Edit to Done: Revision and the Art of Being Concise


Photo courtesy of Djenan.

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” - Bernard Malamud

Sometimes it’s just good to know when to shut up.

The problem with a lot of amateur writers is that they can be long-winded, writing in a few paragraphs what could be said in a few sentences. They might think they’re impressing people with their flowery prose or thought-out arguments … but really they’re losing the reader.

Most people don’t have time to wade through long paragraphs for a few nuggets of information. Do the reader a favor by getting to the point.

I can’t claim to be the world’s most concise writer. I have certainly written my share of long posts — but my goal is to pack my posts with useful information. You can’t do that in a couple paragraphs, but you can try to edit all extraneous words and information and just have the essentials.

Here’s a quick guide to doing that.

1. Do just one thing, and do it well. Know from the outset what you’re trying to do with any writing piece, whether that’s a post or a short story or a magazine article or a novel. The piece should have one main purpose, and you should start your writing by defining that purpose. I usually try to do that with my post title (or “headline”). If you don’t define your purpose, you might have several aims, and that diffuses the power of your writing. Trying to do too many things at once is a sure recipe for wordiness and confusion.

2. Write, then revise. When you’re doing your first draft, there’s no need to be concise. Just type away, and let the words flow. Don’t stop yourself. Then go over that first draft, closely examining each sentence and word to ensure that they’re necessary to achieve the purpose of the piece. Then revise again. Revision can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be: it’s simply reading your own work with a critical eye, and it’s necessary if you want to write well. The art of writing is really the art of revision.

3. Learn to revise in your head. Once you’ve done enough revision, it can become an automatic process. I wouldn’t recommend this for beginners — do revision after you do your first draft — but for the more experienced editors, revision becomes something that’s part of the writing process. You begin to test out phrases and words for their sound, and begin to shorten things as you go. It’s a good skill that cuts back on revision time later (though you will still need to do that). I revise as the thought is flowing from my head to my fingers, and then I revise what I just typed as I go along, and then I go back and revise that first draft when the whole piece is done.

4. Eliminate the non-essential. If you know the essential ideas you’re trying to communicate, try to identify the non-essential ones. Would the piece be just as good without it? Sometimes we feel things are essential, but if we eliminate them, the piece isn’t hurt at all. If you’re not sure, try it without the word or phrase or sentence. Always keep in mind your purpose (see No. 1 above) so that you know what’s essential — only the words and sentences necessary to achieve that purpose, and no more.

5. Learn the common mistakes. After awhile, you’ll see common phrases that can be shortened. “The fact that” is almost never necessary, for example. It adds extra words without adding meaning. I could provide a list of common extraneous phrases, but I think it’s better to learn them as you go — you get better at spotting them that way, and better understand why they’re unnecessary.

6. Read The Elements of Style. A concise guide to writing concisely. It’s a classic for a reason — there is no better guide to eliminating excess words.

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51 Responses to “Edit to Done: Revision and the Art of Being Concise”

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  1. Lisa White says:

    Well done Leo!! I began reading Zen Habits daily from last March. Your blog motivated me to rediscover my passion and make changes in my life to encourage it. That passion was writing and I’m so happy you are now blogging about that too! I am inspired and hope to join you in these realms soon.
    Thankyou once again and I hope this is even more of a success than your initial venture. I agree with you, I think you have found your calling!

  2. Jason Simon says:

    Hello Leo,

    I look forward to reading your new blog! Zen Habits has inspired me to follow my passion; this one will help me articulate it at http://opentodifference.com.

  3. Renee Biala says:

    I enjoyed your blog, and will be reading more. I am in the process of writing a fiction book now and have posted an excerpt online. I may actually accomplish this goal before I turn 50. Have a look see if your not so busy. Thanks for all the great writing advice.

  4. Wyatt Song says:

    So much wisdom here to pick up! looks like i’ve got quite a bit of reading material for the time ahead!

