Writing is rewriting

Lady knitting on her own hatLast week I was writing a business proposal for work, and it took me five revisions to get it right. When I say “right,” I don’t mean it was perfect. I mean I was finally satisfied that it presented what I wanted to say, backed up with hard numbers and strong examples, in a logical structure that was easy to digest. It didn’t include too much information or too little. This is not an easy balance to strike.

These are just some of the issues to consider when revising and editing your work, many of which I’ve covered in the nine months since I started this blog. Throughout those months, I’ve provided guidance on:

I include this list of my previous posts for those of you who may have come late to this party and for those who’ve read the posts before and may want to revisit particular tips. Because here’s the thing: writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it right the first time. Nobody. If they say they do, they are lying. Or delusional. Maybe both.

Writing well takes practice. It’s like the hundreds of back handsprings I did on a mattress on the floor of our basement when I was taking gymnastic lessons as a kid. Repetition is key. And yes, sometimes I fell on my head.

Responding to my post about the importance of deleting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, one reader commented:

Thanks Laurie for the great reminder! I would add that you never, ever get this right the first time. I don’t know about you, but I find I have to print my work off, get out my carefully sharpened pencil and be ruthless before I get the clarity I need. It takes time, but it’s always worth it.

She’s right. So in this post, dear reader, I bring you a message of peace: be patient with yourself. Diligent but patient. It’s not easy to get your thoughts down on paper in a logical, coherent, lean, and engaging manner.

When one of my journalism professors broke the news to us that “writing is rewriting,” I didn’t want to believe him. I wanted to think I could dash off an award-winning article in one try. Fifteen years later, I understand the process doesn’t work that way. Writing something I’m proud of requires more long showers and trips to the vending machine for Doritos than I’d like to admit.

In her helpful and often funny book, Bird by Bird, American author Anne Lamott describes the misconception about the lives of writers:

People tend to look at successful writers and think they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some great writers, writers who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Lamott says the only way she gets anything done is by writing “really, really shitty first drafts.” In fact, she devotes an entire chapter, “Shitty First Drafts,” to describing this part of her process. She explains:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

During the revision process, I find it helpful to elicit feedback from those I trust. When I was writing that business proposal I mentioned, I asked three colleagues to review it. I knew it wasn’t there yet, and I wasn’t sure why. Their feedback was invaluable in helping me realize where I had left out crucial details, how I needed to rework the structure, and where I needed to cut. (“Remember, keep it pithy!” one of my reviewers said.)

Note that I did not ask them to edit my proposal. I asked them for their comments so that I could learn from fixing it myself. And I did not implement all of the changes they recommended but picked and chose from those I agreed with. Just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean you have to incorporate their every point. You are a writer — not a short-order cook.

So remember, as you’re working to improve your writing, be patient with yourself. Trust the process. The sometimes painful, often anxiety-provoking, ultimately satisfying process. This doesn’t mean being passive or complacent. Nor does it mean biting your nails through endless revisions. There is an appropriate time to say, “Pencils down.”

Being patient with yourself means being willing to stick with it until you produce your best work. Not perfect work, but the best you are capable of in the time frame you have. You’ll know when you’re there. Your intuition will tell you.

Get to the point already

Often when I advocate that our lawyers and marketing and business development staff write more like journalists, I evoke a blog post written by Mark Herrmann, Deputy General Counsel at Aon, a London-based global insurance company.

In his post, Herrmann explains why he deletes the majority of the legal alerts he receives from big law firms

A typical alert is purely descriptive. It tells me that a case came down; the case said X; and therefore a case came down. Only at the very end does the author provide a paragraph or two of analysis.

What does Herrmann want instead? He gives an example:

One lawyer sent me an email that said: The S.D.N.Y. just handed down an opinion that says in-house lawyers with bar licenses on ‘inactive’ status are not attorneys within the meaning of the attorney-client privilege. And the court held that the corporation itself could not claim the privilege because it had made no effort to learn the lawyer’s bar status.

Consider doing this to protect yourself from that result:

1. Send an email to all of your in-house lawyers asking them to confirm that their licenses are on ‘active’ status.

2. Show an administrative assistant how to find the state bar websites showing the bar status of each lawyer and have the assistant confirm that each lawyer is active.

