9 rules for ruthless editing

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No one wants to write dull, lifeless lines that lull even the most hyperkinetic people to sleep. Certainly not you, right?

But why do we find it so hard to write what we want to say in the least amount of words—and still maintain potency?

It’s not easy because we tend to fall in love with what we write. We fear cutting out anything important. No matter how dead it is.

How do we distinguish between the living words and the dead? How do we separate the enticing sentences from the repulsive ones?

It’s almost like we need someone to get in our faces and tell us like it is.

David Mamet, executive producer of the CBS drama “The Unit,” wrote an all-caps memo to the show’s stable of writers shortly before the show was canceled.

It’s a masterpiece on how to write “genuine drama.” And cut dead weight.

“The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.”

What is drama? It’s “the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific acute goal.”

You, dear Web copywriter, must figure out what your reader wants—lose weight, buy a used iPad—and then paint a picture for your reader describing how what you have will fulfill their every desire.

That is drama. And everything you write must carry the scent of those desires. If they don’t, you’ll bore readers and lose money.

Your online reader has a one-track mind. He’s bent on satisfying a need. The moment he loses the scent in your copy he’s gone, which brings us to Mamet’s next rule.

“This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless.”

In film, a bushwah scene involves two people talking about a third person. As Mamet said, it’s useless. Dead.

You must eliminate it from your own writing.

“If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors.”

Need I say more?

“Every scene must be dramatic.”

Listen, if you keep rule No. 1 in mind, every word you write will captivate the reader. You can’t help it.

But when you break rule No. 1—which is usually because you confuse a feature with a benefit—your copy will go stale.

If you want to grow and evolve as a writer, learn how to question every single sentence you write: Does it give the reader what he wants? Does it fulfill his simple, straightforward pressing need? Is it essential? [See the previous rule.]

If not, cut it.

“Propel us into the next scene.”

Do you know what the single, solitary purpose of your headline is? It’s to get you to read the first sentence.

Do you know what the single and solitary purpose of your first sentence is? To get you to read the second sentence.

And so on.

Every word you write must muscle, tantalize, or flat-out lure your reader down the path to your call to action. After reading your copy people should feel manhandled—and beg to read it again.

Any sentence that does not propel the reader along is useless. Cut it.

“Job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next.”

Listen: Gratification is a reading buzz kill. You, dear copywriter, must leverage the potential of both premeditated restraint and the human imagination.

In other words, tease, taunt, and fascinate. Withhold satisfaction until your reader is in a lather. And then taunt him some more.

“Every scene starts because the hero has a problem.”

People who use the Web are looking for a solution or an answer. That means they have a problem or question. It’s your job, dear Web copywriter, to figure out what that problem is—and then solve that problem or answer that question in such a way that the reader thinks you are the only person in the world who has the solution to his problem or answer to his question.

Forget this rule, and people will neglect you.

[RELATED: Ragan’s new distance-learning site houses the most comprehensive video training library for corporate communicators.]

“Write a silent movie, and you will be writing great drama.”

Great copy is active copy. It’s copy that breathes. Caresses. Calms. Stabs. Pokes eyes. Pulls hair. Draws one to his knees. Or forces you to belt out a laugh.

Great copy is about action. It’s like a tractor about to run you over. Or a carpet that lifts you above the roof of your house.

Great copy demands that you respond. It makes you grit your teeth and pace the floor until 4 a.m. Bad copy ignores you and sits in the corner talking to himself about himself.

Kick bad copy out the moment you notice it.

“Is it essential?”

This is the one question you must be asking yourself over and over again. “Is it essential?” Does this paragraph advance my case? Does this sentence push forward my argument? Can I live without this story?

Whether you are a blogger, online journalist, or sales copywriter, you must be ruthless with your copy. If you’re not, your reader will be—and that will cost you time, attention, and sometimes money.

So what are you waiting for? Start editing.

A version of this article first appeared on TheCopyBot.

This article first ran on Ragan.com in March 2013.

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