    Thanks for the good tips…

    Wyatt

  5. Leo Babauta says:

    Thanks for the comments guys! I’m excited about this blog, and I’m glad you like it so far. Maybe a little sparse now, but don’t worry, soon there will be a wealth of info here, from me and from great guest writers. :)

    Thanks for participating, and please subscribe if you haven’t!

  6. Camilla says:

    Excellent idea for a second blog – will definitely be reading along. I write fiction and hopefully soon articles on the subject of my day-job, so this is likely to be very useful for me. Congrats on the second blog, here’s hoping it proves as successful as Zen Habits!

  7. Camilla says:

    Oh, and i was going to mention something and didn’t… but just saw your comment and thought add this: i use GoogleReader to subscribe to the blogs i *have* to read but don’t enjoy that much. For the blogs i enjoy, i have shortcuts in my Firefox bookmarks bar. So that goes for Zen Habits, this blog, and Get Rich Slowly amongst some others. I much prefer visiting their pages. So i can’t bump your subscribed number up, but i wanted you to know your blogs have a prominent position in my browser through other means! :D

  8. Pffft…As though I would ever write long paragraphs instead of sentences thats not my style I write sentences that’s easy to read and doesn’t require and grammatic at all.

    /joke

    Great idea for a site. Congratulations. I’m pretty sure I can learn a lot from this. I tend to write too long paragraphs and I’m not following the unofficial old-school blog rule of max 350 words per post.

  9. Björgvin says:

    Awsome! Subscriber nr. 3!!!
    Love your posts from Zen Habits. Think this blog will come even more in handy.

  10. BJ Backitis says:

    Love this new blog… very inspiration and educational. I hope I can make as much use of it as I have Zen Habits.

    I can’t agree more with the recommendation to read The Elements of Style… it still amazes me that such a (relatively) short work from 1918 could still be so on target today. Strunk was an absolute genius. Every writer (or wannabe writer) should own a copy, and have the online version bookmarked as well:

    http://sut1.sut.ac.th/strunk/

  11. Ranmaru says:

    Congratulations on the new project!
    I found Zen Habits extremely helpful (got to me to establish at one thing I regularly do) so I’m looking forward on munching through Write to Done too :)
    Excellent idea for the post. I’ve caught myself on actually getting bored while reading to DeMille’s “Wild fire” recently. As much as I love the author his habit (oh, the word) of describing in details every character (important or not) made me being less not more interested in the story. Which suprised me a lot. But here’s your point. Revisions are necessary.
    I know quite a lot of amateur writers, mostly friends of mine, who go into feeding the reader too much information. I’ll point them to your article.

  12. Michael says:

    Congratulations on the new blog and the book deal. Totally awesome!

    And, most importantly, this blog looks great. As a struggling / aspiring writer this is exactly the kind of motivation I need. Far more useful than a hundred how-to-get-rich-quick blogs.

    Good luck!

  13. April Silver says:

    Two excellent resources for writing well and concisely are Robert Hartwell Fiske’s online journal, The Vocabula Review (www.vocabula.com) and his book, the Dictionary of Concise Writing.

  14. Brian Tanaka says:

    A new Leo blog! Hooray!

  15. Zoe Winters says:

    Great post! I’m in revision Hell right now. I don’t ever revise during the rough draft though because then I get blocked and start worrying about making it perfect, though I think my rough drafts are cleaner than they used to be so maybe it’s a subconscious revision while writing that’s going on.

  16. D. Amorrae says:

    Leo, it looks like I might have to revamp my entire blog because of this article :-). Thanks for the info. I’m still knew to writing and your 17 years of experience will definitely be helpful on my journey.

  17. This is good advice, although there are times when a bit of “going on” is acceptable. Going around the barn to get to the pigpen is almost never a good idea, unless the pigpen is on the other side. Just dropping in because I found a link to here from Metaxu Cafe through someone else’s blog, and it looked interesting.

    DNW

  18. M says:

    I just found Zen Habits and that led me here. I’m so glad!! I look forward to reading more.

    One little request, though? Would it be possible to get a mail subscription option for this blog too?

  19. GordonG says:

    Hi Leo – been a reader of Zenhabits for quite a while and came across – love the topics and will put you on my RSS feed.

