I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 6 of Write While True, which is a writing program for programmers.
If you follow it literally, you’ll be in an infinite loop of writing. But I mean program as in a training program.
So, in each episode, I’ll challenge you with an exercise that will help you build a writing habit. This is Season one, which is about foundational exercises.
You’ll get the most out of this if you listen to Write While True at your desk, and when it’s over, start writing.
I didn’t know how to edit either
The theme of this podcast so far has been how I found out that I didn’t know how to read, how to take notes, or how to write. I also didn’t know how to edit.
Finding out that I didn’t know how to do something fundamental isn’t just a writing thing. I had had a similar epiphany in programming.
I was lucky to find out that I didn’t know how to deliver software early in my career. It was the early nineties and the team I was on was not very different from most. Yeah, we could program, and the product was successful, but we had no idea when the next version would be done or what exactly would be in it.
This is the era of shrink-wrapped software. Shipping was kind of expensive — we literally had to create and mail floppy disks all over the world.
In any case, after a year of flailing, we started to read some of the popular software process books and got a little bit of discipline. It made all of the difference. Just knowing that that there was a better way helped us think of ways to improve.
But, for some reason, I never applied that mentality to writing. I had a misconception that writing was somehow a different thing, and that you needed to have talent, an eye, or be inspired. Somehow the existence of great works of writing set the bar very high in my mind. But this wasn’t the case with software. The existence of Excel didn’t make me think I couldn’t ship software.
During that time, I had a pile of abandoned writing projects that never went anywhere. In a lot of ways, these should have just been “smart notes” in the way I described in Episode 2. Good raw material if not yet publishable.
When I wanted to publish a blog post, I would read a first draft over and fix the spelling and grammar, but not much else. The process was chaotic, non-repeatable, and didn’t improve it enough.
A repeatable process for getting first drafts
Now, I publish a blog every day. This is only possible because I have about two weeks worth of first drafts to try to develop. In my scheduled writing time, I pick one that is nearly done or that I have the energy for to finish and get it to its final form. I also move a few others forward.
The first four episodes have the details of each step of this technique. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re like me and you think a repeatable process will work for you, I think you’ll make progress if you try it.
Last episode, we started looking at developing first drafts. I pointed to Larry McEnerney’s workshop on reader-centric writing.
He said that “all writing has the function of helping the reader understand better something they want to understand well.”
To do that we need to figure out who the reader is. We need to know what they care about, what they want to know better.
At the end of the last episode I asked you to look over your drafts and think of who your reader is and what message you are trying to convey. I asked you to be specific.
Doing this will tell us what we are trying to do and why, but not how.
That’s what I want to talk about now.
How professional copy writers edit
Professional writers have processes for effective editing.
I was first exposed to from Joanna Wiebe’s talk about copywriting at The Business of Software conference in 2017. I linked to it in the show notes.
She’s an advertising and sales copy writer, and the talk is mostly about that. It’s worth watching the whole thing, but near the end, she said something that astonished me.
She said that she edits in sweeps. In her system, she has 7 different kinds of sweeps, which she describes, but the idea of sweep editing is what stuck.
In sweep editing, you go through your document only looking for one thing. You highlight it in a pass and then go back and consider the problems and fix them. Because you are specifically looking for one thing, you can do it very fast. And because it’s one kind of thing, you can keep one part of your brain engaged.
It’s in contrast to trying to fix everything at once as you go through the document.
Most importantly, it’s something you can learn and get better at.
I’m not sure that the kinds of sweeps she does are right for me, she has videos for each one on her site, copyhackers.com.
I follow the idea of sweeps, but I am building my own.
The three sweeps I start with
My first sweep is to make sure the piece delivers its message to my specific reader. Last week, I shared Larry McEnerney’s take take that the function of all writing is to help readers understand better something that they want to understand well. I often want my readers to take some actions.
In last week’s exercise, we identified our specific readers and the message or actions we want to communicate.
In my first sweep, I go through the document and highlight anything that isn’t part of that message. Then, I go through and consider removing those pieces — I don’t delete them though — if they are not represented in my notes, I start new notes with them, and then delete them.
My second sweep is about structure. In this sweep I just want to make sure that the piece uses its opening to establish the problem or motivation to keep reading.
There are structural formulas that copywriters, like Joanna, use to motivate the reader to keep reading
In the talk I linked, she talked about the structure of Problem, Agitation, Solution. You set up a problem, you develop the problem, making sure the reader understands that the problem is important, and then you solve it.
In the video I pointed to in last week’s episode, Larry McEnerney called this creating instability. He explained that you need to describe the cost to not solving the problem or the benefit of solving it. This is all part of agitation.
In my second sweep, I am mostly concerned with sequencing the writing. I don’t rewrite anything, I just re-order it and then highlight underdeveloped areas.
An important part of sweep editing is that you have to stay focused on the job at hand. A little bit of tweaking along the way is fine, but these two steps are mostly about deleting, sequencing and identifying underdeveloped areas. Not grammar or voice. I only do some writing at the very end of these sweeps to fill in gaps.
At the end of this process, the piece is not finished, but the shape of it should be good.
The third sweep I do is to make this even more specific to my reader. In this sweep I go through it sentence by sentence and look for areas of where I am writing too generically and highlight them.
Remember, each sweep is two passes. One quick one with highlights and then a second one to fix the problems.
The goal of the first three sweeps is to make sure the piece will deliver the specific message to the specific reader.
It’s only after these sweeps that I would consider showing the writing to someone else. I consider this my second draft. It’s not done, but it’s substantially the shape of the final piece.
I should also say that a possible outcome of these sweeps is to abandon it. If it’s clear that I can’t make this idea interesting, then I will take salvageable parts of it back to my note-taking system and move onto something else.
Next week I’ll talk about the sweeps I do to get the piece finished.
In my intro, I asked you to listen at your desk, ready to write when I am done speaking.
But first, I want to thank you for listening so far. As a new podcast, I am depending on you to spread the word if you found it valuable. I also want to encourage you to send your feedback email to email@example.com or find me on twitter @loufranco or look for me on LinkedIn.
I would love a review or rating in the Apple Podcasts app, stars in Overcast, or whatever else your podcast player allows. And subscribe if you want more episodes.
If you write publicly, please send me a link.
This week practice sweep editing on one of your first drafts. I talked about three sweeps I do. See if they work for you.
The important part is that to treat editing as a series of focused sweeps, each with two passes. In the first pass, look for a single kind of problem and highlight whenever you see it. In the second, pass, fix the issues.
So, try the three sweeps I outlined.
- Look for parts that don’t fit and remove them
- Sequence the work so that it opens with a description of the problem, moves onto agitation and describing the costs of the problem and benefits of a solution. Finally, move onto your solution. In this sweep, we’re mostly reordering, but if parts are missing, you have to write them
- Finally, go through the piece sentence by sentence and see if you can make it more specific to your reader. This is easier the more specific your reader is.
Thanks for listening. This has been write while true, and since true is true. Go make that second draft.