The common-sense way to edit your writing – without going overboard

Keep your copy short. Keep it simple. Edit out this. Cut down on that.
It’s what all the top copywriting blogs tell you to do.
Just lately, practically every other post about blogging or writing seems to be giving out the same guidance on how to edit down your copy.
Don’t use long words when short ones will do. Ditch redundant words. Steer clear of the passive voice.
Again all pretty sound advice wouldn’t you say?
So what’s the problem?
Well it’s this:
Too many people are just plain stupid. They only see things in black and white.Show them what to do in a particular situation and they end up doing the same thing every time.
You tell them to tighten up their copy and what do they do? They butcher the living daylights out of it.
They pare it back to the bare minimum. They strip out every last bit of personality. They remove subtle nuances that affect its meaning. And, in the end, they actually make their copy harder to read.
Now we all need to edit our content down before we publish. But how do we know when we’re going over the top?
So let’s take a look at this advice again and see where we might use a little more common sense:
→ Don’t use long words when short ones will do
Short and simple nearly always works best. But DON’T use a short word at the expense of the right word.
Longer words can be far more specific and often capture what you’re trying to say far better than a shorter, more general one.
They also help you avoid repetition. For instance, take the following fictitious job ad:
In this exciting new website copywriter position you’ll handle all of our B2B clients.You’ll handle all aspects of their on-site SEO, write blog posts on their behalf and handle their email marketing campaigns.You will also handle all of their social media accounts.
I don’t know about you, but I got a bit sick of seeing the word ‘handle’ by the end. The alternative ‘be responsible for’ might be stuffier, but at least it adds a bit of variety. And it’ll also save you from looking like a five-year-old who’s just learning to write.
→ Ditch redundant words
Grammar sticklers call it circumlocution or prolixity. Everyone else knows it as using more words when fewer will do. Here are some examples:
Circumlocution
Shorter alternative
in view of the fact that
because
in order to
to
on a regular basis
regularly
in the vicinity of
near
Most of the time these redundant words are unnecessary baggage.
But just like white space between paragraphs a few occasional padding words can actually make your copy easier to follow.
They smooth the transition between one idea and the next. They also help split up individual parts of a sentence and clarify its meaning.
Here’s a very simple example:
The company changed its plan in order to give staff a pay rise.The company changed its plan to give staff a pay rise.
In the first case, staff are getting a pay rise. In the second, they’re not. So sometimes stripping out those so-called redundant words isn’t such a clever idea.
→ Steer clear of the passive voice
Virtually any copywriter will tell you the active voice is stronger, more direct and more compelling, whereas the passive voice is weaker and more difficult to read.
But this isn’t always the case. In many writing situations only the passive will do.
Take this sentence I wrote about English footballer Frank Lampard in a magazine article documenting the high and low points of his career:
Lamps is denied an equalising goal in England’s World Cup showdown with Germany in South Africa.
Now see how you’d write it in the active:
The referee denies Lamps an equalising goal in England’s World Cup showdown with Germany in South Africa.
The active voice just doesn’t do it here – because the sentence is meant to be about Frank Lampard NOT the referee. In other words, the passive can sometimes help make your content easier to read.
What’s more, it’s particularly useful if (like me) you do a lot of website copywriting and on-site SEO.
Why?
Because you can front-load your most important keywords in headlines, title tags, image ALT tags and lead sentences.
And also, as we’ve seen in the footie example above, you can use it to strategically position important words in your copy.
So, when it comes to the sales-oriented pages on your website, you can place them where they’ll make the most impact on conversion.
Now I’m not giving you an excuse to write limp, long-winded and bloated copy. I just want you to know that the passive and longer or ‘redundant’ words have their place.
So go ahead and make use of the many great online resources available. I’ve even included a couple of links for you below.
But, whatever editing guidance you take, remember that there’s just no substitute for common sense.
Have you ever had your writing butchered by an editor? Do think over editing can rip your copy to shreds? Let us know your thoughts in our comment section below.
If you like this, you might also like:
24 complex words – and their simpler alternatives | Ragan’s PR Daily25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy | The Write Life5 non-existent words that make YOU look a halfwit copywriter | Write Online
In our next post: Acronyms, parochialisms and jargon – when you should use them and when you should avoid them?
About the Author
Kevin Carlton is a freelance SEO copywriter and blogger based in Staffordshire in the UK. He is the owner of the Make every word work for you blog and website copywriting service Write Online.