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How to improve your writing so that it grabs the audience and keeps them reading

“The first draft of anything is s%!t.”

Ernest Hemingway

It’s worth noting that these are tips for editing, not redrafting. Redrafting is rewriting your first draft so that it better achieves the goals of your brief. Editing is when you need to get your draft ready for publication - think grammar, spelling, structure. It requires a degree of distance from the writing to catch the little mistakes, so it’s usually best done by someone who isn’t the original writer. Here are the main things that we look out for.

Ungainly writing

We’re all immune to our own clunky, overly lengthy sentences when we’ve got our heads down working tirelessly on a project. But a step back is sorely needed to notice those five-line shockers and add in an emergency full stop or comma.

What to do about it:

Read your writing out loud. This might be embarrassing in an office setting, but it makes a big difference. Use this technique to help weed out any overcomplicated sentences from your writing, then break them up with a full stop in the right place.

Unclear and ambiguous writing

Write clearly. Don’t leave things open to interpretation. If something can be interpreted in more than one way, rewrite it. E.g. “I saw a woman on a hill with binoculars”. Is she using the binoculars? Am I? Are they sat next to her? Look out for these sentences when editing.

What to do about it:

This can be difficult to spot yourself, so have someone else read your copy. This also ensures your key messages are apparent to someone who has yet read the work. Once you’ve identified your ambiguous areas, make it clear who exactly is doing what in your sentence.In the above examples, clear alternatives could be: “I saw a woman on a hill who was using binoculars” or “Through my binoculars, I saw a woman on a hill”.

Irrelevant content

Writing down everything you know about your topic like you’re sat in a GCSE exam won’t do. You need to consider what your reader needs to know. A good edit will ensure your irrelevant content is cut away, so that you don’t lose your audience to dreary-eyed boredom. Striking the balance between economy and precision can be hard work - but ‘nobody said it was easy’...

What to do about it:

Be ruthless. Take the proverbial scythe to your writing. Cut anything that doesn’t fit your purpose and keep it short, but no more. (It is easy, and a mistake, to trim key messaging just to fit an arbitrary word count limit.) Each part of your writing should drive towards your overall goal for creating the content in the first place, whatever that may be.

Is your structure the best one to achieve your goal?

Structure is vital for clarity. Like a well told story, you need to attract interest, develop ideas and build towards the end payoff. This payoff - the meaning you want the piece of writing to deliver - is your guide for what to cut, what to keep, and how to order the messages. Everything should contribute to the message you want to deliver.

What to do about it:

Make your content ‘on purpose’. Your writing should communicate an easy to identify key message or benefit throughout. Think - what are you trying to get your reader to think, feel or do? Why are you communicating to them? That should determine the hierarchy of your messaging. If it’s not clear in your content then you need to be changing headlines, sublines and conclusions so that this message becomes more apparent.

A word to the wise from The Economist

The danger when editing is that you unwittingly remove all of the quirks and nuances of the writing that make it interesting to read. To quote The Economist Style Guide: ‘A writer’s style, after all, should reflect his mind and personality.’ They go on to quote John Grimond, who describes the damage editing can do:

‘...most...consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music.’ Enough said.


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