When bad writing happens to good people

When bad writing happens to good people

Even good writers can produce bad writing. Very bad writing. Downright awful writing. That’s why there are editors.

I’m a huge fan of Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. (The writing and the ideas, at least. I’m not qualified to judge their ecomonic theories, but they’re sure fun to read.)

Being such a big fan, I was a bit stunned to read (or attempt to read) this run-on sentence, posted on their blog:

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and, over the years, a collection of startlingly good New Yorker articles, has addressed on his blog the question of why he endorsed Freakonomics (by writing a blurb before it was published) even though its explanation of the 1990’s crime drop dismissed as a cause the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement put forth by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, put into practice in New York by Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, and put into the public’s eye by Malcolm himself first in a New Yorker article and then in The Tipping Point.

Whew -102 words in one sentence! I ran out of breath before I got halfway through it. Worse, the point he was trying to make got buried somewhere in the middle, under an avalanche of excess verbiage.

OK, it’s (only) a blog, but come on! No offense to Stephen Dubner, but wouldn’t this edited version be a little cleaner, better and easier to read?

On his blog, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, has explained why he endorsed Freakonomics before it was published — even though our book dismisses the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement as the explanation for the 1990’s crime drop. That theory, by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, was put into practice in New York by Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton. Later it was thrust into the public’s eye by Malcolm himself, first in a New Yorker article and then in The Tipping Point.

After editing, it’s shrunk to 87 words, instead of 102. Three shorter sentences, instead of a single endless one. And hopefully, it’s easier for the poor reader to slog through and understand. (Isn’t that the goal?)

So my point here is simple: Even very good writers (and Dubner is a very good writer) write bad first drafts. Just like you and I do. That’s OK.

The solution is editing. Write first, edit later.

When you’re struggling to write that article, brochure, white paper, sales letter, Web page, or whatever, follow my three-step process.

Step 1: Jot down your thoughts, what you’re trying to say. (Don’t forget to consider who you’re talking to. More on that here.) Don’t worry about how disjointed or messy it is — it’s only a first draft.

Step 2: After you finish, go back and organize your mess. This is the beginning of the editing process. Trim, prune and re-arrange your points so they flow logically (or emotionally, if that’s what you’re going for). Then clean up your prose. Tidy up your messes, like Dubner’s run-on sentence. Try to make your writing as clear as it can be. Don’t worry about sounding smart or trying to impress others. If you’re clear, they’ll be impressed.

Step 3: Next, polish that baby till it shines! Steps 2 and 3 are what distinguishes great writing. (If Dubner had followed all three steps, I’m sure his edit would be just as good or [gasp!] better than mine.)

Lesson: Good writing is like great dancing or great acting or stunt flying. Making something look easy takes time and work. Good writing demands re-writing and editing.

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