Killing Your Darlings and Cutting the Fluff: The Secret to the Art of Editing

Estimated reading time: 26 minute(s)

Editing a piece of copywriting
Source: rawpixel, via Unsplash

In his superb non-fiction book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, bestselling horror novelist Stephen King tells us “to write is human, to edit is divine.” As copywriters, that’s something we take to heart. Editing is a huge part of what we do—but when it’s done properly, no one even notices.

Think of the editing process like the crew at work behind a television show. A skilled editor, like a great boom operator, makes it possible for you to grasp exactly what’s being said on page or on screen and get sucked in—without any distractions like messy typos or boom mics dangling in shot. The work looks effortless, and that’s by design. But the truth is, editors often make all the difference between good writing and truly great writing—and that’s a bigger task than it looks.

At MarketSmiths, we love to edit. Our writers edit as they go, honing those flabby first drafts into tight, powerful pieces of writing before turning them over to their expert content strategist for a final nip, tuck, and polish. That sometimes involves brutal honesty and forcefully wrenching out parts that the writer is attached to but the content strategist knows are superfluous. (To quote Mr. King again, sometimes you’ve got to “kill your darling, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.”) Writing and editing are symbiotic processes for us, and that’s why editing becomes complicated when we’re sent something written by someone.

You see, a copy edit isn’t just about spotting mistakes. It’s about teasing out the most engaging parts of your work and leaving extraneous words on the cutting room floor. It’s the tightening and strength-building that usually only an intense workout regime can bring. Anyone can pick up on the fact that my British brain has spelled colour with a U again—but it takes a good editor to say “is this sentence even necessary to your argument and aren’t you just rambling now?”

Rambling aside, the point stands: editing is important, and it’s no small feat. (In fact, we ‘Smiths have an intensive 35 point process for Quality Control—we take this very seriously!) To demonstrate our point, here are five of the most common problems that an editor has to fix.

1. Removing the word vomit

Writers like to write. Sometimes we like it a little too much. By which I mean, we don’t know when to stop. It happens to the best of us.

It can be anything from a few superfluous words to a writer apparently trying to cram in every word they know. Either way, it’s rare to see a piece of writing that couldn’t benefit from a slight trim, and that can be a time-consuming process. The editor’s job is to streamline writing until every single word is necessary. Take the following sentence:

I mean, copywriters are pretty great and they work really hard and that’s just all I have to say about the matter, period.  

Consider how much more compelling it could be after it gets a workout:

Copywriters work hard and are great. Period.

What a difference a few fewer words make, huh?

2. Unraveling the tangles and restructuring the jumbles

As writers, we like to think we have a kind of sixth sense when it comes to structure. Sometimes we know how to lay a piece out even before we start; sometimes we realize halfway through that it could use a shakeup. We have our blind spots of course, and that’s where an editor comes in. They move paragraphs up or down, break up long-winded sentences, and generally ensure the whole thing flows like poetry from the first sentence to the last—every word in its proper place.

It’s a little different and often more involved than honing wordy copy into shape. A piece of writing might be perfectly lean, but structured all wrong (or vice versa). It might be disorganized and hard to follow, or so convoluted that it requires multiple reads before its point comes across. And in cases like these, it’s often not as simple as cutting or moving around a few words. It might require a complete and total restructure.

Put it this way—if you bought a house that didn’t have stable foundations, hanging some fresh wallpaper won’t fix your problems. That thing needs serious work—you might even need to tear the house down and start building it back up piece by piece, and that can be slow going. But the final product is always superior: sturdy, attractive, and something you can be proud of for years to come.

3. Humanizing the technical jargon

Glasses focusing on writing
Source: Dmitry Ratushny, via Unsplash

Have you ever gone to a company’s website and had no clue what they were saying? Us too. Sure, some topics are complex—but that’s no excuse for the copy to be the same.

Our editing process is designed to translate dense technical jargon into something we like to call “humanese.” Put simply, it’s language we can all understand, without requiring a four year bachelor’s degree in the subject. Most importantly, it conveys why you, the reader, should care.

