The single most important thing you need to do to make your next piece of writing more readable

What do you think is the secret to improving your writing?

Getting a better grasp of grammar?

Developing a keener eye for jargon?

Gaining a deeper understanding of your reader?

All of these skills are useful, of course. But they’ll only take you so far.

Do you really want to produce writing that persuades? That (I’m going to say it) “engages”? That people actually want to read?

Then here’s what you need to do:

Spend more time editing.

Yes, becoming a better writer isn’t about becoming a better writer. It’s about becoming a better self-editor.

It’s about knowing when your writing’s a bit, well, rubbish really.

And it’s about really enjoying going back and honing your work over and over until it’s right.

You know – as in that psychological state they call “flow”.

Often when I’m doing a writing workshop, someone will ask: “How can I get my writing right first time?”.

The implication being that that’s what a professional writer does. It’s always fun to disabuse people of that myth.

And just in case you were wondering, I’m not alone in being a writer who usually gets it wrong first time.

Check out this page from a manuscript of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, where the author is describing the character of George Smiley:

lecarre_smiley

Or this extract from the same author’s Tailor of Panama.

lecarre-tailor2

All looks very familiar to me. Does it to you?

If not, you might want to consider tweaking how you spend your time next time you have a document to produce.

Below is a chart showing the various stages involved in producing a written document – and the percentage of time different writers might spend on each.

I’ve identified five stages: research, planning, writing, editing and proof reading (note: proof reading is not the same as editing).

The chart on the left shows my own writing process. The chart in the middle shows what I suspect is fairly typical for most people, while the chart on the right shows the writing process of a recent client who came to me for coaching.

writingprocesses

As you can see, I’m not a great planner (some other writers swear by “mind maps”, but I can’t think of anything less useful than a load of squiggly lines in no logical order). I do, however, spend a huge amount of time editing: re-ordering great chunks, rephrasing, generally honing and honing away.

I suppose you could argue my lack of planning is the reason I have to spend so much time editing.

But I think, for me, something else is going on. It’s that I think by writing and editing. I never really feel I’ve got something straight in my head until I’ve got it straight on the page.

If you look at the chart again, you’ll see on the right the writing process for someone I recently coached – an economist who needed to get complex ideas over quickly.

He came to me for one-to-one training because he’d done numerous writing workshops but people were still telling him his writing was “dense”.

With a little probing, I discovered he spent most of his time researching his documents – which just generated loads of ideas he felt he had to cram in.

And because he spent no time planning – and no time going back and filtering stuff out – it was hard to detect a clear, logical argument.

I pointed out to him, too, that every other sentence seemed to contain at least one set of brackets – symptomatic on a micro scale of a lack of filtering and structure.

After just a few one-to-one coaching sessions, my client has become a much better writer. Or, rather, a much better self-editor.

How do you divide your time between research, planning, writing, editing and proof reading? Share your writing process in the comments.

7 Responses to “The single most important thing you need to do to make your next piece of writing more readable”

  1. Steve R says:

    Usual splendid advice. Please left justify the title though, the odd white space offends me. There, got you back :)

  2. Excellent post.

    I was trained as an editor rather than a writer, which may be why this comes relatively easy to me.

    I’ve learned that the best way for me to write is to get any old thing down on the page, then start working it, like a lump of clay, until it looks like something. The idea of getting it ‘right first time’, in my case, is risible.

    I’ve noticed that people are very unwilling to do this with blog posts, so the writing ends up a bit unfocused and scatty. I would rather publish one post a month that I’ve re-edited ten times than ten posts a month I’ve dashed off without reflection.

    The other point about editing is that it takes time. The mind doesn’t always process things as quickly as you’d like. Sleeping on it can do wonders.

  3. Very sound advice here. I think that being able to edit your own work effectively really makes the difference to the quality of the copy you produce. As a freelance writer, it’s a critical skill.

    I also agree with Tom’s comment above about giving editing the time it needs – sometimes I find myself struggling to get a piece of copy just right when I’m working late in the evening, but then find I can fix it in a couple of minutes first thing in the morning.

  4. Liat Behr says:

    You disclosed a living truth here. It may be tough to get the first draft down and so you fall in love with it. But you absolutely can’t write a great piece if you’re not willing to go back to rewrite it. It took me a long time to understand that great writers worked their tails off to become so – by rewriting. Thank you for the reminder!

  5. I like to start with a structure or I never seem to get anywhere but it’s generally pretty loose – dot points are my go-to. I’m trying very hard to curb the impulse to edit as I write – my focus now is on getting it all down and then like you, spending a lot of time re-ordering things, deleting things, re-writing things until it’s something I’m happy to send out into the world! The hard bit sometimes is knowing when to stop tinkering!

  6. Wendy Lo says:

    I believe that the best writing comes when you have all these thoughts/emotions running around inside you and you pour it out when you express yourself. This can be the reason why a good blog entry can be quite engaging!

    Tips for Business writing – Research and decide on the points you must include and work to attach the concepts to each other in the right language.

    Love all the comments – they’re all great pieces of advice!

  7. Paul Eveleigh says:

    For example:
    What’s the secret to improving your writing?
    A better grasp of grammar?
    A keener eye for jargon?
    A deeper understanding of your reader?
    These skills are useful but they’ll only take you so far.
    Do you want your writing to persuade? To encourage people to read?
    Then spend more time editing.
    Yes, becoming a better writer means becoming a better self-editor. Knowing when your writing’s a bit, well, rubbish really. Honing your work until it’s right.

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