3. Put a reminder on the assistant’s calendar to check the bar status of each lawyer annually.

The author then provided a link to the court decision. What did Herrmann think of this approach?

Perfect! The lawyer told me what mattered, suggested an easy way to avoid the problem and invited me to read more only if I cared to.

In other words, Herrmann would read more alerts if they were short, focused and instructive — alerts that get to the point.

Why should we listen to Herrmann? Because as in-house counsel at a major corporation, he’s our audience. What we know about our audience is that they are busy, on-the-go executives who get a lot of email and do much of their reading on mobile devices.

That makes it even more important that we sum up whatever legal development we are writing about quickly and succinctly, like a journalist would in the first paragraph of a news story. Yet many of our alerts, blog posts, and newsletter articles start like this:

In July 2008, more than 10 years after Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission introduced its first consultation paper on race discrimination, the Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted. Since the gazettal of the RDO, there has been extensive public consultation undertaken in respect to the Code of Practice on Employment under the Race Discrimination Ordinance, which has resulted in heated debate and a number of significant amendments to the original draft. The substantive provisions of the RDO, as well as the Code, finally came into force on 10 July 2009.

Oy.

What is the most important information in the paragraph? The date the Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted? That it was gazetted (whatever that means) 10 years after the EOC introduced its first consultation paper? That the original draft sparked public debate and resulted in amendments to the ordinance?

No. What really matters is that Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance is now in effect (which isn’t mentioned until the last sentence) and how it will impact clients (which isn’t mentioned at all). That’s the news. The first two sentences are what journalists call “throat clearing,” unnecessary background or empty rhetoric that doesn’t say anything distinctive. We often use throat clearing when we’re not sure what we want to say or how to start an article.

To avoid throat clearing, use the inverted pyramid, a writing structure drilled into journalists from the beginning of their careers. Using the inverted pyramid, you start with the most important information — the who, what, where, when and why — and progress to the lesser details.

It’s the opposite of how many of us were taught to write in school by beginning with the background information, stating the various issues, and ending with a conclusion. The inverted pyramid flips this on its head by starting with the conclusion. The idea is that readers can get the main point or major news by reading the first few sentences of an article and only have to read on if they are interested in knowing more.

In the newsroom, reporters who don’t write their stories this way are accused of “burying the lead.” To avoid this infraction, ask yourself these questions before writing:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What do they most need to know about this legal development?
  3. How will it impact their business?
  4. What should they do about it?

To demonstrate how to write a legal alert more like a news story, I rewrote the alert about Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance. Here’s my opening paragraph:

Effective this month, Hong Kong’s race discrimination law imposes new obligations on employers to prevent race discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The new law, called the Race Discrimination Ordinance, holds companies liable for acts of racial discrimination by their employees unless they can demonstrate they have taken practical steps to prevent these acts.

After starting with the most important information, I go on to briefly explain the major requirements of the new ordinance, the consequences for companies if they don’t comply, and what they should do to avoid penalties. (To read my full revision of this alert, go here.)

If you are thinking, Well, I don’t have to worry about this because I don’t write legal alerts or I don’t work at a law firm, think again. Getting to the point is important for anyone writing anything, including email. The more throat clearing you do, the more background you provide before making your point or request, the less likely your reader will be to stay with you.

So try it. Start at the end. Make the inverted pyramid your friend. Ask yourself, What would Mark Herrmann want to know? Remember the cardinal rule of good writing: don’t bore your audience with extraneous details. Their attention spans will thank you.

The importance of proofreading

oops key on computer keyboard showing mistake concept

Telling someone to proofread is like reminding them to eat their vegetables. Or fasten their seat belts. Or floss. It’s one of those things we all know is good for us, but sometimes we resist doing it because it takes effort, can be tedious, and requires extra time.

It’s like when you’re sitting in your seat waiting for a plane to take off and the flight attendants are droning on about safety procedures. You look around at your fellow passengers and no one is listening. They’re not even looking up. After all the hassle of shoving carry-ons into the overhead compartment and waiting for that person in front of you to sit down already, everyone just wants to take off.

