When I worked in the ICU as a resident, one of my daily tasks was to write a detailed note on each patient after I had seen, assessed, and come up with a plan of care for him or her. The attending doctor of the ICU had a saying that stuck with me through the years and I’ve applied it to many types of writing, not just the chart notes that he referred to: “Your note should be long enough to be good, short enough to be better.”
As a writer, I do not want people to skim my words. I know that people do it—I do it, too. But my goal is to make my writing succinct enough that my readers read every word I write, and don’t feel that I could have left something out.
Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to editing myself as I’ve been creating content for my website as well as writing fiction.
For example, in the first paragraph of this blog post, I started out with this phrase: “…after I had seen them, assessed them, and come up with a plan of care for them.” Upon editing, I cut three words. Then I added three words, so my rewrite, while not more succinct, was hopefully clearer and, shall we say, “less flabby.”
Here are my rules for editing, which I apply to everything from text messages and emails to blog posts, web content and short stories.
- Re-read the piece before hitting send. For some reason, the auto-correct on my smart phone changes the word “mom” to “Jim.” If I didn’t re-read my text messages, I might have sent this one to my husband: “Sleeping at Jim’s tonight, not sure when I’ll be home.”
- Read the piece out loud. Okay, I don’t do this with text messages or with personal email, but I do it every time I want to make sure that my meaning is clear and can’t be mistaken. So, every time I send an email to someone I don’t know well, I read it aloud first.
- Put the piece away after finishing a draft and then come back to it. Sometimes with a blog post, I can only leave it for a few hours, but ideally I have at least a day or two. And with bigger projects, weeks is preferable.
- Check for redundancies. If I am reading a piece and I feel like the author already told me something, that’s when I start skimming. Trust the reader!
- Keep to the word limit. For blog posts, I now limit myself to 500 words. My first draft of this piece had a word count of 570, the final draft word count is 469. Let me know if you miss any of the words I cut!