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.
“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.
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: