7 Steps to sharper copy
Written by David Ruder on .
Writing works best when the words flow smoothly off the page (or the screen) and into the mind of the reader. Websites and news portals consume huge amounts of written content, all the time, and given the general quality of writing online, good copy stands out! Readers respond to good writing, and the difference between good and poor writing is
often down to the edit.
So let’s assume you have written your copy, a blog or a news release, and you’re pretty pleased with it. You’ve gone through it a few times and checked that:
- It’s spelt and punctuated correctly.
- That all your sentences are complete, and of a reasonable length.
- It’s got the right tone of voice for the readers you are addressing.
- It sounds reasonable when you read it aloud.
Now dig out your equivalent of the red pen and get to work!
Editing is an iterative process, you may take several passes, honing the copy a little more each time. Here are 7 steps, taken when editing, to help you sharpen up your copy:
- It’s not art, so don’t be precious about your creation. Even that sentence you wrote, the one with the really clever turn of phrase, needs to be cut if it doesn’t move the piece forward. Begin with the mindset that nothing is sacred, and everything is expendable. Some sentences can paint you into a corner, and just deleting them opens up new possibilities for clearer expression.
- Reorder the sentences and paragraphs to keep everything logical and consistent. Readers hate being left high and dry by a sudden change in tone, chronology or argument. Make sure every point follows from the last and leads to the next. Make sure that, if you refer to time, you keep the chronology of events clear.
- Work on your introduction. You want the main point or theme to be front and centre, with all other points and arguments stemming from it. The introduction sets the theme, the tone and expectations in the mind of the reader, to be fulfilled in the copy that follows. First impressions count!
- Use the introduction to devise the title. The title needs to be intriguing and needs to sum up, as much as possible, the content. Don’t be satisfied with just one title – write several, and then take the most promising and try to shorten them and reorder the words to make them more succinct.
- Take a break. Leave the copy alone for an hour or two. You’ll be able to give it a fresh look and see problems and solutions you were blind to earlier.
- Do a word count and multiply that number by 0.7. This number is your target word count. Aim to remove about a third of the copy. This might seem impossible but with careful revision you can do it! Look where you can combine phrases and sentences into fewer words. Take all the adverbs, adjectives and intensifiers out – see what it looks like. Now put 10% of them back in, choosing only those most important to your meaning. It can be surprising to discover how few words are needed to express even a complex idea.
- Work on your call to action. Now your reader has finished reading, what do you want them to do with the information you have given them? Make your call to action as short and punchy as possible.
And now you have a well edited piece of writing! To see just how far you've come, compare your final draft with your current draft. Like an oil painting, a piece of writing is never finished, it's merely a matter of choosing when to stop working on it!