    BTY – just one minor quibble – could we have a left-hand margin – makes it much easier to read imho (as an ex graphic designer).

  20. jakeBang says:

    Excellent post.

    It seems everything in the world is about to fail and try again. :)

  21. Brad says:

    Like so many others here, I’m excited about writetodone. zenhabits has been an inspiration to me as I start blogging myself. You have something good going on and I’m glad you choose to share it.
    Brad

  22. krizcpec says:

    One more recommended book: On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
    Nice post anyway. :)

  23. M says:

    Yay for email subscriptions!

    Thank you very much. Now I can (hopefully) avoid that wandering link exploration that eats up so much of my time whenever I go beyond my mailbox and get some writing done!

  24. Great tips – when I first started writing, I hated editing. But, after a while it is the editing that is the real writing. What you’re doing beforehand is just getting the bones of your story down.

    Do you read your work out loud Leo? I find that useful; it helps you see how well it flows (usually far worse than I’d hoped!)

  25. I enjoy Write to Done as much as Zen Habits, that means – extremely. Thanx Leo!

  26. Annie R. says:

    Leo, Leo, Leo, No!

    Great advice, and EVERYONE should read and digest this, but the REAL SECRET in learning to be concise is … well, let me add a historic lesson.

    I had a bylined column in an international newspaper (an English language paper from Greece) for several years. The column had to be 800 words. period. So, one writes a few paragraphs on Monday, a few more on Tuesday feeling like pulling hen’s teeth, gets stuck on Wednesday, then out flows some the most wondrous verbiage on Thursday which has to be sent in by deadline on Friday morning. But the wondrous wordcount has gone up to 1200 – 1500 words, and you HAVE to cut it to 800. Cut, grunt, ouch, rewrite the syntax, brevity, get the point without that paragraph, rrip, OW, ohmygod have to submit it in anouther 20 minutes…

    Well, it gets done. THAT’s how you learn to be concise.

    Annie

  27. Juana Blanca says:

    I am glad to have found this blog. I stopped writing for a long time, and am working on a blog of my own to get me back into the swing of things. This one in particular deals with something I am trying to work on right now, which is revising what I write for extraneous language. I want to keep my voice but I also don’t want to create too much noise in my writing.

  28. Creating and editing are processes that happen in different parts of the brain. Creativity springs forth from the right side of the brain, whereas editing or analysing happens in the left side.

    That’s why it’s important to do the first draft without thought of quality and just let words flow onto the page. Then, the next step is to look critically at what we have written.

    If we mix these two different functions, our creativity is hindered or dries up. It’s what people call “Writer’s block”.

    Here’s a post I wrote about creativity:
    http://goodlifezen.com/2007/11/24/what-makes-us-creative/

  29. JanW says:

    For readers who want quick access to The Elements of Style, it’s available on the web at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/

    Looking forward to more of your posts about writing. Was sent here by one of your faithful readers today.

    Jan

  30. Great new blog Leo, thanks, I’m already a fan and a writer (mainly scientific articles, since I do research). I want to add something that I train my doctoral students to do: Read every sentence out loud (to yourself, or with your collaborators) in your final, or next to final edit. You mention “sound” which of course we do in our heads (I’ve been writing every day for –I hate to say it, almost 40 years now), but I still include that “out loud” editing, at least when I’m submitting a manuscript to a journal. I catch all kinds of phrases that could “sound” better, literally, with a rewrite. I tend to be long-winded, I love writing and whatever happens in my mind (the flow state) when writing, so I often go on beyond what’s needed. I catch that too when including the out loud phase of editing. It helps my students –they are not used to editing and are surprised that I go to such lengths. If some of your readers are students, they might find this process helpful.

    Thanks for the new blog, and congratulations on your book contract.

    Lynn

  31. Alex says:

    For those interested in writing guides, you might like Stephen King’s “On Writing,” too. He has some anecdotes about his first attempts at journalism, ruthless editors, and other factors that helped develop his style (and he also mentions “Elements of Style” as an essential companion).

