Let’s talk about vanilla ice cream.
If you’re like most people, you find vanilla ice cream quite inoffensive.
You neither love nor hate it — i.e., it doesn’t inspire strong feelings in you.
And if you’re eating vanilla ice cream, it’s unlikely you’re raving about it to anyone.
Now I want you to think about Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.
I bet that ice cream inspires strong feelings in you!
I bet if you had a big bowl of that in front of you, there’d be a huge smile on your face and you’d want to tell anyone who’d listen how good it is.
What’s this got to do with writing?
Well, many of us have perfected the art of writing “vanilla ice cream.”
Vanilla writing is both technically sound and inoffensive.
Vanilla writing “does the job” in the absence of anything better.
And the truth is, perfecting the art of writing “vanilla” is necessary if you want to earn a living as a writer.
The economic and time constraints imposed on us by our clients, plus our need to invoice quickly (so we can put food on the table), dictates that we need to be able to consistently churn out writing that is technically sound and “does the job.”
Vanilla writing pays the bills.
But sometimes, we want to produce writing that really moves people and inspires them to take action.
Sometimes we want our writing to provoke such strong feelings in people, they feel compelled to tell their friends, “Hey! Read this!”
Sometimes, we want to produce the writing equivalent of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
The good news is, there’s a way to turn vanilla into chocolate chip cookie dough. You just need time, and a few extra ingredients.
The power of editing
Most people see editing as the process of turning a messy first draft into something that’s publishable. And yes, editing does do that.
But to me, “publishable” is the equivalent of “vanilla.”
To me, the real power of editing activates when we take writing that is vanilla (does the job) and turn it into chocolate chip cookie dough (something people rave about and want to share with their friends).
Yes, the editing process for the latter involves a few more steps than you’re used to, but I promise, it’ll be worth it.
Before you can turn a piece of vanilla writing into chocolate chip cookie dough, however, you need to be sure it really is at the vanilla (i.e., technically sound) stage.
You also need to meet these three requirements:
- You know exactly who the ideal reader is,
- You know what promise you’re making to them, and
- Your piece contains all the key information required to deliver on the promise.
If you have all of this in hand, it’s time to edit!
Step #1: High-level pass
This is the stage where knowing exactly who you’re writing for, and what you’re trying to say is crucial.
Because the first thing you need to do is go through your draft and delete anything that is not relevant to the promise you’re making.
When I first started putting this post together, many of the things I talked about were general writing tips. They were great tips, but completely irrelevant to the promise I was making — which was how to edit, not how to write.
The second thing you need to do is check your examples.
If the ideal reader for your piece is a doctor, but all your examples are about builders, you need to change your examples. (If you don’t, your piece won’t resonate.)
Finally, you need to check your sub-headings.
If you promise “5 secrets to great writing” in your title and all your sub-headings are actually “5 mistakes people make when they’re writing,” then you need to either change your title or your sub-headings.
Step #2 : Structure
A neat and tidy structure for any piece of writing is a three-part structure: beginning, middle, end. Or, my personal favorite: hook, build, payoff.
Let’s start with your hook
First, check you have one. The hook appears very early in a piece, and must capture your reader’s attention.
(Which is why you must know who the reader is.)
For example, I hooked you at the start of this article by connecting editing — something many writers don’t like doing — with ice cream, which pretty much everyone likes eating.
If your piece is missing a hook, and you’re not sure how to give it one, I break down five common hooks here.
It’s also worth noting that writers often bury their hooks two paragraphs into their content.
I can’t tell you how many “first two paragraphs” I’ve deleted in my time. All that backstory you’re giving, the reader doesn’t care.
Start with the bit that captures their attention, and then carry on from there. (If you really need backstory for context, you can introduce it later.)
The next structural element we need to look at is our build
This is where you introduce your idea to the reader and show them “what is.”
Then you tell them why they should care by showing them “what could be.”
In the introduction of this post, I showed you “what is” — vanilla ice cream. It’s “does the job” writing.
The problem is, no one’s Instagramming vanilla ice cream or telling their friends about it.
Then I showed you “what could be” — chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
Basically, I sold you the dream! Now I need to deliver on that dream.
And I do that via …
The final structural element: the payoff
Many writers think their final line is the payoff, but that’s rarely the case.
More commonly, it’s the six points, or the 10 tips, or the 15 secrets. Essentially, it’s where you deliver on the promise you’ve made in your title.
Everything I’m walking you through right now, this is all payoff. I’m giving you practical actions that turn your vanilla draft into chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
What do you do if your structure isn’t quite right?
If the proper information is all there, it might simply need re-ordering.
