12 steps to rewrite long articles

What’s the best process to rewrite long articles written by someone other than you? You may get some ideas from my 12-step process. I start by assessing the article’s strengths and weaknesses. Next, I rewrite the article, including its graphs, callouts, and anything else that isn’t part of the main text. Finally, I run several checks on the document. You can rewrite long articles with confidence if you follow this process.

rewrite long articles

1. Diagram the article

When clients ask me to rewrite long articles, sometimes they’ll point out the problems they’d like me to address. But, more often, they’ll simply ask me to tighten up and improve the document. I need to quickly get a sense of what the article says, and whether its overall structure works. Mind mapping helps me with this.

I use mind mapping to diagram the current structure and main points of the article. I put the article’s topic in a circle in the middle of the page, then draw a line from that circle for each section. From each “section line” I draw more lines—typically one for every paragraph. I then add as many details on separate lines as I feel are important for me to understand the article.

As I go through, I also note text that will need more work, poorly placed or designed exhibits, and anything else that will need work during the rewriting process. I might mark this on a printed copy of the article.

Next, I look at the mind map to grasp the article’s main points. This high-level view also helps me to spot missing or poorly arranged information, as I explained in “Mind maps: can they win buy-in for your writing?

Here’s a mind map that suggests the need to add a new topic—frontier markets—to a paper about investing outside the U.S. I discuss it in more detail in “Mind maps: can they win buy-in for your writing?

After mind mapping, I often write bullet points that say in my own language what I see as the article’s main points. I’ll typically bounce these off the client to get confirmation. However, busy clients—especially those who aren’t the subject-matter experts—often leave me on my own.

2. Rewrite your long article

I start rewriting by editing the introduction to ensure that it introduces the article’s important themes. I believe in giving away the main points in the article’s beginning. I feel this prepares the reader’s mind to accept the arguments that follow. I repeat this process at the start of each major section of the article. Sometimes I’ll have jotted down new introductory sentences for the sections while I was diagramming the article. That means I only need to adapt the sentence to work in its new home.

At the top of every paragraph, I check that the initial sentence gives the main point or topic of the rest of the paragraph. That way, I know that later the article will pass my first-sentence check.

I also work to simplify and clarify every sentence. My goal is to make the article as reader-friendly as possible. Wherever possible, I cut text that’s redundant or irrelevant.

During this phase, I use Microsoft Word’s comments feature to ask questions and make suggestions.

3. Improve graphs and other exhibits

Graphs and other exhibits can boost the power of your writing. But their significance often isn’t immediately obvious to your readers.

I like the approach that some of my clients take. They give the exhibit a short title, as most folks do. But they also add a caption that explains the exhibit’s meaning. I create or check captions so they’re easy to understand—or, at least as easy as a complex graphic can be.

I also check that the exhibit is located as close as possible to the text to which it refers.

4. Add callouts

Sometimes clients ask me to add callouts or pull quotes to engage people who skim their articles. Callouts are blocks of text—often quotes from the article—that are highlighted by their design or location. Similar to movie trailers, “They show just enough of the best stuff to get the reader to buy a ticket for the full show,” says Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications.

Callouts add visual interest. They can also help your designer avoid awkward page breaks by filling space that would otherwise go empty. That’s important when I’m filling one of my other roles, as the editor of a monthly print magazine. When you rewrite long articles to include callouts, you make it more likely that readers will read the entire piece—or at least skim it.

5. Perform first-sentence check

When your reader can grasp the gist of your argument by reading the first sentence of every paragraph, you’ve passed my first-sentence check.

I explain the details in “Quick check for writers, with an economic commentary example.” I also explain what to do when your article fails this test.

6. Run spellchecking software

Running spellchecking software may help you catch obvious errors. Still, the software isn’t infallible, as shown by the example of the “portfolio manger”—instead of “manager”—in an investment firm’s pitch book. That’s why I use other software tools, too.

7. Run PerfectIt

PerfectIt is software that’s particularly good at finding problems of inconsistent usage. For example, did you hyphenate a term in one place but not another? Or, did you refer to a financial planner as both an “advisor” and an “adviser”? Of course, human judgment is required because sometimes such inconsistent usage is correct.

I’ve written about PerfectIt in “My three main software tools for proofreading.”

8. Run Grammarly

I use Grammarly grammar-checking software, which checks different issues than PerfectIt. However, like PerfectIt, it also incorrectly flags some usages as wrong. Ultimately, it finds enough errors that I continue to use it when time permits. I find it good at identifying missing articles and unnecessary words.

