With the avalanche of furloughs and layoffs, I find myself the de facto editor of much of our company’s content, including news stories, white papers, webinar descriptions and press releases, and I’ve come across a dismaying number of errors and just plain poor writing. Regardless of your job, I’ll bet it involves writing, so here I offer tips for editing your own work or the work of your colleagues — get it right and your writing will be more persuasive, readable and professional.
When the pressure is on to write a piece that will be printed or circulated widely (or read by someone important to you), it’s easy to use words that you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation. The thesaurus comes out, and you look for synonyms to make your writing sound more expert. Don’t fall into this trap. Simple is always best. And if you find yourself looking for adjectives and adverbs to fluff up your writing, stop. Unless you’re writing a flowery romance novel, these parts of speech are best avoided. Instead, focus on action verbs to add energy to your story, while avoiding “to be” verbs (there is, he was, I am), which often fall flat.
Aim for clear and concise. Writers under pressure frequently say the same thing twice. Perhaps this is because they’re trying to hit a word count or just think writing more looks like they know more.
Once you’ve finished your draft, you need to fact check, edit and proofread. Look up each fact you’ve used, paying attention to numbers. Make sure your numbers, sources and the people involved are complete and accurate. You may have made a typo, which is easy to fix, or you could discover conflicting information, which you’ll then have to dig into and possibly rewrite the section to be sure you are presenting a balanced story.
When you are ready to edit and proofread, step away for a few minutes to give your brain a break. When you come back, even after only a few minutes, you’ll be able to read your content more objectively. To further reset your mind, change the font and enlarge it, and then read your work out loud. This last technique has worked so many times when I’ve trained new writers. Suddenly, what your eyes have skimmed over stands out as an error when you hear yourself reading.
Take advantage of the editing and proofreading features built into Microsoft Word. It offers more than just a routine spell check, making it a better program to use than Google Docs. Start by clicking on Spelling & Grammar in the top menu. An editor pane will open and identify possible errors with suggested corrections. For instance, I originally wrote “paying particular attention” above, and Word suggested deleting “particular” for clarity and conciseness. It will also catch one of my pet peeves “in order to” and suggest just the word “to.” If you want to accept a change, you can click it, but you may also select to ignore once or ignore all. Word will also read aloud to you, but I find the robotic voice is not as effective as reading aloud myself.
If you’re writing for a wide audience, you’ll want to check your document’s readability. In Word, you can turn on a readability assessment by going to File, Options and then Proofing. Check the box that reads, Show readability statistics.” You must resolve any spelling and grammar issues Word identified before it will show you readability scores.
There are three parts to readability: Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and passive sentences. The Flesch reading ease test measures the average length of your sentences and the average number of syllables per word to arrive at a score between 0 and 100. A score of 100 means your copy is very easy to read, while a score of 0 means your text is very difficult to read. The Grade Level score tells you what grade the reading ease score represents.
Google uses this score as it crawls copy on the web to help determine how an online story ranks in search results, so it’s important whether you’re writing for print or digital. Search engine optimization (SEO) calls for a score of 60 or above, which reflects the reading level of a 13- to 15-year old.
But don’t think that a lower score is better. Did you know that Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” is written at a fourth-grade level? There’s even a Hemingway app (www.hemingwayapp.com) to calculate readability, like the Flesch score. Add readability assessments to your writing and you’ll find your style will become bold and clear.