7 Steps to Squeaky Clean Copy

7 Steps to Squeaky Clean Copy

Six steps to squeaky clean copyI have a confession to make.

Though I love reading blogs, I sometimes read them from behind the eyes of someone who makes their living with language. Writing great copy is important, and much like a special effects artist who has a difficult time losing themselves in a film, it is sometimes hard for me to ignore the nagging little details that keep a writer’s words from speaking as clearly as their author intended.

It isn’t punctuation or lack of mechanics that bother me. I’m a writer, but even I think English is a bit confounding, carrying more exceptions than rules. Yet there is, I believe, an essential truth to blogging. Blogging is about communication. Effective communication is reliant upon clear ideas and lucid delivery.

A writer must situate their words in a way that makes the reader feel like they are adjacent to the writer, listening to every word while never once wanting to interrupt. These seven steps can help you take your copy from crusty to clean.

1) Be willing to ramble before you can wrangle. Your thoughts might lie in a tangled mess, but you must get them out of your head and onto the screen before you can start sorting. The first draft is not a time to measure perfection, it is a time to write. Editing comes next. If you can construct your thoughts with perfection the first time through, then perhaps that is an indication the value of your content isn’t quite as high it could be. Revision while writing is a pillow on the face of pure thought.

2) Edit your words as though someone else wrote them. Every word isn’t golden and word count doesn’t matter. It is the density of ideas that will make your writing remarkable. 250 or 1250, make every word count. I promise you, there is fat in your first draft. Cut it.

3) Not just lean, but strong as well. You’re off the treadmill, now head to the weight room where a few key changes can pack a bit of power in your prose. Stay far from weak words, opt instead for vocabulary with muscle. Us, are, were, it – these words cast with abandon will cause your copy to grow timid. Strong words are the scaffolding to a strong voice. Own the action. Use active language rather than passive.  For some examples of correct passive versus active language, check out this page.

4) Don’t attempt to sound smarter than you are. I would guess every beginning writer does this. I know I did, but I drank from a bottle when I was a baby too. My general rule, never use words I wouldn’t use in regular conversation. Stephen King has a law I rather like. “If you had to use a thesaurus to find it, you’re using the wrong word.” Artfully arranged and long winded are not the same thing.

5) Read out loud. I don’t publish a word on any of my blogs until I’ve read the copy out loud. I read my highest profile stuff to my wife, but I’ve no qualms about splitting the silence of an empty room in exchange for incredible copy. Invariably, my mouth catches much of the minutia my mind’s inclined to miss.

6) Print it out. My writing partner, David prints his stories while editing, a trick he learned in the newsroom. Reading on the computer screen can become tiresome and many of us tend to gloss over mistakes that would stick out in print. Print your copy, mark it up, then dip in for one last online edit.

7) Stay True. Be yourself. Like it or not, everyone else is spoken for. If you try to write for an audience of everyone, you will be lucky to be writing for an audience of anyone. Writing to please a fickle public is a slippery slope with jagged teeth of slate at the bottom.

Collective Inkwell Community Question: Do any of these seven steps ring true to you? What steps would you suggest for getting your copy squeaky clean?

Sean Platt is a ghostwriter and father, who believes life’s better with the right words.

Writing wisdom is for wee ones too! Are you happy with your child’s writing? Sign up for early information on Writer Dad’s upcoming Writer’s Workshop, and learn how you can help give your child a limitless life.

  • http://www.sharingthejourney.co.uk janice

    Brilliant list – crucial for new writers and welcome ‘revision’ for others.

    I do #6 with my longer articles to catch typos and because I know a lot of my older readers print them out to enjoy them. And as you know, Sean, I’m obsessed with #7 – helping people, not just writers, find and express their authentic voices.

