Kill your darlings (and other dark edits)

Red pen on draftSometimes the secret to great creative work isn’t what you produce, but what you throw away or leave out. Think about cropping a photo. The role of white space in a clean design. Skylights or extra windows letting in more light.

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, similar strategies play a role in writing.

So if you’re struggling to get a concept onto the page in just the right way, the problem might not be what you need to add. Something already there may be holding you back. When you’re stuck or pushing your word limit, it may be time to go to the dark side of editing and look for stuff to cut. These “subtractive” strategies can add a lot to your copy.

Kill your darlings

“Darlings” are bits of writing you really love and just have to include somewhere. The witty phrase that makes you sound so clever. A conversation where your favorite character shines. That snappy smackdown of the cause or competitor you loathe most. Even experienced pros fall prey to them.

The trouble with darlings, unlike truly great ideas, is they just don’t seem to fit anywhere. They make you crazy as you bend over backward trying to include them where they don’t belong.

Signs you might be grappling with a darling include:

  • The idea came to you early in the writing process, before you thought the whole piece through.
  • Your darling doesn’t drive the reader toward your conclusion or call to action.
  • No one cares about your darling but you. (Sorry.)

“Killing” your darlings is the only cure. Can’t bear to hit the delete key? Cut and paste your darling into another document and save it for later. More likely you’ll forget about it, but you’ll get over it. It’s hard to kill darlings because we looooove them so. But the needs of effective words outweigh those of words that are just showing off.

Omit needless words

Rule 17 from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is perhaps the most famous maxim of that famous writer’s guide. And while E. B. White admitted “the huge task will never be accomplished,” it’s still the key to clear and concise copy.

In fact, it’s so tough to beat Strunk himself on this one that I won’t even try. Here’s rule 17 verbatim, which White called “fifty-nine words that could change the world”:

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 subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk goes on to slim down numerous examples, including cutting a paragraph down to a sentence with half the words. His biggest pet peeve is “the fact that”, which  “should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.”

The thumb test

This simple trick ties in with rule 17, though it applies equally to words, sentences, and even paragraphs. Not sure you need something? Try covering it with your thumb (or a sheet of paper, or whatever). If the remaining copy is just as good or better without the words you covered, they don’t belong there.

Like athletes, writers often need to “warm up.” So it’s a good practice to try the thumb test on the first few paragraphs of any given piece. Don’t be surprised if paragraph 4 turns out to be a much better introduction — it happens all the time.

Copy that fails the thumb test might work somewhere else in your piece, especially if it features relevant details. Just be willing to let it go if it isn’t necessary.

Breaking up isn’t hard to do

Jane Austen could get away with writing sentences 109 words long. She wasn’t competing with YouTube videos of adorable puppies. Your job is a bit tougher.

Shorter sentences make copy easier to read. Gurus differ, but holding most sentences to 20 words or less is a common guideline for marketing copy. Break longer sentences into smaller pieces if you can.

Just as designers use fonts and spacing, writers use punctuation, subheadings, sections, and chapters to shape the reader’s experience. In some cases, bullet lists can also be more effective than sentences or paragraphs packed with information. Tools that break copy up give readers visual “breathing room,” making them more likely to read to the end.


Deleting words can feel demoralizing, especially if you’ve worked hard to create them. But don’t let that stand in the way of writing great copy. Your draft is like the first chisel blows on a marble sculpture. It may look promising, but there’s still work to do. Editing is the process of smoothing and finishing the rough edges. Apply these rules mercilessly and take pride in the masterpiece that remains.

  Just write it

Document 1. Just write it.You sit in front of the blank screen. An endless sea of white, like the ice planet Hoth. If you could just write like Hemmingway — right now, please — life would be a lot less stressful.

You want the copy to be perfect — snappy, on target, compelling. But it’s soooooo hard. And the clock is ticking. And a million other things are clamoring for your attention.

If this situation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many writers — even seasoned professionals — struggle with getting a first draft on the page.

The solution? Stop caring about getting it right in one go. Just write.

The perfection problem

I’ve argued in the past that writer’s block is a myth, and I still believe it. But sometimes writers get in the way of their own success by focusing too much on knocking out a perfect draft right away.

This is different from not knowing what to write, because the “perfection problem” often shows up when you already know much of what you want to say. What messes you up is agonizing over what to say when, or how to say it in the first place. You’ve got all the background information crammed into your head, but don’t know what to do with it. It’s crazy-making.

Stop worrying and just write

There are a lot of details that make writing great. Don’t think about any of them when you’re writing a first draft. Don’t think about SEO, how many units you need to sell, how well the last promotion performed, or how soon the deadline is looming.

