Whether you’re sending an email, drafting a memo, publishing a whitepaper, or preparing a presentation, success comes down to editing. Simply spitting your ideas onto the page leaves you with nothing more than a pile of sticks. Editing arranges those sticks into a sturdy, functional home. In the process, you throw out what you don’t need, find the ideal use for what remains, and assemble the parts such that they support each other.
What exactly is editing? We’ll call it the purposeful and improved arrangement of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Doing it well requires engaging with the text on each of those three levels, which is what this series of articles aims to do. But just as you move the furniture before dusting the shelves, we’ll start with the heavy lifting and save the detailed work for the end.
The text should declare its purpose early on. Take this article as an example: What is it about, and how long did it take you to figure that out? The sooner your reader knows what the text can offer them, the sooner they will settle in and let the words wash over them.
One paragraph should explain one idea. There is no better place to state that idea than in the first sentence. As soon as the paragraph has said everything on this point that it needs to, it should wrap itself up and release the reader from its grip. Anyone who insists a paragraph must have a certain number of sentences is a fool and a coward: a fool because they don’t know how paragraphs work, and a coward because they are afraid to let it be as long or as short as it needs to be. Don’t live like that if you can avoid it.
Finally, the ideas should be arranged in a logical sequence. Do not introduce Point C before Point B if the reader must first understand Point B in order to understand Point C. Writers too often make the mistake of assuming that the reader knows everything the writer knows and sees the same connections the writer sees. This is seldom the case. Lay the pieces down in order and string them together with clear-flowing logic. The reader will reward you with their attention and gratitude.