Are You Cutting With Shears or a Chainsaw?

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“I before E except after C…”

“Eliminate passive voice…”

“Start in the middle of the story…”

There are hundreds of writing mantras we’ve all heard, and they always come back to haunt us as we pull out that ugly first draft and our trusty red pen to begin the editing process.

So, like we’ve done so many times before, we pull out the little mental pruning shears and start snipping away at what we’ve written, hoping to prune an adverb here and a run-on sentence there, striving for perfection.

But hold on!

Sometimes, snipping away with our mental shears is just a huge waste of time!

Sometimes what we really need to do is gas up the old mental chainsaw and start lopping off the big branches of our draft and really take the thing down.

What do I mean?

As authors, copywriters, bloggers – anyone who struggles with putting one sentence after another – we’re often way too quick to assume the first draft is close and just needs a little “fine tuning”, when in fact it needs a major overhaul!

Here are three major points to consider before you even look for the first hanging participle:

Does it Make Any Sense?

Is your piece written in a logical order? Would someone who hasn’t been living inside your world for God-only-knows-how-long have any clue what’s going on in this section of the piece? Does your blog post start at a reasonable starting point and carry the reader through to a logical conclusion?

If you can’t answer with a resounding YES to every one of these questions and thirty more I didn’t write down for you, you’ve got some major chopping to do.

If the reader has to stop to scratch their head at any point, you’re probably going to lose them. This is even more true online than off, but these days the average reader’s attention span is twitter-speed, so you’d better not confuse them if you can help it.

Does it Accomplish its Purpose?

Why did you write this piece any way? If it’s a short story, or a scene in a novel, does it effectively build the setting, portray character, move the plot? If not, why did you write it? Lop it off if it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.

If it’s a how-to article, will the reader actually come away from it with a solid understanding of how to do what you’re describing, or will they still have a load of unanswered questions in their heads. If so, why’d you write it? You’ve got to fix it!

Obviously, the first thing you need to do, preferably before you even write your piece, is figure out and define exactly what your purpose is. If you’ve never bothered to do that, it’s not hard to understand why the piece seems a little pointless when you’re looking at the finished first draft.

Does it Reflect Your True Voice?

This one is a little tougher to figure because it’s not as black and white as the previous questions.

But, it needs to be considered before you start nitpicking the spelling and grammar because sometimes – and especially with some types of writing – stretching or even breaking some of the “rules” for the sake of adding your own personal flair to the writing is the best thing you can do for it!

Copywriters have known this forever, yet many of them still finish a draft and start pruning off valid conjunctions, fixing sentence fragments that work to make the point, and insisting you can’t end a sentence with a preposition! As if.

Now, if you can look at your first draft with open eyes and you can honestly say that it does make sense, it does accomplish its purpose, and you’ve even managed to say it all in your true voice, then by all means, put the chainsaw away and start snipping your draft to perfection!

This was a guest post by Justin P Lambert. You can get more from him on his blog, JustinPLambert.net.

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8 thoughts on “Are You Cutting With Shears or a Chainsaw?”

  1. About speaking in your true voice. . .

    Unquestionably, it is important that your writing style not be simply an imitation of someone else’s style, and if that is what you mean by “your true voice” and “personal flair,” fine. I’m not sure what it has to do with ignoring grammatical and stylistic conventions, however.

    I agree that a judicious bending of rules (and, perhaps even more importantly, a judicious shedding of shibboleths) can help to arrest and focus attention. On the other hand, if Your True Voice suggests that your are lazy, sloppy, undereducated, or bumptious, it may arrest but will not detain. Like any decorative device, deliberate flouting of the rules (and even the shibboleths) should be used sparingly. There is almost always a way to recast the sentence so it isn’t a fragment, to reorganize it so the preposition sounds natural even though it precedes the ending, to avoid excessive conjunctions. And rethinking the sentence may well strengthen it, just as rethinking the entire draft may.

  2. Agreed, Kathryn. I hope no one thinks I’m recommending skipping the proofreading in favor of sounding like myself. 🙂

    But I would point out that in all cases, the needs of the audience and the purpose of the piece must take priority. In some contexts, coming across very informally may be exactly what’s needed to accomplish the purpose. I’d hate to see a piece fail because the author was scared to leave a few conjunctions in place.

  3. Would it be possible to reprint this blog at my own writers’ site?
    The advice is good and the article is a well-written one. Please let me know. Of course, I would acknowledge it was first printed at Daily Writing Tips.

    Salvatore Buttaci
    author of Flashing My Shorts

  4. Excellent post. When I ask others to review a draft article I wrote, I ask them to reflect on the first two questions. Additionally, I ask them to analyze its appropriateness for the audience. Your third question is good; I think I’ll start asking it, too.

  5. Precise Edit,

    I’m glad the article was helpful. Definitely start trying to define your true voice. You’ll probably find the other two questions become easier to nail!

    Thanks for the comment!


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