Edit before you write to save hours in the writing process
As a reality TV superfan, I’ve learned a lot about writing from “Project Runway” episodes.
For one thing, time management counts.
The most talented designers sometimes trip over deadlines: If you’re crafting an evening gown out of cabbage leaves, you might want to limit the ruching. Because if your model walks down the runway in a bra and a button, you’re going home no matter how brilliant your sketch looked.
“Why write a thesis, when what you need is a tweet?”
— Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications
The same thing is true in writing. It’s what you deliver — on deadline — that counts.
One way to write better, easier and faster, then, is not to overdesign. A big piece of time management boils down to knowing whether you’re creating a wedding gown or a simple shift, a white paper or a social media status update.
So as part of the prewriting process — before you type a single word — map out a plan for the length of your piece.
1. Don’t overwrite then underwrite.
Writing to length can save you an enormous amount of wasted work.
Say you need a 1,200-word blog post. If you write a 2,000-word first draft, you’ve already wasted the time it takes to write the extra 800 words.
But that’s not all: Now you have to burn time chopping your opus down to size. If only you could have written about 1,200 words to begin with, you’d have finished in less than half the time.
“What would happen if Chrysler had to churn out 7,500 cars for every 500 that make it to the showroom?” asks David Fryxell, author of How to Write Fast While Still Writing Well.
Chrysler would go out of business, obviously. Communicators can go out of business too, if they’re not efficient.
2. Budget your word count.
So start with your assigned word count, then map out a budget for each section of your piece.
Let’s say the assignment is a 400-word web page. Using the feature-style story structure, I know that my:
- Intro will be about 100 words long, including:
- A lead of about 25 words
- A nut graph of about 40 words
- A background section of about 40 words
- Conclusion will be about 50 words long, including:
- A wrapup of about 25 words
- A kicker of about 25 words
That leaves about 250 words. So my:
- Body will be about 250 words long, including:
- Section 1 of about 75 words
- Section 2 of about 75 words
- Section 3 of about 75 words
We know that online paragraphs are about 25 words each, so this budget gives us two or three paragraphs for each topic.
3. Map out your story.
Now map out your material for each paragraph. In section 1, for instance, I’ve gathered these elements to make my point:
- A client testimonial
- A statistic about our industry ranking
- A success story
The testimonial and statistic will each take a paragraph, but the success story is going to take about three paragraphs to develop properly. So I have some options. I can:
- Use the success story alone
- Use the testimonial and statistic only, making this section shorter and leaving some extra words for another section
- Use the testimonial, statistic and success story, making this section longer and stealing a paragraph from each of the other sections
I call this process editing before you write, because it allows you to make a lot of decisions before you begin about what will go in and what will stay out. The other option: Burning time writing everything, then burning more time cutting elements after you’ve already written them.
4. Track your budget.
Once you start writing, check your word count after you finish each section. That lets you know how well you’re spending your words and whether you have more or fewer words than budgeted for the next sections.
Edit before you write.
I don’t claim that this system allows me to hit the word count perfectly on each piece I write. But I come pretty close — plus or minus 10%, maybe.
Over the course of my career, that’s saved me hundreds and hundreds of hours of overwriting, then cutting. That’s certainly more time by far than I’ve invested in mapping out my pieces before I write.