9. Use Speak

I use Speak, Microsoft Word’s text-to-voice function to read an article paragraph by paragraph. As I explained in an earlier post about my use of a text-to-voice function, when you read only with your eyes, “you naturally fill in missing words and correct other mistakes in your mind.”

10. Check for the client’s style

When a client’s style guide calls for a style that I don’t typically use, I try to check on any major differences. For example, I love the serial comma, but not all of my clients do. Or, they may spell out “percent” while I’m accustomed to using a percentage sign. These differences are easy to check using Word’s search function.

11. Double-check exhibits and formatting

I scan exhibits to see if they have all of the necessary elements, such as a title and a source line. I also check the article’s formatting, especially to make sure that the hierarchy of headings is correct.

12. Review comments

I check that my comments using Microsoft Word’s Comments feature are reasonably easy to understand.

Hit “send” with confidence!

After completing step #12, I’m ready to send the revised text to my client.

If you follow my process, you can feel more confident that you’ve caught errors and improved the document that you’ve rewritten.

Reply effectively to Microsoft Word comments

Want to ensure that you and your editor agree on the changes to your document? One part of communicating effectively with your editor involves using the “comments” feature in Microsoft Word. Bad usage can lead to bad mistakes. Or, it can require otherwise unnecessary back and forth with your editor. In my experience, problems typically arise with how authors reply to my comments.

3 highlights for Microsoft Word comments

How to reply to your editor’s Microsoft Word comments

When you respond to your editor’s comments, use the reply option that’s offered in the comment. See the word “Reply” in the lower right corner of the image below? Hover your cursor over it to make it turn gray. Then click on it to type your reply.

use the reply option

Your reply will be threaded below the original comment, as in the example below. This makes it easy for both parties to connect a reply with the original comment.

reply on comment

What NOT to do with Microsoft Word comments

Many financial professionals aren’t heavy users of Microsoft Word, and they may never have used its editing features. As a result, they don’t know how to create threaded replies to comments. They create a new comment, as in the example below, instead of replying to the original comment.

wrong way to reply

When a document has multiple comments, this makes it hard for your editor to see which comment your reply concerns.

When there are too many rounds of comments

Of course, even with threaded comments, an article or white paper that goes through multiple rounds of revisions can become cluttered with comments. When there are too many comments to fit in the right margin, Word forces you to click on some of the comments to expand them. That makes it harder to scan all of the comments.

To reduce comment clutter, I typically delete comments after my client and I have addressed them. When working with a client who likes to track their comments, I click “Resolve” to gray out that comment. That signals to both of us that we can skip over that comment, unless there’s an issue.

reply resolve

 

 

 

 

Don’t panic if you hit “Resolve” by mistake. Just hit “Reopen.”

Why your editor uses Word’s comments feature

The beauty of Word’s comments feature is that it lets you highlight the text to which your comment refers. And, it does this while keeping your comment off to the right-hand margin of the document. This allows for an uncluttered view of the original and your comments. A writer friend says she likes using comments because it’s less intimidating to the person whose text is marked up.

I’m only aware of three alternatives to delivering written comments.

  1. Typing your comment in the body of the text, immediately before or after the relevant text—This makes it hard for the reader to review the original text without your comment. Plus, you need to describe in words which part of the text your comments apply to.
  2. Typing your comments in a separate document, as I’ve had to do when suggesting edits to a screenshot my client sent me. This often involves a lot of extra typing. For example, I might have to indicate the page, paragraph, and line numbers of the text I’m discussing, in addition to making my suggestion.
  3. Making the changes yourself, which is only practical if you know what they should be. Even then, I sometimes add comments to explain why I made changes. That’s an important part of creating satisfied clients. Comments also educate them so they write better on their own.

However, when my comments ask clients to make changes, I like it when they make changes to the text themselves. After all, they’re the experts on their topic.

Questions about Microsoft Word?

Have questions about the mechanics of comments, replies, and the like in Word? Google is usually helpful. I also like to check the Microsoft Word support website. I’ve found solutions for some hard-to-crack problems by posting in the Microsoft Community.

Curious about how the author approval process should work?

That’s a bigger issue than managing comments. I tackle it in “Tips for managing author approvals.”

