by Barbara McNichol
What can editors tell writers and authors about improving their writing? Consider these five common writing mistakes even conscientious writers make:
Mistake #1: Being self-absorbed as a writer. With too much talk about the author’s experience of writing, you risk overlooking the reader’s experience. The fix? Use “you” more than “I” in your sentences and stay close to your core message.
Mistake #2: Addressing readers in plural rather than as a single person whose interest you want to capture. Remember, reading is a solitary pastime. The fix? Keep one person in your target audience in your mind’s eye as you write.
Mistake #3: Using a long noun phrase when an active verb will do. The fix? Whenever possible, get an active verb to do the “work” of the sentence. Instead of “the examination of the report was done by the director,” change the noun phrase to a verb and rewrite the sentence: “The director examined the report.” In this way, passive construction becomes active, reduces the word count, and delivers a more direct message.
Mistake #4: Having no clear order to the paragraphs. The fix? Once you’ve crafted a solid, compelling opening, think through how the organization and flow of your main points will best guide your reader logically to your desired conclusion. If possible, test the result with colleagues or actual readers who will give you honest feedback.
Mistake #5: Writing sentences that ramble (on and on and on and on). The fix? Limit your sentences to 15-21 words maximum. Be sure to vary sentence length to create interest.
Bonus mistake: Flat-out choosing the wrong word. Yes, in English, it’s easy to confuse common words such as “advice” instead of “advise” (among hundreds more). The fix? Use a comprehensive resource such as Word Trippers (print or ebook) to help you select the perfect word when it really matters. Want a free mini-version of Word Trippers (the ebook)? Go to http://www.WordTrippers.com
What common writing mistakes would you add to this list?
by Barbara McNichol
Translation: avoid the needless use of complicated words in your writing.
It can be easy to lose sight of your intent as a writer.
Lots of common mistakes are made when you’re writing everything from daily emails and memos to persuasive articles or nonfiction books. As a result, your readers can lose the message in the tall weeds.
There’s little point in spending energy putting your thoughts in writing if nobody reads them and gets inspired to think, feel, or do something—right?
I was reminded of this after working through the first few chapters of a new book I was editing. I’d made so many changes, the draft was littered with markings.
Discouraged when he saw so many edits, my client asked, “But what did you think of the message?”
In truth, I did connect with the writer’s content. But I got mired knee-deep in the swampy weeds of his writing style, and I knew his audience would, too.
Have you experienced that, too? If so, how can you increase readability in your writing? How do you chop down those weeds to create a clear line of sight for your readers?
Here are my 5 writing tips to keep you (and your audience) out of the tall weeds:
1. Think Twitter.
Write short words and limit the number of words—preferably fewer than 21 in a sentence. Your audience is used to consuming content on social media feeds. They’re paying attention, but you have to share your message in a way that matches their reading expectations.
Keep your writing to one major point per paragraph and one major concept per chapter if you’re writing a book. Don’t try to get your entire message across in one paragraph. Give the reader a chance to digest an idea, concept, or a call to action. And remember, no more than 21 words in a sentence!
3. Spare the sauce.
Don’t be heavy-handed with adjectives and adverbs—the descriptive words. Use them sparingly so the strongest, most salient ones will stand out in the crowd. Your reader’s time is valuable, especially in an email or memo. Don’t waste it; chisel the point clearly!
4. Don’t be afraid of a breakup.
It’s a good idea to break up large blocks of text. It gives your readers “mental white space” to process what they’ve just read. Use sub-headings that indicate what’s coming next. This helps them scroll down quickly until they find the topic area that interests them most.
5. Mind the view.
Don’t change the point of view within a paragraph. Jumping from “we” to “you” is confusing. If you have to shift the pronoun reference, simply start a new paragraph. This gives your readers a chance to adjust their point of view and keep them on track.
Bonus writing tip: Read your writing aloud and be prepared to edit as you go. The ear is an excellent self-editor. When you hear what you wrote, you’ll trip on sentences that “looked” fine but ended up sounding stilted and too wordy. Listen to yourself.
You don’t need to “flower” your language to make your point. If you’re writing poetry, well, get as creative as you like.
Brevity is bliss.
Do you have questions for me about how you and your team can learn to be better communicators? Contact me.
I have a question for you, because I’m always curious to learn new writing tips: How do you like to boost the readability of your writing? Let me know!
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By Barbara McNichol
With 21 years of editing under my belt, I strive always to understand and deliver what authors want to the best of my ability as a book editor. Professional editors build careers on doing exactly that.
Through a blog post, I asked what worries nonfiction authors about the editing process. The insights below reflect answers from 40 authors who responded. Specifically, they noted:
- They want more than a clean up; they want a major step up in clarity.
