Here at Red Paper Clip, we always say that the writing is actually the smallest part of the job. I don’t have any exact figures to throw at you, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say that the writing process is broken down roughly like this: 40% planning and research, 20% writing, and 40% tweaking.
That’s right. I would have said editing because that’s normally how this stage of the process is described, but in reality, there are three sub-stages here—revising, editing and proofreading. Hence, tweaking.
Of course, proper tweaking is a process. And just like any good process, you have to stick to this exactly as it’s laid out. I know, I know, writing is supposed to be a fluid and beautiful dance of creativity and all that, and the writing phase can certainly be that airy-fairy, spiritually cathartic experience if you want it to be, but trust me: Tweak in the following order and only the following order.
This is the stage at which you get to step back and look at the piece in its entirety. In fact, if it’s web or marketing copy you’re writing, I encourage you to literally step back and look at it in its entirety.
Are your ideas broken up properly? Does everything appear in the right order? How is the balance working out? Are some ideas getting too much real estate while others need to be fleshed out?
These are the questions you need to be asking because this is your chance to make any larger structural changes to the document and to add or remove content.
Pull out your thesaurus and dictionary (always use them together!) because now’s the time to search for that perfect word. Now’s also the time to look for flow, continuity, tone and style.
At this point, it really helps to read out loud. You’ll be surprised at how much more you catch when you hear the words being spoken than when you just read them on the screen.
Sigh. Grammar and punctuation.
I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that if you’re not a grammarian at heart, there are plenty of great resources out there. The bad news is that without at least some formal knowledge of grammar and punctuation, these sources can be difficult to navigate because a). you have to be able to recognize that something’s wrong with the sentence in the first place, and b). you have to know what to call the error in order to look up the rule.
And of course, the usual cautions about relying on your program’s spell check and grammar check apply. Spell check won’t warn you that you’ve got the wrong word if you’ve spelled that wrong word correctly, and your grammar check…well, that often just gets it wrong. Also keep in mind that web and marketing writing don’t always follow formal grammar conventions.
There is a trick, though, and it is to read backwards.
I don’t mean that you should read backwards word for word; rather, start with the last sentence first, then read the second last sentence, and so on.
Why does this make such a tremendous difference?
When you take a piece you’ve written and read it top to bottom, chances are good you’ll be reading in context. That means you’ll be distracted by thoughts like, Does that even make sense? What was I trying to say there? Does it sound okay? Or you’ll just get into the flow and coast along, missing otherwise-obvious errors.
By reading bottom to top, you look at each sentence by itself, not as something that flows from and into the thoughts before and after it.
Give it a shot. Even the most un-wordsmithy will catch more this way than they would reading it from beginning to end.
A Few Final Words
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tweak in this order and only this order. If you try to edit before you revise, you’ll double your work when you have to re-edit after shuffling things around. The same goes for proofreading before you revise or edit.
Also leave yourself time between each of these steps. In a perfect world where you find yourself tweaking when the deadline is still miles away, you’d leave yourself a day between each step, but in the real world, most of us have to make do with a few hours or minutes. Any time you can leave yourself will help, even if it’s just enough to grab a quick coffee and check a couple of emails. You need fresh or fresh-ish eyes. Trust me on this one.
Finally—and I don’t know why this works, so just take my word for it—either print the document out, especially if it’s longer, or change fonts when you’re ready to proofread. Something about making it look a bit different makes your proofreading eyes extra hawk-like.
I know this blog post is longer than most, so if you’ve made it this far, you get my sincere thanks and extra trooper points.