Consider financial copywriting, something we do a lot of. Let’s say you go to a website seeking advice about tax-efficient investing and it reads like an economics textbook. Before you go cross-eyed, you’re likely to look elsewhere. The next website you click on informs you in simple, engaging language about the potential benefits and risks involved, and compels you to keep reading. Better yet, it leaves you excited to take action—whether it’s scheduling a consultation, downloading a whitepaper, or signing up for a newsletter.

When we write in-house, our writers and content strategists dive headfirst into a topic from the word go. That way, when it comes to the editing process, we already know the industry and can translate any lingering remnants of unfathomable jargon into crisp, easy-to-read human-speak.

It’s a little trickier when we edit something we haven’t written, because we need to give ourselves a crash course in the industry before we can wade through any dense technical copy to extract its human core. We relish a challenge, but this can take time (not to mention reading our work over and over and over to make sure it makes sense).

4. Cutting the fluff

Some writing is like cotton candy. It might look attractive, but it’s all fluff and no substance—not something you want for every meal. Nobody wants their business’s web copy or marketing material to be an unsatisfying bite, so they turn to us for help.

Writing fulfilling copy is what we do best. But when it comes to editing someone else’s existing writing, working with fluff is the equivalent of being tasked to create a three course meal from cotton candy. There’s not much we can do without a trip to the grocery store (which in our case consists of substance-gathering efforts like research and interviewing). You’ll get a satisfying meal at the end of it… Just don’t expect us to whip it up in ten minutes.

Diary entry
Source: pixabay, via Pexels

5. Rewriting the diary entry

Editors face another issue, and that’s teasing out writing that’s essentially a writer’s unfiltered thought process put to paper. Unless you’re aiming to publish the next Ulysses, stream-of-consciousness narrative doesn’t make for great copy. The editor’s job isn’t as simple as organizing and streamlining here—they need to translate the writer’s thought process into a perspective that the reader can engage with. If there isn’t enough to work with, they need to speak to the writer to glean more insight. Again, this can be a time-consuming task.

As an example, take a look at this description of a (fictional) client’s customer offering that they send to MarketSmiths for an “edit” before it goes live on their website. They offer custom birthday parties for copywriters (come to think of it, that’s a neat idea…).

Guests get to play games like: pin the pencil on the writer; musical desk chairs; scavenger hunting (don’t know what they’re hunting yet: need ideas, can you help?); bad-grammar bingo (you mark off your card as you proofread a piece of copy together, it’s actually super fun). Food provided… Lots of coffee obviously, and we can make some snacks but not sure what (leave vague, thanks). Just lots of fun for copywriting enthusiasts basically. We come to your office and set up there, very simple to organize.

Sure, writing like this might tell you a lot, but it’s not what a potential client expects to see when they go to your site. It reads like a rushed diary entry, or a shopping list. An editor will take one look at it and start rewriting to give it some structure and flavor:

Copywriters like to have fun, too! Our parties are tailor-made for word-enthusiasts, bursting with tongue-in-cheek games and activities like pin the pencil on the writer, musical desk chairs, and a mystery scavenger hunt around your own desks! Guests will also get to play a bingo game like no other—who will mark off the bad grammar on their card first as we proofread together? We’ll provide the coffee and snacks; all you have to bring is yourselves! 

We doubt we’ll ever have to edit a piece of copy exactly like that, but you get the point. Birthday parties for copywriters sound awesome. Oh, and some edits are more substantial than others.

To edit is divine

Whatever the underlying problem, editing a piece of writing is tougher than it looks. We pride ourselves on our editing skills here at MarketSmiths, and people are sometimes surprised that we don’t offer it as a standard service. But every edit is different, and requires different considerations before we begin. That’s why we’ll always ask to see your work before we take on an editing project—we need to work together to make it the best it can be.

Looking for help updating your company’s website or marketing copy? Whether it’s a complete overhaul or a tune-up and polish, we’ve got you covered. Contact us today to find out more.

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Samantha McLaren

Having worked as a ghost tour guide for five years, Samantha knows how to get a reaction using only words. Hailing from bonny Scotland, she spent years gathering weird, eclectic experience (from laboratory assistant to radio DJ to Sunday school teacher) before finding her true calling–writing. She came to New York to see what MarketSmiths could teach her, and never left. Copywriter by day, amateur horror writer by night, she has a passion for words and is drawn to the strange and unusual.

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