It’s the same way with writing. You’ve spent a lot of time with your document, report, email or presentation, rereading paragraphs like a mantra, writing and rewriting sentences, sighing because you’re not exactly sure what to say next. Or you’re on a tight deadline and don’t have time to labor over your sentences and find the exact right words.  You’re slapping it together and hoping for the best. Either way, you just want to click “send” and be done.

But stop. Wait. Hold on. “Take a deep breath,” as my friend Paul would say. Because proofreading isn’t a chore even when it feels like one. It’s an opportunity — an opportunity to maintain your credibility, improve the clarity of your writing, and trim your sentences to only what you need. Here’s how.

Credibility

I don’t care how smart you are, typos can make you look dumb. Or at least careless and sloppy, which is not exactly the image you want to project in the professional world. As readers, we all question the credibility of a writer or publication when we stumble upon a typo or grammatical error. Sometimes typos can be downright embarrassing.

When I was an editor at a Chicago magazine, we published an annual section ranking the “100 Largest Public Companies in Chicago.” Every year I lived in fear we would misspell “public” in one of the stories or headlines by forgetting the “L” and end up with a section about the “100 Largest Pubic Companies in Chicago.”  Luckily we never did. But we could have. I’ve seen it happen, which is why I always proofread that particular section veerrryyy caaarrefullly before it was printed.

When you’re proofreading I have three words for you: hard copy, hard copy, hard copy. Okay, yes, that’s six words. The point is, don’t proofread on the screen. Print out your work and read it on the page. I know it’s the 21st century, but our eyes skip over errors on a computer screen.

If I’m tired or have been working on a project for hours on end, I sometimes try to talk myself into skipping the step of printing out the document for review because it involves getting out of my chair and walking to the printer. I usually find the strength to override this impulse because I know I’m going to find errors on the page that I didn’t see sitting at my computer. I’m always glad I didn’t give in.

Clarity

Most people think of proofreading as checking their work for typos, grammatical errors and formatting mistakes. Those tasks are important, but proofreading is also your opportunity to improve the clarity of your content. It’s the time to ask yourself questions like: Is this really the best headline? Could I get to the point more quickly? Did I include enough detail in my examples? Do the paragraphs flow one into the other? Does the third paragraph make sense? Do I even need the fifth paragraph?

A common refrain among writers is, “Writing is rewriting,” and all the best writers do it. So take the time when you’re proofreading to think about where and how you could make improvements. Some writing experts recommend putting your draft away for a day or two so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. That’s when you might notice, “My entire first paragraph is in passive voice. Yikes!”

Proofreading with this level of attention is particularly important when you’re working on a draft with multiple people. After everyone is done tinkering and redlining, print it out in final draft form and read through it in one sitting.  Does it flow? Maintain the same tone? Is anything redundant or confusing? Your document may have been edited or written by five different people, but the end product shouldn’t sound like it.

Trimming

Proofreading is the perfect time to prune adverbs, adjectives and other wordiness from your sentences. We all write (and speak) with more words than we need, and it’s nearly impossible to be as one of my writing teacher says, “lean of expression,” on the first try.

William Zinsser, a US journalist and nonfiction author, argues in his book On Writing Well that most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent. Yes, 50 percent. Zinsser explains:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

How do you avoid strangling your readers? Let’s break it down by the four writing transgressions Zinsser lists above.

1. Every word that serves no function.

These are typically adjectives, adverbs and other unnecessary modifiers. Read the sentences below and see how they lose no meaning without those words.

Enforcement authorities have become very strict about what they consider fraud.
We are really excited to have this opportunity to respond to your RFP.
Warranty and indemnity insurers have developed high levels of expertise in the real estate sector.

2. Every long word that could be a short word.

assistance → help
numerous → many
remainder → rest
initial → first
attempt → try
utilize → use
obtain → get

We all fall victim to using these longer words in professional writing because we think they make us sound more authoritative or academic. But do they really? Let’s read one sentence with the longer words and a second with the shorter ones to test the difference.

