The Ruthless Art of Copy Editing
Why the Home Movie is Better than Hollywood
I couldn’t believe my luck. One of my first jobs as a full time freelancer and I’d been asked to write a promotional video for a start-up with what sounded like serious connections. A professional film crew were going to record it. There were actors to play the parts.
“I think we could make it something like this”, my client said, sending me a link to one of the most talked about adverts of the year.
Keen to impress, I went all out. There were jokes and dual narratives, walk-on parts and location changes.
The next week I met the client again. “I loved it” he said and handed me back the script. I had to double take. Almost all my words had a thick red line through them.
“The film crew can’t do it” he said. “And we need something by next week. I was thinking we could rewrite it with just me in front of the camera.”
It was one of the best lessons in copy-editing I could ever have hoped for.
I had to strip everything away. The jokes, the cameos – it all had to go. I didn’t have locations or humourous sub-plots to hide behind now. It was just one guy, in front of a camera, with my script. I had to make sure that not a word was wasted.
The funny thing was, at the end of the process I realized that the second script was by far the stronger of the two.
Here’s the moral of the story:
Your first draft is the Hollywood version. Now write the home movie.
Or in other words:
Whether you’re writing a script, website copy, a blog or a novel your work is (almost) always made stronger by ruthless editing and careful consideration of exactly what you want to get accross.
And here are a few tips for how to do it:
- Most people take a long time to get to the main point. By which time the reader has lost interest. Get to the central point straight away. You may find you don’t need to say another word.
- The above isn’t as easy as it sounds. To do it, spend some time thinking about the one thing that you want your reader to come away with. Write it in one sentence. Write it in one word. Is it better this way? If so, why not leave it?
- Use Bullet Points to list features. Key information can get lost in long sentences.
- Take out all the adverbs.
- Then take out all the adjectives. Do you really need them?
- Write short sentences. They help you keep to the point. Replace linking words like ‘and’ with full stops. Do the same with commas.
- Kill Your Darlings. Hemingway said it first. It means take out all the bits you’re really happy with. The jokes and the clever bits. Just say what needs to be said. He was a bit of a killjoy, old Ernest. Sold a lot of books, though.
And finally – feel free to break all the above rules where necessary. It’s what great writing’s all about.