But more often than not, this is the part of the editing process where you need to do some re-writing and “hole filling.”
Step #3: Remove roadblocks
Roadblocks are things that make the reader stop and go … “Huh?”
It’s important to remove these because there are so many things our readers can be doing today. Any roadblock we throw up might make them decide it’s easier to go check out stupid memes on Facebook.
What are some common roadblocks?
The first is unnecessary repetition.
This is pretty common in books or articles where an author is battling to meet a word count. So they’ll say the same thing five different ways.
It also happens when a writer isn’t 100 percent clear on what they’re trying to say. So they share a single thought in a few different ways, hoping one of those ways will resonate with the reader.
Don’t do this.
Make your point once; make it well. Then move on to the next one.
The second common roadblock is a big word that could be smaller.
Mark Twain (apparently) said:
“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
It doesn’t matter how smart your readers are; they will always prefer a small word to a big one.
For example, you wouldn’t write “utilize” when you could just write “use.”
The third roadblock is jargon.
We all know about jargon because we’ve all been frustrated by reading it. But often, when we’re doing corporate writing, it’s not possible to remove it.
You need to use your judgement here. If jargon is putting unnecessary distance between you and the reader, then edit it out. If they’re clued up on the topic, a little bit of jargon is okay.
In-jokes are another common roadblock.
These are fun if everyone gets them — but they seldom do. Remember, the people who don’t get the in-joke will feel both stupid and distanced from you.
So you’d use them if you’re deliberately trying to create a divide between people who get it and those who don’t. In all other situations, you’d consider their use carefully.
Awkward syntax is when a sentence is grammatically correct but still sounds weird. In those situations, I always re-phrase the sentence because things that sound weird stop readers in their tracks.
The final most common type of roadblocks are sentences or paragraphs you love because they’re awesome and make you sound super-smart.
You know you could cut them out because they’re not actively contributing anything, but you leave them there anyway.
These are called darlings. And we all know killing our darlings makes our writing better.
Step #4: Smooth your transitions
This is a very hard one to give practical advice on, but I need to mention it anyway.
If you read through your piece and it doesn’t feel like it flows very well, but your structure is sound, then you may need to use linking words like “but,” “and,” and “however” between your sentences.
Smooth transitions between paragraphs and sections are also necessary to keep the reader moving along. Harsh transitions where there is no obvious link between adjacent paragraphs act as a roadblock.
If you can’t smoothly link two paragraphs or section, consider splitting them via sub-headings. Or do what Malcolm Gladwell does and put three dashes between the end of a paragraph and the start of a new one.
He often does this in essays and books to say, “Okay, I’ve finished that thought, and now I want to start a new one, but I have no way of segueing smoothly from one to the other.”
Step #5: Line editing
Now, this is what most of us think of when we think of editing.
But it’s important to remember, line editing can only clean up what’s already there. It doesn’t address:
- Who the content is for,
- What that content is trying to say, and
- Whether the information is optimally structured to deliver the idea to the reader.
The four editing steps that have preceded this one are the keys to taking your writing from vanilla to chocolate chip cookie dough. What we do from here on is the cherry on top.
Given there are many great articles out there about line editing, I’m not going to go into too much detail here.
I’m just going to hit the most powerful and easily implemented ones.
- Check your use of “that.” Ninety-five percent of the time, you can remove the word “that” from a sentence and the sentence’s meaning won’t change.
- Audit your adverbs – basically anything ending in “ly.” Now, I love adverbs. I’m quite addicted to them because I feel they add nuance to my writing. But really, what sounds better? “She ran quickly?” or “She sprinted?” You can almost always remove an adverb by using a stronger verb.
- Watch for clarifiers and caveats. This is when you say things like “maybe” and “might,” and “sometimes.” These words have their place, but they also weaken your writing. If you’re deliberately using clarifiers or caveats to soften the stance you’re taking on something contentious, go for it. If you’re using them because you don’t want to offend anyone? Well, that’s the very definition of vanilla ice cream.
- Remove redundancies. Is it 5:00 a.m. in the morning? No, it’s just 5:00 a.m. Is it absolutely essential? No, it’s just essential.
- Audit your bullet points. When bullet points are preceded by a sentence that ends with a colon, you need to read each bullet point as if it was the second half of that sentence. If your bullet point doesn’t make sense off the back of that preceding sentence, then you need to change it so it does.
- Check for passive voice. This is another of my personal writing weaknesses — I naturally write in passive voice. So, I’ll say, “The man was bitten by the dog,” rather than. “The dog bit the man.” Now, sometimes this is necessary. Sometimes you use passive voice to slow the pace of things down a little, or because “The man was bitten by the dog” is more lyrical than “The dog bit the man.” But for the most part, writing is stronger, easier to read, and keeps people moving through the piece better if it’s active. If you find it hard to spot passive voice in your writing, use the Grammarly writing app. (Grammarly is also helpful for picking up on other common line editing errors.)