    #1″If you can construct your thoughts with perfection the first time through, then perhaps that is an indication the value of your content isn’t quite as high it could be.” This made me go “Mmm. Not always true.” I know exactly what you mean, but I think we have to be clear, first of all, if content is always king or if there’s a place for fresh, spontaneous communication styles. A vital part of the editing paradigm is knowing what to leave in, not just what to change or cut out. Sometimes people edit the heart, the immediacy or the humour out of their pieces by overworking them. Some readers come to enjoy the singer as much as the song. That’s why they make allowances for the odd dud song choice.

    janice’s last blog post..Claiming Your Voice

  • http://creativesolomon.blogspot.com Solomon

    Hi Sean,
    Today, I read one of your post loud. I felt I understood much better (not this one but some other). Often I read it loud that my 9 yr old son listens it and he imbibes some of the thoughts, and wife too. I want slowly hook them up to the riches in some good blogs. :-))
    I ignore reading my posts loud. I’ll do that on a regular basis here after.
    I agree with what Janice has said here – we shouldn’t edit the heart for perfection.
    The #7 is very apt. I think what you narrated there holds water to every new writer.
    Thanks for the great tips, and I love each of your words that shine here!

    Solomon’s last blog post..Go Crazy …. It helps you LEARN and WIN

  • http://www.aboundlessworld.com Bud Hennekes

    Number 7 is my favorite. Nothing is more obvious then a writer faking his (or her) own writing..

    I love this quote:

    ” If you can construct your thoughts with perfection the first time through, then perhaps that is an indication the value of your content isn’t quite as high it could be. ”

    Part of being the best writer (or person for that matter) is taking risks, and pushing yourself. Be daring be bold.. it will pay off ten-fold later.

    Great post Sean!

    Bud Hennekes’s last blog post..The Power of Meditation

  • http://www.joyfuldays.com/ Daphne @ Joyful Days

    Great advice, Sean. I like your point about not just lean, but strong. I’m also wondering about staying true, and how I’m doing on that. When I write, it’s not just that I’m being myself, but more like I’m CREATING myself, if you know what I mean. I write about the person I hope I’m becoming, rather than the person I already am.

    Daphne @ Joyful Days’s last blog post..8 Lessons from the Lindy Hop

  • http://www.mattresspolice.com diesel

    Excellent post. Ok, now to go proofread my latest post again….

    • http://writerdad.com Sean

      Sorry. I missed you there due to moderation. Yes, we can ALWAYS afford to cover ourselves a second time.

  • http://www.thewritingbase.com Samar

    I would suggest rambling in your personal blog. This way you get all the errant and distracting thoughts out of your head, and the writing you did makes the word and idea flow much easier for when you write for your professional blog and clients.

    I’m a sucker for my own words. I never want to delete them and my first draft is almost always saved. In my defense, it serves as a good comparison after I’m done editing ;)

    About #4, when I started blogging about freelancing and everything related to it, one of my first decisions was to blog about my experience instead of expertise. It has saved me a lot of stress! I can back up all my posts by my own experience and gives my readers the option to debate and convince me otherwise if they don’t agree.

    Samar’s last blog post..Overdosing on Copyblogger

    • http://writerdad.com Sean

      Hi Samar. Moderation… you know how it is. I used to be a sucker for my own words. Not anymore. My red pen and I have never gotten along better. I do keep all my original drafts though. This is a remarkable resources for gauging your progress.

  • http://chasemarch.blogspot.com Chase March

    I think it is important to read what you have written before hitting publish. It may sound weird talking to yourself but you will catch errors that way. That’s what I do.

    I always try to write my posts so that I can say the most in the least amount of words. I think blogs are a unique medium where we can lose readers if we are too long.

    Chase March’s last blog post..It’s My Self-Referential Introduction Post

  • http://writerdad.com Sean

    Janice: I see what you’re saying about quick and clear communication. I would offer, however, that anything worth publishing is also worth rereading at least once. The only thing I do not edit at least a single time is my email. That fits the medium, but if I’m expecting more than one single person to read it, I believe I owe it to the audience to check over my work. Even if it is only a sentence or two.

    Solomon: It is nice to see you. I am glad that you read your work out loud. I promise, it WILL make a tremendous difference in overall tone.

    Bud: Exactly. You have to be willing to believe that things will come back full circle. A garden is never abundant immediately after planting. It is only after the soil is nurtured that the garden can grow.

    Daphne: I absolutely LOVE this line: “I write about the person I hope I’m becoming, rather than the person I already am.” Just beautiful and I fully agree.

    Chase: I totally agree. I have a tendency to be too wordy, but it’s something I’ve definitely improved on. I continue to be mindful of my tendencies, but I also can (and will) continue to improve.

    Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

  • http://lorihoeck.com Lori Hoeck

    I really like number three because it highlights a weak spot for me. If I can immerse myself in writing — eat, sleep, and drink it — all the rules, the powerful expression, the fun phrasings start to flow naturally. It takes a lot for me to get to that level. I need to find a way to get there without immersion.

  • http://writerdad.com Sean

    I admit, I can get there in about five minutes flat, but on those rare occasions when I have long stretches of writing time that aren’t spoken for by a dozen little daddy do’s, well those are depths I now can mostly only dream about.

    Dave and Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    Great list, Sean! I teach a copywriting seminar for Mediabistro, and I always share these very tips with my students. In particular, I’m a huge fan of reading what I’ve written aloud before posting it on my blog or sending it to a client, and I love your treadmill/weight room analogy.

    The only part of the post I would question is Stephen King’s law. I’m with you 100 percent—if you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it. But I think the thesaurus is an essential writer’s tool. There are plenty of words in the thesaurus that I would say, but just can’t think of at the time, for whatever reason. Often, that word I can’t think of off the top of my head is the better word—not necessarily the more impressive, smart-sounding word, but the word that takes my thought where it needs to go.

    Kristin T. (@kt_writes)’s last blog post..When we walk, we grasp our humanity

  • http://www.sharingthejourney.co.uk janice

    @ Sean
    I wasn’t suggesting publishing without checking or editing. I think this is one of the difficulties with the word ‘editing’ or the concept itself. I chop and change, hack and proof read as I go along, even in emails, comments and first drafts. It’s just what I’ve always done. When I edit longer pieces for publishing, it involves leaving lots more time and space.

    With regard to #1, I also think it depends on how any individual defines “perfection” in their own writing. I’ve seen so many people paralysed by the eternal striving for it, even if they allow themselves freedom in the first drafts of their lives and their writing. I’ve also seen others ripping up the flowers with the weeds, in an overzealous search for perfection. The fun part, as you and others have said above, is evolving and enjoying every step of the process, not just the end product.

    janice’s last blog post..Claiming Your Voice

  • http://collectiveinkwell.com Sean

    Kristin: Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE the thesaurus. I have a big giant real life Oxford one I use as well as one that is omnipresent in my dashboard. The problem isn’t using it so much as when writers say the wrong thing in an effort to sound intelligent. Readers can tell and it makes the rest of the prose sound wobbly. I think we are saying the same thing.

    Janice: Exactly. Looking for perfection is a sure way to never find it. It isn’t about the garden, it’s about the gardening.

  • http://stevendepolo.tumblr.com/ Steven

    I like the idea of printing the blog post for editing. Blogging has the sense of being spontaneous, but it has grown up as a publishing tool and should be treated like you are writing a magazine article. This is a great post and I’ll forward it to my grant writing mailing list. Cheers!

    @stevendepolo

    Steven’s last blog post..My co-worker Ashleigh is getting married and moving to a new…

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  • http://paisleythoughts.blogspot.com/ Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)

    Intelligence is such an interesting subject. There’s all kinds of intelligence. There are writers who are emotionally intelligent, others are clever experts on specific subjects, others have a knack for ‘writing’ between the lines. I do agree, if a writer comes from a place that is contrived, it won’t ring true. The process of becoming an authentic and good writer is such an interesting journey. Great to have a list of reminders.

    Paisley (Paisley Thoughts)’s last blog post..Would You Display Your Creative Writing On A Personal Blog?

  • http://butterfliesinmyhand.wordpress.com Kool Aid

    Ok, I admit, I never read my posts aloud. Maybe I should, but I read them over and over and often catch things that way. But then, I don’t really feel like I have a ton of great insight to offer. I’m just telling tales of our lives. Light reading, if you will.

    When I wrote my short for the contest here, though, I started with pen and paper and wrote and scribbled and rewrote and added notes in the margins and arrows showing where to move text – it’s a mess! I’m “old school” enough to write every other line on paper if I’m writing stories and I can’t do it on a computer screen. There’s definitely something to putting pen to paper that I prefer.

    Kool Aid’s last blog post..Funny things kids say

  • http://www.domesticcents.com Nicki at Domestic Cents

    The first point really works for me. Getting all the thoughts out of my head and onto the screen helps me sort them out. Many times I end up pulling two separate ideas from my one brain spill.

