Cut Your Writing to the Bone: 6 Tips

English: blue scissors Español: tijeras azules
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Editing your own material is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. And it is a must-have skill in this attention span-challenged age.

I was reminded of this as I prepare a couple of upcoming speeches. “Where can I possibly make cuts? It’s ALL gold!”

Luckily, I wrote a whole book about writing, including a chapter on how to edit yourself. So I dusted that off and added some other things I’ve since learned to come up with these six tips.

(They’re good for any kind of writing, by the way — not just presentations.)

1. Read it aloud

Anything that’s delivered aloud should be read aloud, of course. But it’s good practice for every form of writing, because it helps you figure out where to cut: when you get bored, that’s the place to start.

I was halfway through rehearsing my presentation and I thought, “Holy crap! Am I still talking???” So I cut a whole section.

2. Question your motives.

If you’re unsure about a particular passage, ask yourself who it’s written for: you or the audience? Will it truly help them or is it more designed to burnish your own reputation? Be honest with yourself.

3. Get rid of the tangents.

In my writing classes at Second City they taught us that every scene, every line, every word has to drive the narrative forward. You could have the funniest joke on the planet, but if it doesn’t serve the larger purpose, it has to be cut. Funny for the sake of being funny is not good enough.

In the same way, you could have the most fascinating little anecdote or factoid, but if it’s tangential to the main point, it has to go. Interesting for the sake of interesting is not good enough.

4. Understand you’ll get other bites at the apple.

Most communications don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s very likely that whatever you’re writing won’t be the only opportunity to get your message across. If it’s a presentation, you also have handouts, worksheets, leave-behinds, links and other things. So think about the information that is best suited for this particular tactic, be it a speech or email or report, and ask yourself, “Why here? Why now?”

Most presentations are short (or should be). They’re best suited for piquing an audience’s interest — bringing their attention to an issue and making them want to know more. Simply dumping a bunch of information on them is better suited for a written report, or an extended training session.

5. Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s an occupational hazard in stage acting that you will, on occasion, drop a line. Actors will often beat themselves up over this (or the playwright or director will do it for them). But here’s the dirty little secret of theater: what the audience doesn’t know won’t hurt them.

You miss the line because you know and love the line. But they’re coming at it from a clean slate: it’s impossible for them to miss what they never knew was there in the first place. Examine your writing from their perspective and it will be a little easier to part with your own pretty words.

6. Blow it up (The Nuclear Option)

If you’re really, truly stuck, try throwing away the draft and starting over from scratch. We’ve all had the experience of losing documents in a computer crash and having to reconstruct them. In my own experience, I’ve found the new draft is usually better — more focused, more concise. I think it’s because you’re forced to start from a blank slate instead of having to dismantle your own creation brick by brick.

You could also ask someone you trust for their opinion, but this is about editing your own work.

So there are your six tips. Why six? I originally had eight, but I decided to make cuts!

4 thoughts on “Cut Your Writing to the Bone: 6 Tips

  1. Hi Rob
    I am going to have to check out your book. I have most of my posts and articles edited by an outside source as it always seems that I miss something when I do it myself. Thank you for the tips

  2. Thank you, Vicki. And, Tina, it’s great to have someone else to look at your stuff. I miss that sometimes with certain projects where I’m working independently.

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