  32. Karen Swim says:

    I found you through CopyBlogger and I am now hooked. This year I have been working on brevity. Your post is timely and helpful. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight.

    Karen

  33. Zhadi says:

    A writer friend just sent me the link to your blog and I’m so glad she did! The right advice at the right time!

  34. Chaos Tamer says:

    Leo: Congratulations and thanks re: this great new site. I’ve been helped by, among other things, George Orwell’s Five Rules for Effefctive Writing posted by John Wesley on his site, http://www.pickthebrain.com

    “In our society, study of language & literature is the domain of poets, novelists, & literary critics. Language is considered a decorative art, fit for entertainment & culture, but practically useless in comparison to the concrete sciences. Just look at the value of an English degree versus computer science or accounting. But is this an accurate assessment of value? Language is the primary conductor between your brain & the minds of your audience. Ineffective language weakens & distorts ideas. If you want to be understood and want your ideas to spread, using effective language must be your top priority. In the modern world of business & politics this is hardly ever the case. In many instances, imprecise language is used intentionally to avoid taking a position & offending various demographics. No wonder it’s hard to make sense of anything! This is hardly a recent problem, but George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, the condition is curable. By following his 5 rules for effective writing, you’ll distinguish yourself from competitors & clearly communicate your ideas.
    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. Phrases such as toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, an axe to grind, Achilles’ heel, swan song, & hotbed come to mind quickly & feel comforting & melodic. For this exact reason they must be avoided. Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used skillfully. In the wrong situation they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious & arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood & more awkward to read. When Hemingway was criticized by Faulkner for his limited word choice he replied: Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older & simpler & better words, & those are the ones I use.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree (Ezra Pound). Accordingly, any words that don’t contribute meaning to a passage dilute its power. Less is always better. Always.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    This one is frequently broken, probably because many people don’t know the difference between active & passive verbs. I didn’t myself until a few months ago. Here is an example that makes it easy to understand: The man was bitten by the dog (passive); The dog bit the man (active). Active is better because it’s shorter & more forceful.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    This is tricky because much published internet is highly technical. If possible, remain accessible to the average reader. If your audience is highly specialized this is a judgment call. You don’t want to drag on with unnecessary explanation, but try to help people understand what you’re writing about. You want your ideas to spread, right?
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
    This bonus rule is a catch all. Above all, be sure to use common sense. These rules are easy to memorize but difficult to apply. Although I’ve edited this piece a dozen times I’m sure it contains imperfections. But trust me, it’s much better now than it was initially. The key is effort. Good writing matters, probably more than you think.”

  35. Edna says:

    I enjoy coming to your site. You are a generous, kind man. You have a lot of useful information and reminders. I particularly liked this post and subsequent comments. I was one of the NaNoWriMo winners in 2007 too! I have just started to edit mine.

  36. Another excellent post, Leo, thank you!

    Wordiness is something I struggle with, both when talking and when writing, so I really appreciate your advice.

    :o)

  37. CatherineL says:

    Sorry Leo, I don’t know what went wrong – I must have had two pages open at the same time and saved the wrong one. The post is here:

    http://cathlawson.com/blog/2008/02/17/21-amazing-business-writing-resources/

    Catherine

  38. Well said, Leo. One of the things that I do is maintain a bookmark heading with links to writing ‘courseware’. Writing is the means I have chosen to earn my living. It is important that I do it well. I also read my work aloud for a sense of its rhythm and, if a piece is proving especially thorny, print it. Often I am able to see problems and opportunities in print that I missed on screen.

    A few months ago I spent at least 8 hours wrestling a five minute presentation to the ground. I eventually ran out of time to revise it. But something just didn’t ‘feel’ right. So I took one more glance at it a few minutes before the presentation and the problem stood up and shouted at me.

    Individually, the paragraphs were extremely good and did an excellent job of supporting their point.

    But the logic was out of order. So, paragraphs “1,2,3″ became “1,3,2″ and the talk was a hit.

    The lesson learned? Once you think you are done, take a break. Disengage mentally. Come back later and look at your writing with fresh eyes.

    It worked for me.