When editing makes your copy worse

I edit a lot of fundraising copy. And I work with veteran professional writers who know their stuff, so I’m not having to help them hammer out the basics.

Most of edits I make to others’ copy (and my own) are in these categories:


  • Removing the first one to three paragraphs. You’d be amazed. This works almost every time. Almost every writer (including me) spends the opening paragraph or so “warming up” before getting down to the real work.
  • Removing the word “that.” Not every time it appears, but most of the time. Sentences like I hope that you will give usually go better with out that that.
  • Removing adverbs. Almost all of them. Adverbs seldom make verbs any stronger.
  • Removing adjectives. A good adjective can earn its keep. Most of them don’t.
  • Removing complicated background material. Some details are good; they add specificity and authenticity. Too many make the copy hard to understand, and remove the focus from the important stuff.

See the pattern?

You can almost always make copy better by removing stuff. Even good, strong copy written by professional writers.

I bring it up because most of the time, the editing process adds stuff to the copy.

That’s because it’s done by committees. Each member of the committee wants certain things clarified or emphasized. So they add a word here, a phrase there, adjectives, adverbs, fluff, and lots of complicated background material.

Clear, muscular copy turns into fog.

If you want to make some copy better, make it shorter. If you want to make it worse, give it to a committee.

(If you struggle with committees, you might enjoy this: Death by Committee.)


Comments

8 responses to “When editing makes your copy worse”

  1. Susan Mark Avatar
    Susan Mark

    There is a book called “The 10% Solution” by Ken Rand that has a very effective method of going through your writing and cutting out the clutter. It’s one I recommend highly.

  2. Susan Mark Avatar
    Susan Mark

    There is a book called “The 10% Solution” by Ken Rand that has a very effective method of going through your writing and cutting out the clutter. It’s one I recommend highly.

  3. Well said! From the design end, I advise my clients about the value of white space on a printed page; and on the screen, people need to read brief, focused text. Whenever we cut paragraphs, words and even characters, the text improves along with the design. A good copy editor is invaluable in this process – after editing it is often hard to believe how fluffy the original text was. Thanks for your post.

  4. Well said! From the design end, I advise my clients about the value of white space on a printed page; and on the screen, people need to read brief, focused text. Whenever we cut paragraphs, words and even characters, the text improves along with the design. A good copy editor is invaluable in this process – after editing it is often hard to believe how fluffy the original text was. Thanks for your post.

  5. Larry Kaufman Avatar
    Larry Kaufman

    Copy editing is like sex — it should only be done in private.
    When I edit my own writing, I typically remove about ten percent of the copy by excising superfluous words — those extraneous “thats” you call attention to as a prime example. Another ten percent goes because the anecdote or example is expendable or diversionary from the main point. After that, it gets tougher.
    The chief value of the outside editor is not to clarify language but to clarify thinking. The writer knows what he was trying to say, and it’s all to easy to believe he’s said it.

  6. Larry Kaufman Avatar
    Larry Kaufman

    Copy editing is like sex — it should only be done in private.
    When I edit my own writing, I typically remove about ten percent of the copy by excising superfluous words — those extraneous “thats” you call attention to as a prime example. Another ten percent goes because the anecdote or example is expendable or diversionary from the main point. After that, it gets tougher.
    The chief value of the outside editor is not to clarify language but to clarify thinking. The writer knows what he was trying to say, and it’s all to easy to believe he’s said it.

  7. Davida Chazan Avatar
    Davida Chazan

    Hey, Ellen – good stuff here, and I agree 100%. Especially that 1st paragraph bit. Back in the day we called it “killing your babies”. Taking out something that you’ve labored over is sometimes the best way to make your work more effective.

  8. Davida Chazan Avatar
    Davida Chazan

    Hey, Ellen – good stuff here, and I agree 100%. Especially that 1st paragraph bit. Back in the day we called it “killing your babies”. Taking out something that you’ve labored over is sometimes the best way to make your work more effective.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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