Step #6: Print out your writing and read it aloud
When you’re getting close to chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, the most powerful editing tool available to you is this one. Why?
It very quickly identifies awkward phrasing and harsh transitions.
It’s also a very effective way of picking up errors your eyes have been skipping over because you’ve been through your piece so many times.
A few times now I’ve been working with book clients whose manuscripts have been edited and proofread to within an inch of their life.
Then they record the audiobook version … and suddenly there are more things to be fixed. Not huge glaring errors. Just small ones that, if you fix them, take your work to another level.
If you’re working on a 1,500-word blog post as opposed to a book, there’s no excuse for not making time to read it out loud.
Step #7: The final proofread
In a perfect world, proofreading would be done by a professional, or at the very least, someone with fresh eyes who’s never read the content before.
In the absence of those people, you should let your draft sit overnight at the very least. The goal is to come back to it with fresh eyes.
Then, print it out in a different font to the one you’ve been using.
Then read it backwards (mainly to pick up spelling errors).
Then, go through line by line and make sure you read every word — especially those in headings, sub-headings, diagrams, and captions.
Those are places where it’s very easy for errors to hide.
And that’s it …
That’s how we turn vanilla writing into chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
It’s quite the process, isn’t it?
But it will be totally worth it for those pieces of writing you want to resonate strongly, move people to action, and be shared far and wide.
Reader Comments (11)
These are some great tips. I wish they were in a PDF format so I could print it, but I’ll be sure to bookmark these. I struggle with opening and ending most of what I write. I tend to ramble on. These are great reminders. Thank you for sharing them!
Douglas Brown says
You can print almost any web page to PDF. Just right-click on the content section and you will get a menu that includes the Print command (on a Windows computer, anyway)
Love the point about keeping the backstory to a minimum. Nothing frustrates me more than 18 paragraphs of text at the beginning of an otherwise helpful post that is completely irrelevant to me. So many articles do this. Ugh. /venting.
Kathie York says
Brian, I feel your pain !!
Kathie York says
I was pleased to see the comment about ‘that.’ Good for you!
As an editor and proofer, my rate goes up when ‘fillers’ are more than 2% of the text.
I have a personal vendetta against ‘that.’ (Found 987 of them in a 100-page book, once. No kidding. It’s the project where I learned to calculate the extra $$.)
Not only must I remove most of them, sentences then (often) need restructuring. Time waster, but it pays well, now. ?
Great article, and thanks for your time, K.
Lucia knight says
Excellent article. Answered questions I had but couldn’t articulate. PDF would be brill but i’m Printing and getting this up on my board to cheque through after every article is written. Thanks.
LJ Sedgwick says
I’m terrible for cutting out passive voice when I edit other people’s work. I write fiction so I’ve had it drummed into me for the past ten years not to use ‘was’ or ‘had’ (apart from the few occasions where it makes sense). So it’s a good carryover into content writing!
This was great. I write for an international audience, so I have to be careful with my “hooks.” As much as I’d love to start with a reference to Pulp Fiction or another American reference, I fear I might lose readers in far-off places. Any suggestions on using more universal hooks? (Ice cream can only go so far!) Thanks.
Marcia Yudkin says
I can’t help pointing out that in the US, at least, vanilla is by far the most popular flavor of ice cream. Not only is this surprising to a lot of people, it has relevance for the point you were making with this metaphor.
While people may not be instagramming about vanilla ice cream, they are buying it – again and again and again. This means that if you can get your writing to the vanilla level (using your metaphor), you will be getting decent results.
This means it’s far more important to master the basics, which you covered nicely in your post, than to get fancy in your writing.
Sonia Simone says
To make things even more interesting, in Italy, “vanilla” is not considered a default flavor, but a flavor all into itself.
And according to this recent Guardian article, chocolate is actually the U.S.’s most popular flavor these days, although vanilla comes in second. And they say that butter pecan comes in third, which amazes me. Fake news? Or just an alternative fact? https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jul/11/us-favorite-ice-cream-flavor-chocolate-vanilla-butter-pecan
Metaphors are fun, we can always find new points to make with them. 🙂
Hi Kelly, some really good advice which is great for someone like myself who struggles to make an article interesting.
I was surprised by your comment on the word “that”. I had never thought about it before however now I will be trying to cull it out of my sentences. The adverb comments also got me thinking. Thanks.
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