 

Describing an interview-based assignment to writers

Recently a company contacted me to write an interview-based post for its blog. I’ve often done this for blog posts that show off the expertise of the company’s staff. However, what was unusual about this request was that I’d need to interview experts outside the company for the post. The need to find external experts makes an interview-based assignment more time-consuming and less attractive to writers. It’s more like writing a magazine article than a typical content marketing piece.

I learned later that the company’s marketing director had omitted an important piece of information when it described its interview-based assignment. It could have reduced my qualms about accepting an assignment requiring interviews of external experts. I describe it below.

The challenges of using external experts

Using external experts is challenging for two reasons.

First, it takes time to find and schedule them. If the writer doesn’t know relevant experts, a good deal of networking may be required to find them. That’s especially true if there’s no trade association or other group where such experts gather.

Scheduling can be more challenging than when working with a company’s internal experts. Internal experts are motivated to participate for the good of their employer (though they still can be challenging to schedule, but that’s another story). External experts don’t feel a pressing need for your company to succeed at its marketing.

Second, the experts may not wish to use their expertise on behalf of the company that’s your client. It’s generally less prestigious to appear on a corporate blog or in a corporate magazine than in a publication that’s perceived as independent. Also, the expert may worry about appearing to endorse the products or services offered by your client. On the other hand, some corporate publications don’t quote experts by name. That’s even worse because the expert gets no visibility in exchange for sharing insights.

The missing information

After I turned down the interview-based assignment, I learned that the marketing director had unwittingly withheld a piece of information that would have made it more attractive. He told me that he planned to find experts for the writer. That was potentially a big timesaver for the writer.

Of course, just naming experts isn’t enough. For the reasons mentioned above, experts may not want to help a corporate publication. However, if you’re a marketer assigning articles, and you can promise cooperative sources to your outside writers, that’s a big plus. Don’t hide that; feature it!

Of course, there’s other information that writers will seek, including:

  • Your topic, defined as specifically as possible
  • Pay
  • Word count
  • Place of publication
  • Target audience and why they’ll care about your topic
  • Your timeline and editing process

When you provide complete information up front, you’ll get a more realistic price from your writer. Also, the entire writing and editing process will go more smoothly.

Read critically, or write badly

The two sentences below from Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence resonated with me. Trying to explain why bad sentences exist, he says:

The writer knew what she wanted to say, thought she had said it, and gave up reading and listening. To write well, you need to read and audit your own words, and that is a much stranger and more unnatural act than any of us know.

One problem is that what we as writers want to say is clear to us. As we skim what we’ve written, the mind fills in missing information and relationships between one sentence and another. As a result, we mistakenly think that all is well with our sentences.

How can you fight your mind’s tendency to gloss over problems when editing your own writing? Below you’ll find one suggestion from Moran, and more solutions from me.

5 ways to fight

 

1. Write more slowly in the first place

Moran says:

Most of us, when we write, march too quickly on to the next sentence. To write intelligibly is hard enough, so be sure you have done that first. Fix your sights on making one sane, sound, serviceable sentence. As a farmer must do, hold your nerve and resist the impulse to put your energies into cash crops with quick returns. Have the confidence to leave fields fallow, to wait patiently for the grain to grow and to bear with the dry seasons.

Try his approach. You may enjoy it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel too pressured most of the time to write slowly. However, taking this approach sometimes is a nice change of pace.

2. Let it marinate

It’s hard to edit something immediately after writing it. I can catch some problems right away. Others take time to surface. This is why I sometimes write out posts by hand, and then scan and send them to my virtual assistant to input into a Word document or directly into WordPress. I do another round of editing after the posts have been typed.

I can see problems more clearly once the ideas have had time to marinate in my mind after I initially put them on paper. Some people call this approach “sleeping on it.”

Some of the problems I find are those Moran discusses when he explains how “A sentence can confuse in countless ways.” He points to small word choices with big, bad consequences:

Prepositions confuse because they so easily shapeshift into conjunctions or adverbs in the reader’s head. A poorly placed for or as is enough to lead the reader astray. Since can mean “because” but also “after that time.” While can mean “although” but also “during that time.” Prepositional phrases confuse if they are too far away from what they modify. I wrote my speech while flying to Paris on the back of a sick bag. Even over-correctness confuses. When you strain to avoid splitting an infinitive, believing (wrongly) that splitting one is wrong, it can draw attention to itself and give the reader pause.

Also, the time that passes since that writing allows me to read my work more objectively and sometimes inspires additional ideas.

