How to rewrite, or, when is “good enough” not?

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.

Not the beggar's banquet(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.

Take a look at some of the examples at the maxdesign website (the Floatutorial, about controlling images and text on a web page via CSS, is especially good).

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

Mick Jagger photo by SpreePiX РBerlin / Ren̩.
Bagel-shop photo by threecee / tracy collins.

8 thoughts on “How to rewrite, or, when is “good enough” not?

  1. Cammy, like you I’ve been involved in projects where the decision-makers admitted that “whatever it takes” didn’t include “time.”

    Still, many of the elements that contribute to an effective vehicle for training or learning do require time. You can often speed things up by hiring time (or, more correctly, experience); expert practitioners can make sound decisions on the fly more quickly than newcomers can.

    Another approach is to keep your focus on the outcome of the training, using informal tryouts and developmental testing to refine things.

    One problem with ad hoc efforts is that most people go for the easy fixes: a little parallelism here, fixing noun-verb agreement there. It’s a lot more work to integrate the overall structure with the details — to see that section 3 is redundant, to decide to radically change topic E and move it ahead of topic A.

    The payoff is in the time spent by the learner with the final product. Is it just too long, too confusing, too dull? You’re not going to get your outcome (unless it was “subject X people to this course by date Y”).

  2. I like your three steps. Identifying them for stakeholders could help keep them from immediately plunging into word-tweak mode. I even fantasize about locking a document so it can’t be edited by the SME, forcing them to look at the overall content and not get wrapped up in edits.

  3. With Halloween approaching, the horror I imagine is one of those general-purpose corporate conference rooms — the kind with the generic folding tables and the generic, non-adjusting chairs.

    Twelve or fifteen people, at least three of them engineers, slogging page by page through a “document review.” A project manager who sees this as an efficient way to cover overall content, expert feedback, editing, and typo-catching “so as to make the best use of everyone’s time.”

    This is the airport ticketing approach to instructional design.

  4. Kia ora Dave!

    Editing blog posts? Tell me if you can recognise when a blog post has been edited. I can usually recognise blog posts that haven’t been.

    I know which of the two I prefer to scan (alleged edited posts that go undetected as such, or those that need editing).

    I’ve recently come across posts (not so bothered about comments) that deperately need editing. Running the spelchekcer would go a long way with this. Getting the in words the right order too helps.

    Ka kite

  5. Ken, I have my suspicions about whether someone’s taken time with a post, but I’m not infallible. I’m also not their dad (except for three bloggers, one very infrequent), so it’s not really my problem — or theirs, unless they choose to see it as a problem.

    Still, I know that I’ve clicked “publish” for things that would have benefitted from editing — or even from a four-hour incubation period. Perhaps not a best practice, but a candidate for a better one.

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