    I used to be a proofreader at a newspaper and it’s true – printing out your work makes a big difference (I have no idea why I don’t do it).

    Nicki at Domestic Cents’s last blog post..What I Really Want For Mothers Day

  • http://writerdad.com Sean

    Paisley: It’s true. I’ve met people far smarter than me who couldn’t write a lick, and people who can write remarkably who cannot hold a conversation. The best we can do is just be ourselves.

    Kool Aid: Reading your posts out loud is fun, ESPECIALLY if you have a willing (or semi-willing) audience.

    Nicki: I like printed copy, but I confess to being to cheap to use my ink these days. Maybe not forever, but certainly for now. When I wrote the first draft of my novel though, it was great to mark it all up, page by page.

    Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

  • http://www.ihatemymessageboard.com Tracy

    I am going to start reading outloud! I am a horrible one for missing even simple things.

    Tracy’s last blog post..How Life Coaching Helped My Blog

    • http://www.paulsharville.com Paul Sharville

      I’m going to read my work aloud every time someone on the train is speaking too loudly into their mobile phone… Why shouldn’t I? I have to listen to their inane drivel; they can damn well listen to mine.

  • http://www.disabilityorpossibility.com Michael

    … Every word isn’t golden and word count doesn’t matter.

    If there is one rule that I try to follow it is this one. I once wrote a brilliant masterpiece, or so I thought. I showed it to my partner—an English Lit major—and he told me to completely eliminate the first paragraph. Yikes! I struggled with that idea because I’d put so much effort in creating that “wonderful” attention-grabbing starter. But he was right. The second paragraph became the first and my story now had a very strong beginning.

    Regarding “It isn’t punctuation or lack of mechanics that bother me. If I’m being honest, I think English is a bit confounding, carrying more exceptions than rules.”

    I struggle with this one. Language is constantly evolving and the rules need to change with the times. In today’s world of technology we’ve seen a whole new style of writing emerge, first with emailing, then blogging, and now texting and twitting. It has opened up a whole new world for communicating, and that is good. My hope is that we don’t become so relaxed that we forget how to use proper grammar when it is appropriate. (Okay, how many grammatical errors did I just make?)

    Michael’s last blog post..Lichen’s Log

    • http://www.paulsharville.com Paul Sharville

      The first para of any piece is so often the warm-up act. I’ve lost count of the times my first para has gone, to be replaced by my second. A critical observation for writers to attend to wherever possible.

  • http://welshscribe.co.uk Marc – WelshScribe

    “Though I love reading blogs, I sometimes read them from behind the eyes of someone who makes their living with language”

    I totally get what you are saying. In fact it’s probably why I was so hard on your pyramid scheme post. I’m turning into those teachers I loved to hate in school!

    I must confess I don’t read anything out loud but I do read and re-read everything I write, half a dozen times maybe more.

    The one point you make that truly stands out for mw though is point #3 passive v. active language. I’ve no idea how I’m doing in that regard and it’s something I must look into.

  • http://writerdad.com Sean

    Tracy: Reading out loud is fun, not only because you can catch a few boo-boos, but because it gives you an overall idea about how engaging your words actually are. Though of course, if you’re reading YOUR copy you will probably laugh yourself silly. Good stuff, that.

    Michael: I love what you’re saying about evolving language and totally agree. I try to get excited about the evolution of the tongue rather than feeling curmudgeonly about the way things used to be. However, I do hope we maintain respect for the old way as we make way for the new.

    Marc: Man I’m still crying over the tough love you threw down on that one. Just kidding, I re-read everything once or twice. After that I feel obsessive, but truth be told, I would re-read even more if only I had the time.

    Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

  • http://foreignquang.blogspot.com Randi

    I love # 2 and # 5.

    It took a long time for me to learn the lesson of #2: “Every word isn’t golden.” My aunt is an author and an excellent editor. When I write for submissions or contests, I always have her proofread. One of my biggest sins is “just.” As in, “She just stood there,” or “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” She taught me to look at that word and kill it. I recently had her proof a contest entry and it came back with about 200 red slashes. Yup–200 too many words that weren’t needed. I’m finally learning to, as #2 says, “Edit your words as though someone else wrote them,” except I am editing my words as if someone else were reading them—my aunt.