I need your assistance finishing the remainder of our assignment because when I initially attempted to utilize the new skills we learned in class, I couldn’t obtain the right answer.

I need your help finishing the rest of our assignment because when I first tried to use the new skills we learned in class, I couldn’t get the right answer.

Which sentence is clearer? Easier to read? Do you lose any professionalism by using shorter words?

3. Every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb.

We regularly advise multinational companies on tax structuring during mergers and acquisitions.
She routinely represents clients in arbitration hearings.
He currently serves as chairman of the firm.

In the first three sentences above, you don’t need the adverbs because the present tense verb already tells you that’s what the subject of the sentence regularly, routinely and currently does.

4. Every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what.

Passive construction: In markets like China, the use of warranty and indemnity insurance is starting to be seen as a viable alternative.

Starting to be seen by whom?

Active construction: In markets like China, corporate and private equity bidders are starting to see the use of warranty and indemnity insurance as a viable alternative.

Ah, okay, now I get it.

Given the advantages of proofreading, it’s time to embrace the process as an opportunity to improve your writing rather than as an onerous task. The glass is half full, not half empty and all that rose-colored glasses stuff. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get up, walk over to the printer, and proofread this post.

Omit needless words!

Man talking with alphabet letters coming out of mouth

I don’t know about you but I don’t like clutter. Stacks of dishes in the sink, piles of mail on the table, toys strewn across the living room floor. It’s a losing battle considering I have two children under age 4 and a husband who fills the top of our dresser with loose change, business cards and crumpled receipts. But I keep trying.

“What’s all this?” I’ll ask my husband, pointing to the pile.

“Important documents,” he says, smiling.

Right.

It’s the same thing with writing. So many of the adjectives, adverbs and phrases we use are nothing more than junk mail we leave on the counter. They clog sentences, bog down paragraphs and make long documents even longer. Even worse, they do no work besides stand between you and the clear message you are trying to convey to your readers. Our Firm’s client communications are littered with them. Here are some examples:

Unnecessary words

currently                      likely
effectively                    literally
generally                      mostly
in connection with    regularly
in order to                   relatively
in relation to               routinely
in this regard              truly
In respect to                typically
largely                          very

In The Elements of Style, one of the most popular English usage guide for professional writers, author E.B. White recounts how his college English professor would lean forward over his desk, grasp his coat lapels and implore his students to “omit needless words!” In what he calls, “63 words that could change the world,” White quotes his professor, William Strunk Jr, on why people should strive to eradicate literary clutter:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.

People often worry that if they minimize their use of adverbs and adjectives, their writing won’t sound professional or academic. They fear that everything they write will read like a children’s book: see spot run.

In reality, it’s the opposite. Clearing clutter from your sentences doesn’t mean a life of choppy, pedestrian sentences. You can still be as eloquent as Shakespeare, who is also an advocate of simplicity. “An honest tale speeds best being plainly told,” he wrote in his play King Richard III.

Here are examples of how you can make your writing more concise:

Before: Generally, you should anticipate that the unions and works councils will typically expect to be involved in relation to the individual steps of the process.
After: Generally, You should anticipate that the unions and works councils will typically expect to be involved in relation to in the individual steps of the process.

In the first sentence, notice that “generally” and “typically” are just taking up space. Delete them and you lose no meaning. “In relation to” is a wordy way of saying “in.” Whenever there is a shorter, more succinct way of saying something, use it. Your readers will thank you.

Before: Jane Smith routinely advises clients in connection with intellectual property issues in mergers and acquisitions.
After: Jane Smith routinely advises clients in connection with on intellectual property issues in mergers and acquisitions.

Here you don’t need the word “routinely” because the present tense verb “advises” already tells you this is what Jane routinely does. “In connection with” is a wordy way of saying “on.” Like, “in relation to,” it’s an unnecessary phrase I see repeatedly in our Firm’s writing, particularly in our lawyer CVs. We’d be better off without them.

Before: The process to comply with the new regulation appears to be relatively simple.
After: The process to comply Complying with the new regulation appears to be relatively simple.

