Trimming the Fat and Killing Your Darlings: 3 Tips for Better Copy

09 May Trimming the Fat and Killing Your Darlings: 3 Tips for Better Copy

Swimsuit season is almost here, and a lot of folks are thinking about trimming some fat to get in better shape. Take it from someone who knows; it’s not easy. It requires discipline and hard work. Most of all, it requires honesty – you need to really know yourself and be willing to directly assess your own strengths and weaknesses to successfully achieve your goals.

The editorial content you write requires a similar dose of bluntness in order to be truly effective, but it’s often very difficult for us to get there on our own. We tend to fall in love with our own words, making it difficult to trim the fat as necessary. As a result, the articles, blogs, white papers, and other things we write tend to lose their way. They might get bogged down in jargon or be too verbose. They may focus too much on what we want to hear, rather than what our intended audience is interested in reading.

In the fiction world, editing oneself is known as being able to “kill your darlings,” a term William Faulkner coined to denote overuse of phrases and unnecessary verbosity. Although Faulkner was referring to stories, the meaning behind his advice can also apply to public relations and marketing professionals who are, after all, storytellers at heart.

So, to help get your writing in tip-top shape, try some of the following strategies that are designed to help you kill your own darlings in the least painful ways possible.

Know a publication’s editorial guidelines before you start writing

Part of our job at SpeakerBox is to have a good understanding of a publication’s writer’s guidelines before we even start putting keyboard to document. Each publication is different – some, for example, allow use of pronouns in the text (“I,” “you,” and so forth) while others require a third person perspective exclusively. Others have very stringent word limits (anywhere between 500 – 800 words is pretty standard) while other publications offer more leeway (we’ve written articles up to 2,000 words).

If we’re writing an article for you, we’ll always comply with these standards, so you really don’t have to worry too much about that. But, if you’re working on your own piece, you’ll want to be aware of the guidelines before you begin the work. That can save you a lot of revision time later on.

Give yourself two rounds of edits

Speaking of time, I understand that it’s at a premium for most of us, but it’s still worthwhile to set aside a few hours for two rounds of self-edits. Write the initial draft first. Then, read it over, attempting to eliminate or rework some phrases that are unnecessary or simply do not read well (trust me, you will find some of these). Then, read it again, and cut some more.

However, like a person who is dieting and doesn’t know when to stop, it’s easy to fall into an endless editing cycle. There are many of us who will continue to iterate and edit our own work in the search for perfection. Sadly, there is no such thing. My recommendation is to stop at two rounds, then…

Have someone else take a look

I would suspect this goes without saying for most of our clients, who engage in a vigorous review process that requires input from many individuals after the draft is “complete.” Some may not realize it, but we have a similar process here at SpeakerBox. We call it the “two sets of eyes” rule. Before we send anything out, we always make sure that someone who was not involved in the drafting of the copy gets to take a look at it. This blog post you’re reading will have been seen by at least one other person, aside from myself, before it gets posted.

Gaining an outside perspective can make your content more relevant and readable. Say, for example, that the other person is a member of the corporate sales team with a direct line to your company’s customers. That other person may have some thoughts about things that could be added to the content based on conversations they’ve had with those customers, thereby bringing in some points that may resonate with your target readership. Or, they could find some things that do not quite work in the draft – an odd phrase here, a missed punctuation mark there – and help shore things up a bit before it gets posted. They could, in effect, kill your darlings for you.

Some of these points might seem fairly obvious, especially for those of you who have been writing copy for a long time. But like the person who puts on a few pounds over the holidays (guilty!), it’s always good to have a refresher on what to do before you start to trim the fat again.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to read this post over a couple of times.

Pete Larmey
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