This is the fourth post in my Write to Get Results blog series about professional writing. To receive notifications of each monthly post in this series, sign up here.
By Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD
“Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.”
These are the words of famous American writer and journalist William Zinsser in On Writing Well, a resource familiar to the majority of professional writers. Now, I’m not suggesting you repeatedly rewrite a simple email to ask a colleague to lunch. But I am urging everyone to learn a few editing techniques and make them a habit for reviewing any type of important written communication before sending, publishing, or sharing. Here are the tips I recommend the most.
Check for Higher Order Concerns
Once you have drafted your text, whether that is an important email, a promotion application, a report, or a cover letter, review it carefully and in stages. First, look for “big picture” issues such as overall clarity and whether what you’re writing is compelling.
For clarity, check to make sure the fundamentals are in place and that you are writing for your intended audience. Try to take on the perspective of an outsider if the audience is not your peers, and avoid jargon and highly technical language. To provide a larger framework for understanding, include a few words of context. If you have any doubt that the point you’re trying to make is not clear, look for areas to clarify or cut. With your reader in mind, assess your writing objectively and ask yourself if it is too wordy, vague, or open-ended to be useful. Remember that extraneous information is not helpful; it is merely a distraction from the point. Here is an example:
Before: To describe my job duties before I considered a career transition, I performed QA checks on various types of content. (first part of the sentence is wordy, awkward, and not relevant to the point; the second part of the sentence is vague and doesn’t give enough context or information)
After: As a Project Manager, I safeguarded quality and consistency of all marketing copy, in-house documentation, and newsletters by performing thorough link and fact-checking, verifying that revisions were implemented accurately, and ensuring the final product met brand and design specifications. (contains no extraneous information and gives context by describing what specific tasks were carried out on what type of content)
To check if the document is compelling, evaluate the text to see if the point you are making, or the call to action, is supported by evidence. Don’t ask someone to take an action without giving them good reason to do so. Avoid bluster and flowery prose. Get to the point and make sure the essential information is included and clear. Do not make the reader work hard to understand your point.
Once you are satisfied that your message is clear, review your writing with a finer-toothed comb. Examine each sentence to identify where you can make improvements or increase clarity and readability. The following suggestions can help guide your revision process.
Vary Sentence Structures
Evaluate your writing to ensure your sentences are varied in length, some being longer than others. While short sentences can pack a punch, too many consecutively can lead to choppiness. Similarly, a series of long sentences can lose the reader’s attention and create confusion.
Pair Subjects and Verbs
Look for the subject and verb in each sentence, and check to see if they are paired closely together. If not, consider revising to place them together because they are the cornerstone of the sentence. Sometimes your revision might prompt you to break an unwieldy sentence into two or three. For instance, which of the following reads better? “The software, which was installed a year ago and has been giving us problems since day one, malfunctioned again.” Or, “The software malfunctioned again. This news surprised no one because it has been giving us problems since its installation a year ago.” Most people would say the second version is easier on readers because it decreases the likelihood they will need to pause at the verb and reread the sentence to remember the subject.
Omit Needless Words
The suggestion to edit for conciseness by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in their foundational book on writing, The Elements of Style, has greatly influenced my writing. Do not use five words when three will do. For instance, use “because” rather than “due to the fact that” or “although” instead of “in spite of the fact that” and “regarding” instead of “in regard to.”
Many words that we add for emphasis provide little value and can diminish the quality of the writing. Adverbs like really, very, absolutely, mostly, truly, and fairly can usually be omitted without losing meaning. For instance, “You are absolutely correct that we have a really substantial problem on our hands” is stronger when revised to “You are correct that we have a problem on our hands.”
Oftentimes, entire phrases can be omitted. For instance, “Personally, I think the policies should be updated to reflect current trends and become more relevant” is more concise when revised to “I think the policies should be updated to reflect current trends.” Depending on the audience, it could be shortened even further to “The policies should be updated.”
In job application materials such as resumes or cover letters, it’s crucial to use strong verbs that express a specific result, yet people often rely on vague, weak verbs such as “worked.”
Choose Strong Verbs
Select strong, active verbs to convey meaning, and avoid weak verbs that don’t have much impact. The most common culprit is the “to be” verbs: is, was, were, are, am, been, being, etc. Take for instance these two sets of sentences: “He was the coach of the winning team” and “He coached the winning team.” Or, “This is going to be an event to remember” and “Everyone will remember this event.” When the “to be” verbs are replaced with more dynamic verbs, the sentences become more lively.
In job application materials such as resumes or cover letters, it’s crucial to use strong verbs that express a specific result, yet people often rely on vague, weak verbs such as “worked.” In a resume, a phrase like “Worked to increase employee morale” doesn’t tell the reader much. We know the person did something, but that’s about it. In contrast, “Increased employee morale” is stronger: the verb is more precise and the phrase shows a result (increased)—not just an effort that may or may not have had a positive result (worked to).
The editing process can feel—and be—tedious, especially if you are inexperienced, but your skill and speed will improve with practice. By mastering this handful of editing techniques, you can communicate more effectively.
About Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD
As the owner of Career Path Writing Solutions, I am a career consultant, writer, editor, and workshop facilitator dedicated to helping individuals and businesses succeed when the stakes are high. My clients describe me as a kind guide, a fierce editor, and a secret weapon. I earned my PhD from Duke University and was previously the professional writing consultant for a master’s degree program; I currently work individually with clients and also teach workshops on professional writing and proactive career management.