Can you see how condensing and deleting just a few words makes the sentence clearer? Now it’s your turn. Here’s your assignment: refrain from using adjectives and adverbs in everything you write for one week. Before sending anything to anyone, print out your work, examine every sentence and ask yourself, “Do I really need this word? Is there a shorter way to say this?”

Write like Professor Strunk is standing over your shoulder, grasping his lapels and urging you to change the world, one deleted adverb at a time. At the end of the week, send me an email or leave a comment on this blog telling me how it went. I have a sneaky suspicion suspect that you’ll feel much lighter.

The power of active voice

Want your writing to be stronger, clearer, and more succinct? Then meet my good friend, active voice. I may sound like a late night television ad, but I can’t help it. I’m that passionate about active voice. Why? Because it’s one of the quickest ways to improve anything you write.

Whenever I advocate for using active voice, I get one of two reactions: “Yes, I know that already.” Or, “Active voice, what’s that?” Passive voice is so pervasive, particularly in legal and business writing, that half of us don’t even know we’re doing it. The other half is afraid of active voice.

“Many lawyers suffer from a fear of naming,” Yeshiva University Law Professor Richard Weisberg writes in his book, When Lawyers Write. “The result is a peculiar kind of sentence in which the noun shows up late, if at all.”

Because verbs are the engine of a sentence, strong writers make it a habit to leverage their power by using them in their active rather than passive form. Here’s the difference:

Active: The executive committee approved the new policy.
Passive: The new policy was approved by the executive committee.

In active voice, the subject performs the action. In passive voice, the subject is acted upon by someone or something. Why is using active voice preferable?

The first reason is clarity. When you write in passive voice, you often drop the subject of the sentence, which makes it unclear who is doing the action. For example, you’ll write, “The new policy was approved.” That leaves your reader wondering, by whom?

The second problem is passive voice is wordier than active voice. We all know the feeling of having to reread a sentence multiple times before its meaning sinks in. Passive voice is often the culprit. Not an active voice convert yet? Here are more examples of how it helps your writing.

Example 1

Passive voice: Significant steps have been taken to improve intellectual property protection in Malaysia.
Active voice: The Malaysian government has taken significant steps to improve intellectual property protection. 

What’s wrong with the first sentence? Nothing, really. It’s not grammatically incorrect to use passive voice. The problem is we don’t know who has taken steps to improve IP protection in Malaysia. In the second sentence, it’s clear.

Example 2

Passive voice: The largest number of cross-border IPOs were issued by companies in the technology industry, with 41 listings in 2014.
Active voice: Technology companies issued the largest number of cross-border IPOs, with 41 listings in 2014.

If you read these two sentences aloud, which one rolls off your tongue more easily? The second, one, right? Adding even a few extra syllables to your sentences prevents people from reading your document quickly, which may encourage them to skip over key points.

Example 3

Passive voice: In the absence of accurate official statistics, data on acquisitions are used to describe recent trends.
Active voice: In the absence of accurate official statistics, we used data on acquisitions to describe recent trends.

Another reason people use passive voice is the mistaken belief that it’s unprofessional to use first person in a report like the one referenced above. That somehow hiding the fact the report was written by actual people gives it a more objective, authoritative tone. To the contrary, using “I” or “we” in legal and business communications and reports imparts a sense of accountability and confidence that you and your team stand behind what you’ve written.

Example 5

Passive voice: There are many challenges in managing corporate legal departments in today’s global economy.
Active voice: General counsel face many challenges managing corporate legal departments in today’s global economy.

Starting a sentence with “there are” is one of the weakest things you can do. It’s the reason one of my journalism teachers forbade us from using that phrase in our papers and circled it in red ink whenever we did. She argued we could always find a stronger way to construct the sentence using a subject and active verb. She was right, as you can see above.

Is using active voice always preferable? No, sometimes using passive voice makes sense, such as when you want to emphasize the object of the sentence or the subject of the sentence is irrelevant or unknown, like in these examples.

But using passive voice should be the exception, not the rule. The last thing you want is readers laboring through your sentences. Make them work too hard and guess what will happen? They’ll stop reading. And no one wants that.

Try using active voice for just two weeks and see what happens to your writing. I promise it will become stronger, clearer and more succinct. Or your money back.