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Ideas Development

Five Ways to Enjoy Revising Content

Editing your content got you down? See how improving your writing can be fun.

An old maxim states that “hard writing makes easy reading.” Understandably, young writers have a hard time accepting this. The very idea of revision gives them ulcers. Editing is boring, a waste of time when there’s so much content out there to be written. In his classic book on writing nonfiction, aptly titled On Writing Well, William Zinsser bemoans the unversed writer’s disdain for revising. To Zinsser, editing is the writer’s gift. It’s your opportunity to perfect what you want to say. “You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product,” he writes. “Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.”

Honest (and successful) writers agree. The writer and artist Annie Dillard compares the writing process to that of a painter who covers up his rough beginnings with fresh coats of paint. Kill your darlings, William Faulkner advised, by which he meant: Snip the parts that make you look smart and literary. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, claimed he rewrote every word he had ever written. In his acclaimed 10 Rules of Writing, prolific novelist Elmore Leonard recommended simply trimming the boring parts. Ernest Hemingway, a master of underspoken prose, famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If revision is such a natural part of the creation process, why are so many writers averse to revising their work? In one of my favorite books on writing, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg offers one explanation: “Writers at every level of skill experience the tyranny of what exists. It can be overwhelming—the inertia of the paragraphs and pages you’ve already composed, the sentences you’ve already written, no matter how rough they are.”

This is especially relevant in the world of eLearning, where writers are limited to the source material their clients have provided. Writers might feel beholden to the written style of the source material, or they may be tasked with developing a new voice for a particular audience. Sometimes the material lacks clarity or quality, forcing the writer to think outside the scope of what they have to work with. Once you’ve translated that content into eLearning, the next challenge is to bring the content to life. This happens when the writer takes the scalpel to the text.

But as all the writers I’ve mentioned suggest, revision doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, it can be a joy to work and rework what you’ve written. Let’s look at some of the key factors of revision that can help improve your written content, and inject a bit of fun into the process.

CLARITY

“If it’s not clear, you might as well not write it,” Zinsser says. Your audience can only process one thing at a time, so make sure your sentences logically follow from one point to another. What are you trying to say? Does any part of the content detract from that message? If so, you should rewrite or cut the confusing passage.

In his primer on modern usage, The Sense of Style, the neurologist and linguist Steven Pinker says that clear writing is essential because “it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose.” Think about the content you consume every day. As you read, you’re aware only of the information itself—until you encounter a hazy passage. When you do, you stumble over the sentence, rereading it several times to see what you missed. In some cases, the way you decipher an unclear sentence can result in disastrous effects—or at least cause serious confusion. Consider the following statement, which you’ve probably seen at restaurants:

Please wait for hostess to be seated

Should you wait for the hostess to show you to a seat? Or wait until she seats herself? Once you train your eye to spot these kinds of grammar fails in the world around you, it’s satisfying (and often hilarious) to mull them over and correct them in your head. Why can’t the same sense of joy be applied to editing your content? Sometimes figuring out what’s unclear in your work is simply a matter of gaining a fresh perspective. After getting your content on the page, take a step back; work on something else for a while, if you can. When you return to your content later, it will be easier to review it as though someone else had written it. (Isn’t it always easier to criticize the work of others?) Better yet, have someone else look it over. Just make sure you receive their feedback graciously.

BREVITY

One of the first things I notice when I begin editing content is the length of the sentences. Are they long and complex? If so, look for ways to trim them. Simplify the syntax. See if you can split a sentence into two, maybe more. Keeping the sentences—and the content—as brief as possible makes for an easier, more enjoyable reading experience. It also helps the editing process. Short sentences “carry you back to a prose you can control,” Klinkenborg says, “to a stage in your education when your diction—your vocabulary—was under control too. Short sentences make it easier to examine the properties of the sentence.” Does your subject agree with the verb? Is your vocabulary precise? Do you need all those qualifiers? By keeping content brief, you will be more likely to catch problems and redundancies.

But brevity is not just about writing short sentences. It also means getting right to the point. Use strong verbs and precise vocabulary, as Zinsser instructs in this passage:

Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many. Don’t say facilitate if you can say ease. Don’t call someone an individual; that’s a person, or a man or a woman. Don’t implement or prioritize. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.

It can take a while before you learn to enjoy cutting words, phrases, sentences, and ideas. But in many cases, your early drafts are unclear because they are overstuffed. I still struggle with letting go of my precious words and ideas. But I also find it deeply satisfying to trim a passage and make it read more clearly. Create arbitrary boundaries for yourself if you don’t already have real ones. Setting a word limit, for instance, can provide you with a clear goal and a fun challenge in a limited space.

SIMPLICITY

Many writers equate simple prose with simplistic writing. They believe believe that a sentence written in a direct, understandable style makes them look unintelligent or, yes, “simple.” Complex sentences and vocabulary, on the other hand, demonstrate the writer’s erudition. You see a lot of complicated syntax in the form of legalese and technical writing, not to mention academic journals, where authors are expected to flaunt their smarts. Unfortunately for content producers, a lot of eLearning source material is rooted in these traditions. PR Daily offers this sentence as an example of one you might spot in a corporate report (or eLearning source material, for that matter):

The company’s customer-centric business model provides a strong value proposition to consumers.

