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Editing is hard. I have many great thoughts. Why can’t I share them in all their bloated glory? Because they’re just thoughts. They’re not great. They are bloated. You win no glory. You win the frustration of whoever reads or listens to you.
Imagine that person who rambles on and on and on. Never stops. Never takes a breath. Never lets you get a word in edgewise, sideways, anyways. Now imagine the charismatic speaker, coach, or teacher. They pause and you hang with bated breath for their next word, their next thought, their next insight. They pause. How can they pause? Because they edit their message. They compact it down to its bare essence. Why do they pause, why do they edit? Because it works.
Your audience has the hard job of understanding you. Why not make their life easier? The time you spend editing multiplies your impact by the number of people who better understand your clearer message.
In software engineering, this is similar to refactoring code. The first pass at writing code is ugly. The code might work but the poor next engineer who has to read your code and fix an urgent bug is helpless. What should takes seconds to understand takes hours, even days. Because an amateur committed their first ideas and never improved them. Refactoring keeps the function intact cut the waste. Refactoring says the same thing but in a simpler way. Refactoring makes code easier to read and absorb. Exactly what you want for your audience.
You might not feel ready for this step in your journey from amateur to professional. The creative process is painful enough that most people think the hard part is coming up with an idea. That’s the easy part. Now shape it, mold it, transform it into something great. That’s work. Okay, they’re both work. Once you’ve mastered generating ideas, you might think your first idea is grand. You’re wrong. Take the next step. Edit your ideas.
One Page, One Paragraph, One Sentence
The page on the left of the image is the idea generation process. If you’re not good at this, you’ll get no help here. Maybe try daily idea practice to get started. Or if you’re writing a speech or presentation, check out speechcraft articles or my presentation book. If you like techniques like this you’ll find a few more in the book including a time-saver to focus on why you’re communicating in the first chapter. You don’t need to edit what you don’t write.
Editing starts in the middle page of the image with highlights and cross-outs. Whittling down to one sentence is the hardest part. Not pictured – blood, sweat, and tears. Let’s take it step by step.
Start by writing down your ideas. All your ideas. Unfiltered. Unformatted. Unrestricted. Write a page. Write more than a page. It doesn’t matter. Don’t stop until you feel the creativity well tap out. That doesn’t mean you stop when you pause. You might find inspiration in that uncomfortable moment. You might pick up a marker. Draw on a whiteboard. Search for an idea. Read a book. Take a walk. Wring out more. Then take a break. Take a day. Your choice. Then stop.
Now the hard part. Cut all your text down to one paragraph.
- “What’s most important?”
- highlight these parts
- “What’s not important?”
cross out these parts
Cut big chunks here. Whole paragraphs. Repeat this process until you have less than ten sentences.
Take all that text and rewrite it into one coherent paragraph. If you can’t combine something, cut the less important part. Shorter and clearer is the goal. Less is more.
Take a deep breath. Maybe take a break. You need fresh eyes for this part.
- “What’s the ONE thing I need people to understand?”
- Underline that part
- If you underline multiple parts
- Go back to step 1
You can combine multiple parts but is it a cop-out? Are you simplifying things or just making yourself feel good by checking the one-sentence box?
This process requires trade-offs. What’s the value of one sentence, one message, one idea relative to another? This is your choice. You weigh the factors. Deliberate like crazy. Or go with your gut. You will improve. This will get easier. Still, it’s always hard.
That’s is. That’s your one sentence. You could skip straight to this part from your full page of text. But the process is important. Learn to whittle, combine, and refactor. And you’re not typically limited to communicating only one sentence. But if you can only say one thing, you’re ready.
Three to Five Words
For you overachieving types, try cutting that one sentence down to three to five words. Your communication, your presence, your je-ne-sai-quos will skyrocket from short, staccato sentences.
- passive voice
The end of my Rise Above speech right now looks like this.
Find that person.
Share your gifts.
See our potential.
Then tell us what you see.
And watch us rise above.Matt Dever (Rise Above)
It’s not sliced bread, but it’s better than the wordy version. Trust me. And it will get better when I rewrite it for the one-hundredth time (no joke).
For a better example from a better writer talking about an even better writer, scan this scanned Kurt Vonnegut article on writing with style. Look for the Shakespeare skull-head cartoon.
Which Hamlet line do you like better?
- “Should I act upon the urgings that I feel, or remain passive and thus cease to exist?”
- “To be or not to be?”
No matter your feelings on Hamlet, we like number two better. It forces us to think. About philosophy. About life. About hard things. But not about the words. The message is clear.
Make it easy for me too when I’m your audience. Please.
- Social media
Texting and chat programs lend themselves to terse communication. You may take advantage of the ability to write more so set a trigger for what’s two much. Two sentences is a good target. More than two sentences should trigger your spidey senses that you wrote too much. Refactor it down.
Email is a great opportunity to whittle down your thoughts. Many emails are long-winded. Set your goal as NO emails longer than three sentences. You might think that’s impossible. It might be for your job. But if you set that as the goal, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to practice cutting your message down. If you fail and go above three sentences, you still won. You practiced. You improved.
If you’re concise with all these forms of communication, think broader. Do you write diatribes on social media? Do you go off on verbal rants? Do you ramble?
As I mentioned earlier if you’re writing a speech or presentation, check out speechcraft articles or my presentation book. Use the chapters on “Why am I speaking?” or “Write two drafts” or the second draft article to develop simpler, shorter, clearer messages for your speeches and presentations. You’ll see a condensed version of this material in the book. Start with those chapters to save yourself editing time by knowing what’s most important from the beginning of developing your message. Then apply these editing techniques to finish.
If you want to practice editing for conversations, start with One Sticky Note style communication. Then apply the editing techniques above to that draft. You might think this is overkill for a conversation but we’re talking about practice. Look for any opportunity to practice. We don’t give nearly as many speeches or presentations as we have conversations. The more practice opportunities you recognize and seize, the faster you improve.
We’re talking about practice.