- They want support in thinking through the book’s organization before nitty-gritty editing begins.
- They want their book editor to be tuned in to their objectives for the book, keeping them top-of-mind throughout the process.
- They want their points made more succinctly and artistically and their stories told well. As one author said, “An unedited piece can make my point but in a less elegant way than one that’s been edited.”
- They want their ideas made more appealing by adding vivid words and gem phrases they didn’t think of themselves.
- They want feedback on the effect their writing is or is not having on readers. Thus, they want their editor to act as an advocate or stand-in for the reader.
Even more specifically, respondents expect their book editors to catch errors or problems casual readers miss in the following areas:
- Content: unfinished thoughts, missing steps, unclear logic or a story that falls flat.
- Language: fixing grammar, spelling, agreements, redundancies, repetition, mixed modifiers, run-on sentences, and more.
- Effectiveness: improving the flow and tightening the writing throughout.
How Book Editors Can Learn What Authors Want
From the first contact with a client, I open a dialog through what I call a Planner—a questionnaire that focuses on the long-term goals for the book itself. Questions not only address the mechanics of editing but emphasize the author’s big-picture dreams.
When working with an author on a book to enhance their business or brand, my questions include:
- What successful books would be good models for yours?
- After people in your target audience have read this book, what do you want them to say about it? How would you like a testimonial to read?
- What actions do you want readers to take as a result of reading your book—both for their own benefit and for yours?
- What do you want them to know about your business and services?
- What changes do you want to create in your life/business as a result of putting this book out into the world?
- What value would having a successful book bring to you/your business brand?
- Which results do you seek most in working with an editor (followed by a list for ranking)?
Order Your Editing the Way You Like It!
Each manuscript provides a new opportunity for your editor to deliver on your “wants.” It should be like asking a waiter to have your meal prepared exactly to your specifications each time.
Don’t short-change the editing process and its value to you. Use a tool like my Planner to articulate exactly what you want from your editor. Communicate through both written and verbal dialog so you can realize the boost in quality that will result.
To see how Barbara’s Planner can help you, go here.
Barbara’s note: Thanks to Teresa Funke, Chair of NSA Writers/Publishers PEG for printing this article in the PEG newsletter.
In preparing to dive into his final review before I begin editing his nonfiction book, this conscientious author sent me this request:Any guidance you can offer as to how to attack the beast, make smooth progress in the next two weeks and not get sucked in or bogged down but ultimately be helpful to you?
My best advice to him applies to all authors at this stage of the process.
As you review every section, focus on content while asking these questions.
- Have I included all the pertinent points that say what I want to say here?
- Are any points missing?
- Are all points relevant? (If not, now is the time to delete them.)
- Would it be helpful to refer the reader to a section or a resource for additional information? (This could be a website, a book, your book, your website, another place in manuscript, Resources, etc.)
Before moving on to the next section, flag the quality of the writing in that section.
- Is it smooth, awkward, or in between (okay)? You could simply use initials S, A, OK.
For the sake of speed and continuity, only label the writing; don’t rework it. Then any part you label “awkward,” decide if you want to
- rework it after the initial run through, or
- leave it for your editor to rework, or
- do a combination of both.
Also, include a note to your editor about your thoughts/actions. You might say: “I reworked this a bit but it could use more smoothing out.”
During this initial content-focused run through, be sure to take off your author’s hat and wear your reader’s hat. Do your best to “see” it from your reader’s viewpoint—a tricky thing to accomplish, but doing so will make a huge difference.
What points of advice would you add? Share them here.
by Barbara McNichol
As editors, we may think we know what authors want , but how often do we test our assumptions and ask?
I did just that by sending out three questions to approximately 125 clients and 300 authors in my circle. From the 40 thoughtful responses I received, I got a much clearer sense of what worries authors when it comes to the editing process. They told me that . . .
- They’re concerned about the editor changing their “voice” while editing—altering their style so much that it doesn’t come across as their own. As one person said, “Sometimes editors add their own ideas rather than helping the author express his or her own thoughts in a clearer, more concise way.”
- They don’t want the “juice” in the original writing to be watered down by too much word-whacking (which is a term I use).
- They’re concerned that an editor isn’t sensitive to subject matter, that they’ll approach editing mechanically rather than engaging with the material and delivering on the book’s objectives.
- One author talked about his previous editor being out of tune with his effort to convey something unique. He said, “This editor never invested in my passion and the spirit that I wanted to come out in my writing.”
What worries you? What would you add to these comments? (Look for more questions and answers in future blog posts.)