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How to Spend Less Time Revising

Do you take too long revising emails, reports, and other communications? This post shares three ways to cut your rewrite time. They cover planning, writing, and adjusting your standards. 

1. Make a simple plan and follow it. Diving in without a plan may give you a rush of accomplishment. But eventually you will have to slog through the revision stage, forcing your words and ideas into a coherent package.

Decide from the start what you want the message to accomplish. Examples:

  • This agenda will help team members prepare for a productive meeting.  
  • This flyer will motivate parents to attend the open house.
  • This email will help the customer complete the necessary paperwork.

Once you know what you want to accomplish, list the questions your message must answer for your readers to achieve your goal. Then write the piece by answering your readers’ questions. Do not include information that your readers would not ask for. If you do, you will write too much and will spend too much time cutting and revising. 

For instance, an agenda that helps people prepare for a meeting might answer these questions:

  • What are the agenda items?
  • Who is responsible for handling each agenda item?
  • How much time will we spend on each item?
  • What do we want to accomplish with each one: to agree? to decide? to assign?
  • How should I prepare?

Too often writers focus on background information, when readers rarely want or need it.

2. Use the power of one. When you write, limit yourself to one: just one topic per paragraph, one idea per sentence. Focusing on just one thing at a time will help you avoid sprawling paragraphs and sentences that you have to rework later.

For example, in a flyer to motivate parents to attend an open house, the answer to each of these questions would be a separate, short chunk of text: 

  • What’s this about?
  • When is the open house?
  • Where is it?
  • Why should I attend? How will it benefit my family?
  • Who will be there?
  • Will food be served?
  • Do I need to let anyone know that I plan to attend?
  • Where can I get more information?

Combining the answers to several questions in one chunk of text will tangle the message. And it will require more time to revise.

Similarly, a sentence with several interwoven ideas will take time to untangle:

Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document and that you fill the top and signature portion of the credit application out just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.

This version, with one idea per sentence, is simple and clear:

Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document. Also, please fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application. These actions will ensure that we have your correct contact information.

Even better, this version helps the ideas stand out for quick action:

To ensure that we have your correct contact information, please:  

1. Provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document. 

2. Fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application. 

If you limit yourself to one idea per sentence (or bullet), you will write a clear version from the start. The time you spend rewriting will shrink.
 
3. Recognize that perfection is unattainable—and a waste of time. Unless you write essays, poetry, or other literary works, your audience will not read and savor your every word. Instead, they will skim the agenda, flyer, email, proposal, report, or other communication in search of the information they need. So why strive for perfection when clarity, conciseness, and courtesy are useful, achievable goals?

Avoid pointless revising:

  • Don’t fuss over changing “interesting” to “notable” unless “notable” is more accurate.
  • Don’t take time to change “Thanks” to “Thank you” unless your reader needs a more formal tone.
  • Don’t struggle to eliminate “I am writing to” at the beginning of an email. Yes, your reader knows you are writing. But there is no harm in stating “I am writing to inform you of a change in your interview schedule.”
  • Don’t strive to revise just because two sentences in a row begin with “I.” Those two “I”s will not distract your reader. (But starting every paragraph with “I” will distract your reader, who is probably skimming at the left margin.)
  • Don’t take time to apply outdated rules. You can start a sentence with any word you choose. You can end a sentence with a preposition. You can use contractions unless your document must be formal.

When your communication focuses on its goal and answers your readers’ questions in clear sentences and paragraphs, you are finished revising. Just run your grammar and spelling checker; then proofread. Hurray! The piece is done! Now move on to the next one.

This piece originally appeared in our monthly ezine, Better Writing at Work. Subscribe to receive a practical article each month. 

I would love to hear how you cut your rewriting time. Please share your tips. 

Lynn 
Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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