T use a short word at the expense of the right word.

Longer words can be far more specific and often capture what you’re trying to say far better than a shorter, more general one.

They also help you avoid repetition. For instance, take the following fictitious job ad:

In this exciting new website copywriter position you’ll handle all of our B2B clients.

You’ll handle all aspects of their on-site SEO, write blog posts on their behalf and handle their email marketing campaigns.

You will also handle all of their social media accounts.

I don’t know about you, but I got a bit sick of seeing the word ‘handle’ by the end. The alternative ‘be responsible for’ might be stuffier, but at least it adds a bit of variety. And it’ll also save you from looking like a five-year-old who’s just learning to write.

→ Ditch redundant words

Grammar sticklers call it circumlocution or prolixity. Everyone else knows it as using more words when fewer will do. Here are some examples:

Circumlocution Shorter alternative
in view of the fact that because
in order to to
on a regular basis regularly
in the vicinity of near

Most of the time these redundant words are unnecessary baggage.

But just like white space between paragraphs a few occasional padding words can actually make your copy easier to follow.

They smooth the transition between one idea and the next. They also help split up individual parts of a sentence and clarify its meaning.

Here’s a very simple example:

The company changed its plan in order to give staff a pay rise.

The company changed its plan to give staff a pay rise.

In the first case, staff are getting a pay rise. In the second, they’re not. So sometimes stripping out those so-called redundant words isn’t such a clever idea.

→ Steer clear of the passive voice

Virtually any copywriter will tell you the active voice is stronger, more direct and more compelling, whereas the passive voice is weaker and more difficult to read.

But this isn’t always the case. In many writing situations only the passive will do.

Take this sentence I wrote about English footballer Frank Lampard in a magazine article documenting the high and low points of his career:

Lamps is denied an equalising goal in England’s World Cup showdown with Germany in South Africa.

Now see how you’d write it in the active:

The referee denies Lamps an equalising goal in England’s World Cup showdown with Germany in South Africa.

The active voice just doesn’t do it here – because the sentence is meant to be about Frank Lampard NOT the referee. In other words, the passive can sometimes help make your content easier to read.

What’s more, it’s particularly useful if (like me) you do a lot of website copywriting and on-site SEO.

Why?

Because you can front-load your most important keywords in headlines, title tags, image ALT tags and lead sentences.

And also, as we’ve seen in the footie example above, you can use it to strategically position important words in your copy.

So, when it comes to the sales-oriented pages on your website, you can place them where they’ll make the most impact on conversion.

Now I’m not giving you an excuse to write limp, long-winded and bloated copy. I just want you to know that the passive and longer or ‘redundant’ words have their place.

So go ahead and make use of the many great online resources available. I’ve even included a couple of links for you below.

But, whatever editing guidance you take, remember that there’s just no substitute for common sense.

Have you ever had your writing butchered by an editor? Do think over editing can rip your copy to shreds? Let us know your thoughts in our comment section below.

If you like this, you might also like:

24 complex words – and their simpler alternatives | Ragan’s PR Daily
25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy | The Write Life
5 non-existent words that make YOU look a halfwit copywriter | Write Online

In our next post: Acronyms, parochialisms and jargon – when you should use them and when you should avoid them?

Blogger ProfileAbout the Author

is a freelance SEO copywriter and blogger based in Staffordshire in the UK. He is the owner of the Make every word work for you blog and website copywriting service Write Online.


         

18 comments on “The common-sense way to edit your writing – without going overboard

  1. Hi Kevin

    Thanks for a great article with insights that have clearly been gleaned from experience and not just a style guide. I struggle regularly with the _passive_ and what you have written shows how to sometimes ignore this rule – but only if the sentence requires it.

    I do still have a long way to go with tightening up my copy, but articles like yours help tremendously.

    • Yeah, Chris, when I was copy-editor I came across loads of weak passives that needed rewriting in the active.

      But sometimes the passive did the trick perfectly. And I learned to leave well alone.