    I’m going to start doing #5. Excellent suggestion and a good way to catch errors.

    I know the advice is always to proof before you hit “publish,” which I do, but I still do some editing after I hit publish. Many times the layout in Notepad, is not the same when I transfer it to Blogger. I look at my post after it is published and re-do anything that looks “weird” or not as strong as it looked in Notepad. Sometimes I can’t even correct it to my satisfaction. On a recent post, I used bullet points, which looked fine before I hit “publish.” On the actual post though, the bullet points were all jammed together instead of having a nice white space between them. Couldn’t fix no matter what I tried. After I hit “publish” I usually give it at least two more proofs, trying to see it as a stranger would see it.

    Randi’s last blog post..How to be Frugal Without Being a Scrooge

    • http://writerdad.com Sean

      My word is “that.” I strike it out every chance I get. I forget what the exact quote is, but there’s a quote by Mark Twain that I really like. Something to the effect of, “If you substitute damn for very in your work, your editor will strike them all out and save you the trouble.” Of course he was Mark Twain so it sounded much cooler.

      Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

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  • http://www.punintended.com/blog Bamboo Forest – PunIntended

    I print out all my work before I hit the publish button. Proofreading is much more effective this way.

    I also usually wait at least 24 hours after writing something to publish it. New eyes as well as new ideas can make the post even better than it was.

    • http://writerdad.com Sean

      That’s something I love to do when I’m ahead, but when I fall behind I just publish after I write. The best posts, however, are definitely the ones that marinate.

      Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

  • http://www.writingforward.com Melissa Donovan

    These are all great habits for serious writers to develop. I admit that I give much leeway with blogs that I read because it’s such a frequent, ongoing form of publication, and who can hire a professional editor or proofreader for a blog? Still, bloggers do need to take care with their words and how they present them to the public.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..May News and Announcements

  • http://www.scrawlbug.com SpikeTheLobster

    Hi Sean. Great post (yeah, I got here from Anne’s blog…). Shouldn’t that be “minutiae”, though? ;)

    SpikeTheLobster’s last blog post..The Word Philes 7

  • http://nebulousmooch.com Lovelyn

    I love editing my work. I try to cut out as many words as I can without loosing the meaning. That’s why my posts are so short. That’s why I tend to write flash fiction.

    Lovelyn’s last blog post..On the Drive to the Emergency Room

    • http://www.paulsharville.com Paul Sharville

      Watch that extra ‘o’ in losing ;-)

  • http://writerdad.com Sean

    Spike: Er… uh… hmmm.. yeah. (slips away in shame)

    Lovelyn: I keep meaning to get around to writing a piece of flash fiction. Something that looks super fun that I have yet to try.

    Sean’s last blog post..How to Give Your Child a Limitless Life

  • http://www.creativityprompt.com/ Avital

    Seems like you have compiled the list of “The golden rules of writing”… For me writing gets extra tough as I have to write in a second language. As a {former} lawyer language had been my most important tool. Each pun had been carefully intended. Now, as a blogger, language is again one of the basics, but I struggle a lot more with it. Therefore handy rules are always gratefully accepted :)

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  • http://www.beabetterwriternow.com Mary

    Sean, I’m right there with you on every word of this post. I swear I hadn’t read it when I wrote my recent Quick Guide to Revising and Editing (sorry, but I don’t know how to make that a link). I particularly like points two and three. Any good writer puts their ego on a shelf when editing.

    Mary’s last blog post..Beating the Buzz Word Fail Whale

  • http://www.paulsharville.com Paul Sharville

    Good stuff. I might add ‘If you’ve got the time, let it incubate’. Walk away from it, better still sleep on it. The clarity of revisiting copy after a break, even a short one, can be pin sharp. ‘Yes, I still love it’ or ‘OMG that really doesn’t work’ are both valid and valuable conclusions.

  • http://twitter.com/DarronBarnes Darron Barnes

    Stuff great Sean, there I go again! Hahaha!

    Great stuff Sean, that’s better.

    I will print your list and keep it as a check list to get myself in the habit before posting to my newly proposed blog. Thank you for sharing Sean.

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