How many times did you have to read that sentence before you figured out the meaning? Here’s how PR Daily rewrote it:

Customers like the company’s prices and services.

There we go. What was lost in the revised version? All the tangly business jargon, for one. Originally, there were five words containing three or more syllables; in the revision, there are only two. And thirteen mostly vague words were distilled into seven words anyone can understand. Klinkenborg reminds us that simplicity means getting rid of “every unnecessary word.” How do we know which words are unnecessary? “Every word is optional until it proves to be essential,” he says, “something you can only determine by removing words one by one and seeing what’s lost or gained.” It almost sounds like a game, doesn’t it? How many words can you take away from this overly complicated sentence?

RHYTHM

One of the joys of reading is to experience the sound and movement of sentences in a good piece of writing. This pleasure stems from factors such as variation in sentence length and vocabulary, and the general musicality of the style. To me, rhythm is one of the most important aspects of writing, if not one of the least discussed in the eLearning industry. Unfortunately, rhythm is also something that’s impossible to teach. There’s no magic formula to demonstrate the right way to make a string of sentences sound pretty. There are, however, ways to help tune your ear to the way your writing sounds.

The first and perhaps simplest way to identify lovely prose is to contrast it against atonal and bland writing. Consider this example from the Whitman College Writing Center blog: “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record.” While each of these sentences is brief and clear, the sound they make together is mind-numbing. You feel as though you’re repeatedly getting punched in the face. As interesting as your topic might be, your learners will tune out if you write sentences like these.

Another, more positive approach to learning to write rhythmically is to read rhythmic prose. Open a collection of poetry, or any writing by authors known for their style (start with any of those mentioned earlier), and pay attention to what makes the writing sing. It helps to read it aloud, or have someone else read it to you (same with your own, if your boss won’t mind). Then turn to the piece you are revising and ask: Is the information conveyed in a way that sounds appealing? Does it sound natural to speech? Does anything feel off or dull, out of place, too fast or too choppy, too abrupt? Klinkenborg sees an even deeper value in paying attention to the sound of your sentences:

If you want the reader to feel your sincerity, your sentences have to enact sincerity—verbally, syntactically, even rhythmically. They have to reveal the signs of sincerity—a modesty and directness—just as you do when you’re talking sincerely. If you speak sincerely with someone but in a voice and manner that suggest you’re being ironic, who would believe you’re sincere?

If you write with sincerity, you’ll quickly gain a knack for rhythm. As you read your content, you will innately sense when something sounds “off.” Revise the order of words, phrases, or clauses into a more musical arrangement. Once you get the hang of it, revising prose for rhythm can be fun, and as Klinkenborg suggests, it’s a way to show your learners respect.

AUTHORITY

We’ve all written papers, in high school or college, that were stuffed with quotations from our research. Part of our goal was simply to fill space. It was a start. Or so we told ourselves. But unless you shaped that quoted information into something personal and useful, it was the lazy way out. What fun is that? Your research demonstrates nothing of your voice and opinions—only that you can find a bunch of facts. “Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important?” Klinkenborg asks. “It will have to be you. The authority you feel has a great deal to do with how you write, and what you write, with your ability to pay attention to the shape and meaning of your own thoughts and the value of your own perceptions.” Aren’t those words empowering?

When I taught college writing, one of the biggest problems in my students’ essays was a lack of authority. It was as though the students were afraid to have an opinion on anything, even though they argued with each other about movies and video games the moment class ended. Their essays were stuffed with summaries of those movies, or descriptions of those games. Why couldn’t they channel their after-class arguments into a thoughtful opinion piece?

In eLearning, there is less room for your opinion but, as the Klinkenborg quote explains, I think there’s an important lesson there about writing with authority. My students often had no voice on the page because they didn’t want to do the hard work of finding it and shaping it, of creating something that would be a pleasure for others to read.

I hear you screaming: “This is great, but I’m a content producer! I don’t have time for all this revision!” Fair enough. But consider this: When you don’t put that extra work into perfecting your writing, your audience, your client, your coworkers all have to work that much harder to understand your content. This is the content producer’s equivalent to filling an essay with quotations. Not only do you lose your audience, but you also forfeit your authority.

So where should you begin? Start with the list we’ve discussed here. Once you understand that writing is rewriting (and rewriting and, yes, rewriting), you begin to free yourself from the tyranny of your shitty first draft. By teaching yourself to edit the content so your voice is clear, so the prose is brief and simple, so that everything flows, you develop a voice of authority–and make for some happy learners along the way. Sure it takes time. But with practice, you will get faster, and develop a sharper eye. You’ll also learn to take greater pride in what you create. Only then, when the writer has forgotten that the hard work of revision is work, does writing become a joy.

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