With my “how-to” blog posts, I often write a bare-bones list of steps in my first draft. Then, I add flesh to those bones in the second draft.

3. Use techniques for self-analysis

To check whether my writing flows well from paragraph to paragraph, I use my first-sentence check for writers. If you read the first sentence of every paragraph out loud, can you understand the gist of your argument? If so, you pass the test. If not, you have work to do.

Another way to test your text, is to read it out loud. This is great for finding typos and other outright mistakes, as I’ve explained before. It also helps you to notice subtler problems with rhythm and arguments. Somehow, when you read out loud, it’s harder for the brain to fill in the missing pieces without noticing your writing’s weaknesses.

You can also create a checklist of your most common mistakes, and then check to see if those mistakes have snuck into the text.

You’ll find more tests sprinkled throughout my blog, including a technique for underlining your way to less financial jargon.

4. Get external help

Some automated help is available. For example, there are grammar and style tools, such as PerfectIt, that can check for basic mistakes. Hemingway goes beyond them to help you identify overly wordy writing. Some of my newsletter subscribers have told me that Hemingway has made a dramatic difference in their writing.

Alternatively, you can hire a professional editor to review your work. (Or, even hire a professional writer to write whatever you need.) As a writer-editor myself, I think that’s a great idea. Still, budgets don’t always permit outside help. And, you can’t hire a writer to write all of your communications.

Less expensive is getting help from non-professional writers. For example, you can ask for feedback from your colleagues or members of your target audience. As I’ve said elsewhere, don’t simply ask them, “What do you think?” or “Do you understand?” Instead, ask them “What is my main message, and can you explain it in your own words?” It’s easy for someone to parrot back your introductory paragraph. It’s much harder to explain it using their own words.

5. Figure out what works for you

Different techniques work best for different people—or situations. Experiment to see what works best for you.

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

 

The image in the upper left is courtesy of Studio GOOD Berliny [CC BY-SA 4.0].

How to name your writing files to reduce confusion

Version control can be a nightmare when you’re working on any white paper, article, or other written piece. This is especially true if more than one person is involved in the writing and review process. Naming your writing files appropriately can prevent you from editing an outdated file. Here are four practical tips for achieving this.

1. Pick an informative file name

If you give your files generic names like “draft” or “article,” it’s hard to distinguish one article from another. The challenge is even worse if you use random file names, such as “4690366-9%ywyQyZ.” I sometimes receive files like that.

I often start by indicating the author or client name and the topic or format. For example, “Miller_Intl Investing” or “XYZAssetMgt White Paper.”

This makes it easy for me to identify the right white paper when, for example, I scroll through a list of recently opened files.

2. Add a date

Want to make sure you edit the most recent version of a file? When you edit a document, rename it by adding the date at the end. To make it easy to sort files in chronological order, I don’t use words (like March) to indicate the month. Instead, I use numerals. For example, I put 031920 to represent March 19, 2020 at the end of a file name.

If you sometimes work on files over the course of multiple years, consider putting the year first in your date indicator. That’ll make your files sort in chronological order for more than one calendar year. For the magazine that I edit, I name each issue starting with the year and then then month. For example, 2006 for June 2020.

3. Indicate version or stage

Some companies and writers go through formalized stages in their writing. For example, outline, draft, first revision, final revision.

If you’re deliberately submitting an outline instead of a first draft because that’s one stage of your writing process, it’s a good idea to add “outline” to the file name. Later I add labels like “draft” and “revision.”

For the magazine I edit, I’ll often add “FOR REVIEW” or “FOR REVISION,” depending on what actions I want the author to take upon receiving my edited version of their draft.

Some people also find it helpful to number their drafts in the file names. It prevents someone inadvertently editing an earlier version of a draft.

4. Add editor’s initials

Who made these edits? You won’t have to ask this question if the most recent person to edit a piece adds their initials at the end of the file name. For example, if EB edits a file after me, she would name her file “Draft 030120 SW EB.”

Of course, the file name can get unwieldy with too many editor’s names. That’s why I’ll often rename a file after my client returns it to me. For example, “XYZAssetMgt draft 030120 SW EB” becomes “XYZAssetMgt draft 030320 SW” with the change of date from March 1 (0301) to March 3 (0303) distinguishing it from the earlier draft.

Other tips for naming your writing files?

If you have other tips for naming your writing files, please share them with me. I enjoy learning things from you.