  2. Thanks for saying what needed to be said. English is a complex language and you cannot be over-prescriptive with a set of rules. It is not computer code and the nuances are important.
    Your examples of active vs. passive voice are superb ones. I have sometimes been asked to remove the passive voice by an editor and the results are bland and boring. There really are times when the “rules” are better ignored.
    Philip Turner recently posted…The Secret to Business Success – 4 Ideas More Important than MoneyMy Profile

    • Phillip

      Next time you have the same trouble with an editor, show them this post. It might make them think a little.

      BTW I love your remark ‘It is not computer code and the nuances are important’.

  3. Hey Kevin,

    I can honestly say that for those of us who do not consider ourselves professional writers then we honestly are the dummies here and have no darn clue how to edit our content.

    I sit down and start writing. Do I think about what I’m going to write? No… I know the topic, I have an idea and I just go. Oh sure I go back and change things, edit some and rephrase stuff but I don’t worry if my sentence is too long or I’ve repeated myself too many times. My mind doesn’t focus on that type of stuff because that’s not my area of expertise.

    Thank goodness I’m not a small business that depends on their clients viewing me in a much more professional light. I’d be screwed. lol…

    Thanks for the lesson though, makes perfect sense now that you’ve spelled it out this way. Makes me want to go back and check all my posts.

    ~Adrienne
    Adrienne recently posted…Jon Morrow Told Me It Is Okay To StealMy Profile

    • In other words, Adrienne, you don’t screwed up on all this editing thing.

      You just let your personality come through.

      And it shows.

      One other thing though – I don’t actually object to all this advice about editing down your copy. Precisely the opposite.

      But the people who offer out this advice are giving it to copywriters who are smart like them and know when NOT to take things too far.

      The reason I wrote this post is that not every writer quite has the same common sense they do.

  4. As some commenters pointed out, some people do struggle with writing, but I think we simply need to keep in mind that writing is not as fluent of a process as we think. It involves two separate and distinct applications.

    As a copywriter friend once told me, “Write now, edit later.” Another said, “Write fearlessly, edit ruthlessly.” Love those. In short, write to express, edit to be understood.

    The problem often arises when both step on each other’s toes. It muddies the message and paralyzes the process.

    Believe me, it’s something I, myself, still struggle with. But I’m getting much better. However, like most writers, becoming better at our craft is a neverending journey.

    Thanks for the great article. I enjoyed it.
    Michel Fortin recently posted…Getting Scruffy For a Good CauseMy Profile

    • Michel

      Love those two quotes myself: “Write now, edit later.”
      and “Write fearlessly, edit ruthlessly.”

      I must admit I still often “Write now, edit now” and it makes less productive.

      Still, I’m gradually learning to kick the habit.

      And, going by what you say, there’s always room for improvement no matter how accomplished you become as a copywriter.

      Many thanks for your great contribution.

  5. Your post is so spot on, Kevin – thanks for writing and sharing it! These are all great tips and i have always wanted to tell them, all of them, to whose who try and mess up my writing. I am not saying i am a brilliant copywriter (’cause i am not – lol) but i do see people who put me sometimes in the position you described – are they now getting a pay raise or not ;-)

    A tip i would add (for confidence more or less) – write as you speak. Well, at least on your blog. Then it is really easier to read.

    Thanks again for the great post – sending you some social media love right away!
    Diana recently posted…5 Things a Freelancer Should Never Say to a ClientMy Profile

    • ‘Write as you speak’ – I definitely agree with you there Diana.

      It just makes people feel more at home as they read.

      And if you edit down your copy too far, you run the risk of losing that.

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  8. Wow Kevin!

    This is some mighty good stuff!You’ve shared some excellent points here! Who would have thought there was and is such an art to strategic editing!

    Michel Fortin also shared an excellent point in your comment section as well!

    He advises to “write to express, edit to be understood.” You both did a fabulous job! Thanks for sharing!
    Mark recently posted…Marketing Techniques: Three Things Too Many Small Business Owners Do That They Really Shouldn’t!My Profile

    • Yep, Mark, Michel’s point is a really good one.

      My main weakness is that I still tend to edit as I go along rather than leave it until later.

      I’m sure I’d be a far more efficient writer if just wrote fearlessly then edited ruthlessly much later on.

      Having said that, I am slowly snapping out of the habit.

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