In a post on her Making Change blog, Cathy Moore offers valuable advice on concise and lively writing. Part of her advice: don’t fret about the needlessly specific reading level; focus on reading ease.
Despite the title, I’m pretty sure Cathy doesn’t want everyone to sound just like Ernest Hemingway, whose prose sometimes reads as though he hacked it out of scrap wood with a steak knife and a tire iron. Pappa’s stubbornly plain style differs greatly from Samuel Johnson’s, but Hemingway would agree with this sentiment:
What is written without effort
is generally read without pleasure.
Much of that effort comes during a rewrite, when you go over your great idea and try to get out of your own way. For example, I love analogies that surprise people — but when they’re too surprising, they don’t highlight and clarify, which is what you hire analogies to do. If Sarah Vowell’s going to compare the Rolling Stones to a pastry (that covers the surprising part), she has to follow through without straining.
(Maybe they’re like bagels — sometimes the leaden, grocery-store brand with almost no appeal, just the shape and color. And sometimes they’re tough on the outside, satisfying on the inside, taking us back to what feels like emotional hot coffee and crackling autumn mornings…)
Here’s one approach to going editing your own work when you’re writing to guide others (training material, guides for independent learning, job aids). More than three steps, it’s three passes. Editing is complex; the idea is to have a focus for each pass.
First edit: completeness
Are you saying the right things? Is anything missing (a key step, a prerequisite, a clarification of an outcome)? Are you technically correct? Depending on the situation, you might need to have an expert make this pass. (If you do, make clear that at this stage you don’t necessarily want to rearrange things; you just want to make sure that you’re complete and correct. Concise isn’t bad, either.
Second edit: sequence
The goal of the first pass is to say the right things. The goal of the second pass is to say them in the right order. People like Cathy Moore understand that you don’t need anywhere near the amount of preliminary folderol that trainers and educators tend to lard things up with. Even Robert Mager will forgive you if you don’t state fifteen behavioral objectives at the start — and most learners will bless you.
If you’re writing a guide, a job aid, something meant to take people through a process, then sequence is critical. You don’t want to mix things up and pretend that’s “creativity.” For complex processes, it helps to give the big picture, and then to have independent, standalone sections that model variations or elaborations of the process.
Third edit: language
As you go through the first two edit passes, you’ll fix some of your language. You can’t help it. Control yourself, though; catch any obvious flaws, but discipline yourself. You want to make a third pass through the work to look specifically at how you say what you say.
In the third pass, you deploy all your sharp tools: parallel construction, active verbs, shorter sentences (when it comes to words, twenty is plenty). You’re completing the work, the way you complete your paint job by cleaning drips, touching up places you missed, and removing the masking tape.
Editing and the world of right now
Many pressures work against editing and revision. Who edits blog posts? Who rewrites email? I think there’s an analogy with Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation. In the real world, you don’t do level three or level four evaluations for every program. You do them, or you should, when your effort is supposed to make a significant difference.
So, no, you don’t necessarily need to let your tweets rest so you can rewrite them before sending them out to enrich the world. Some bloggers pride themselves on the speed of production (maybe there’s an award I don’t know about); I find I usually do better when I take my time posting (and I sometimes do worse if I don’t take my time commenting).
“The tartan is all of the one stuff,” goes the proverb, and so is the process of writing for learners. But there are several sub-processes, and all of them matter:
Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.
— Thomas Edison