The only thing to worry about, if you need to worry now, is this: will the reader keep reading?

To answer that question, you need to know who are you writing for. Try to get into their head and think like they do. What will motivate them to take the action you want them to take?

With that in mind, do a brain dump. Write down everything you think you want to say, in whatever order it comes to mind. If it helps, you can make an outline first, or re-arrange everything later. What matters now is to get letters on the page. You can make everything perfect in subsequent drafts. That’s what they’re for.

Don’t start at the beginning

It’s tempting to try and nail the lead (the first headline or sentence) before you write anything else. Yes, it’s the first thing the reader sees. And yes, it’s the most important part of the copy, because if it doesn’t catch their attention, they’ll ignore everything else.

Unfortunately, the first thing you put on the page isn’t likely to be your best work. Most human brains start to “warm up” as they begin writing, making the words on the page more compelling after you knock out the first few paragraphs. Often it’s best to just start a brain dump, then go back and re-arrange things later.

In fact, it’s often more effective to think backwards, or to quote Stephen Covey, to “begin with the end in mind”. When writing, this means to focus on the response you want your writing to create, then figure out how to lead your reader to the same conclusion.

I once took this idea to extremes by writing the first draft of an entire direct mail promotion backwards. First I wrote the final call to action, then the second-to-last paragraph, and so on, finishing up with the lead. I don’t recommend doing this every day, but this type of thought process makes it easier to stay focused on where your writing needs to go next.

Don’t be afraid to cut stuff that doesn’t work completely. I often delete the first two or three paragraphs I write in a given session, or move them later in the piece. There’s no shame, and no one will ever know.

I won’t tell your readers. I promise. 😉

  Managing Multiple Writers

Rubber ducks in a rowHaving a writing partner who knows your business inside and out can be a great marketing asset. But what if you have more work than one writer can handle? Working with multiple writers makes the process a bit trickier, but it’s easy to manage if you have the right process in place.

Make consistency your goal

While your audience may not realize it, they expect to have the same experience every time they read something you publish. For example, if you’re serious one day and cracking jokes the next, your prospects might get confused or question your credibility.

The primary challenge when working with multiple writers, therefore, is to make sure you still “sound like you” no matter which member of your team does the writing. In fact, it’s more important for your writers to be consistent than it is for them to be clever, witty, or even brilliant. You can try to standardize your approach by having conversations with your writers, but it’s much better to have your expectations documented in writing.

Build a playbook

One of the best ways to keep multiple writers on the same page, as it were, is to set up a style guide or “playbook” that spells out what you’re looking for.

I’ll talk about what goes into a writing style guide in more detail in an upcoming post, but at a glance it should include:

  • Guidelines for the voice and tone of your brand, including who you’re writing for
  • Examples of good writing in your desired style
  • Writing examples that don’t fit your style
  • Specific words to use (or not use)
  • Any style or grammar practices you care about
  • A default stylebook for anything you haven’t covered, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook

Be generous with feedback

A good writer will eventually have an instinctive idea for how your brand should sound. It might even seem like he or she is reading your mind. Until they reach that level, the more feedback you can provide the better.

One of the most effective ways to give constructive feedback to multiple writers is to refer to the playbook, and to be as specific as possible. For example, you might suggest keywords that could be added to the copy, or indicate where the tone could be altered to emphasize the needs of a particular market segment. Don’t just say “this is wrong.” Be as specific as possible about what isn’t right, where relevant guidelines can be found in the playbook, and what could be changed to improve it.

As you give feedback, be open to the suggestions your writers come back with, especially if they work outside your organization. They may provide insights that hadn’t occurred to you. If they make sense, consider changing the playbook to accommodate them. If you’re not ready to go that far, try an A/B test to see which approach gets the best response.

  How to write what you DON’T know

Question“Write what you know” is one of the most common bits of advice given to new writers, but it isn’t always the most useful. True, an inexpert writer can quickly lose an audience by saying something that strikes readers as ignorant or inaccurate. But what if you want — or need — to write about something you know nothing about?

There’s no question that personal contact or observation of something gives you an advantage when writing about it. That’s why many clients look for writers who specialize in a particular field or market. There are also some fields — such as science, finance and medicine — where a certain amount of technical expertise is practically a prerequisite — even if you’re writing for a lay audience.

Still, there are plenty of times when a professional writer has to start from scratch…

  • Sometimes the client can’t get (or doesn’t want to pay the higher fees of) an expert writer.
  • There are some things that no one living has directly witnessed, such as what was said between two generals after a historic battle.
  • You might be asked to write about a new product or other invention that is initially known and understood only by its creator.
  • Writing a story requires you to create characters who don’t exist, whether they live in a science fiction/fantasy world or are much like the folks next door.
  • And most common of all: you want to connect with and generate response from people who aren’t like you.

Here are three strategies that will help you sound like an expert quickly enough that you can still make your deadline.

1. Learn fast

If it’s possible to actually get the experience you need quickly, do it! For example, if you’re writing about a product, try using it. I was recently asked to join the creative team for a local pizza chain that had just opened a new store near my home. Guess what I had for dinner that night? Many clients are happy to help you learn more by providing samples, demonstrating a prototype, letting you shadow a professional for a day or two, and other “discovery” experiences vital to the pre-writing process.

If you’re working for a client, ask your contact plenty of questions. They may know useful information that didn’t end up in the creative brief, and may be able to explain concepts that don’t initially make sense to you. Many clients are also willing to put you in touch with subject matter expert or “SME” (pronounced just like the name of Captain Hook’s sidekick) to help you get up to speed on specialized information.

If that’s not enough, hit the web, the library or your own network of contacts to get additional insights. This will help you get the facts you need, as well as insights into how they’re interpreted. This kind of research is also critical when no one living has direct experience with something, such as how canals were built in ancient Egypt.

Pro tip: Make friends with a good reference librarian. You’ll be glad you did when you have to deal with tricky stuff that can’t be resolved with just a Google search.

2. Channel your passion

While it’s not impossible to write what you don’t know, doing it well does require extra work up front. A strong personal interest in the subject is a big asset when it’s time to buckle down.

I use this as my personal litmus test whenever I’m asked to write about something new. If I’m intrigued by a topic, I’m more likely to take it on so that I can learn more about it. If not, I try to recommend a colleague who’s a better fit for the project.

Passion can be a two-edged sword. As you make discoveries, be careful not to get carried away to the point you try to include every little detail you discover. Word count limits can be a big help here.

3. Get a reality check

Once you have a draft in hand, try to run it by someone who is closer to the topic than you are. For example, if you’re writing specialized copy, try to get feedback from a SME or other expert.

This type of review is especially important when you’re “writing the other” — using the voice of someone who’s a different gender, ethnicity, culture and so on than yourself. Have one or more people who match the characteristics of your intended voice review the copy, and pay close attention to their feedback. This simple step can easily mean the difference between connecting with your audience or unintentionally turning them away.

  Proofing tip: talk to me, baby

Digital smileExperienced writers and editors know that proofreading your own work is risky business, no matter how good you are at doing it for others. That’s because your brain knows what you want to say even if it isn’t on the page or the screen, and will “helpfully” fill in the blanks for you. You’ll skim right past typos, punctuation problems, and even missing words.

While there’s nothing better than having another human read your copy, solo professionals sometimes don’t have the time or budget for that luxury. So I’ve enlisted a digital assistant to provide the next best thing.

My first line of defense against my own mistakes is to have my computer read my draft back to me. Simply listening to your own work being read out loud by another voice — even a virtual one — will help you spot many mistakes you might miss if you were just re-reading.

There are a number of ways you can get your machine to perform text-to-speech tricks. My personal favorite is Tom Bender’s Tex-Edit Plus, an elegant text editing program for the Mac with an intuitive Sound menu built right in. I particularly like how Tex-Edit highlights the sentence it’s currently reading, making it easy to pinpoint the location of any mistakes you hear. The cost is also very reasonable — a $15 shareware fee that you can pay at any time without having to put up with ads or crippled features.

Choose a computer voice that sounds as close to natural human speech as possible. The best voices are based on recordings of real people. On the Mac, my favorites are “Alex” and “Vicki.” I’m also a fan of the high-quality voices produced by Cepstral, which are made for Mac OS, Windows, and Linux. Their “David” is typically my first choice for proofreading.

When choosing a voice, you’ll want to be aware of what language, region, or use it’s designed for. Most writers can get by with a general-use voice, but specialized voices are available for fields like education and healthcare.

You might also try to match your voice to the audience you’re writing for. “Alex” and “Vicki,” for example, are both intended to represent 35-year-old adults, while Cepstral’s “Robin” simulates a child. When I write for a European audience I’ll often proof the copy using a voice called “Serena,” one of the Mac’s system standards for UK English. Some voices like Cepstral’s “Dallas,” have a bit of personality that can be useful if it matches your target readers.

I sometimes skip text-to-speech proofing when I’m in a hurry, but I usually regret it. It takes very little time, costs next to nothing, and can save you a lot of revisions — not to mention embarrassment.