Imagine this scenario: Your supervisor emails you with a message that says “Please edit the attachment.” Or perhaps the instruction is “Fix the attached” or “Please give this piece some polish.”
What does it mean to edit, fix, or polish a business message? How do you do it? Sometimes correcting quirky punctuation, typos, misspellings, and nonstandard grammar is a challenge in itself. But what should you do beyond that?
In our scenario, a first step would be to find out what your supervisor thinks the document needs to be a final product. What does the current version fail to accomplish? Does it need to be shorter, more direct, or more persuasive? Is a piece missing? If you don’t know, you might reply, “Before I begin, do you have anything particular in mind? Do you think the piece misses the mark in any specific way?” If you can confirm your supervisor’s intention, great. In any case, ask yourself these seven questions as you review the writing.
1. Purpose. Does the piece state its purpose in the subject, first sentence, or first chunk of text? Business readers are busy. They want to know immediately what a message is about.
If you are editing a procedure for welcoming new clients, you should change a vague title such as “New Clients” or “New Client Welcome” to something clear and specific, for example, “Procedure for Welcoming New Clients” or “How to Welcome New Clients.”
2. Reader response. Does the communication make clear what the reader should do, if anything, by when? Does it make it easy for the reader to take action?
Most messages are intended to elicit a response or action from readers. And most readers wonder “Do I need to do anything?” It’s important to state any request clearly, or readers will not be certain what to do.
Imagine you are fixing a long letter that Rick has written to a manufacturer complaining about some new equipment. You notice that Rick never mentions what he wants the manufacturer to do. After checking with him about his goal, you would insert a statement such as “Please send me a return authorization number so that I can return this equipment promptly.” That statement belongs near the beginning of the message, where it will grab the reader’s attention.
3. Logical flow. Can you follow the ideas easily? Readers need communication to flow logically from one idea to the next.
Because writers know the big picture of their topic, they may jump around in a message without recognizing that readers will not be able to follow.
Let’s say you are polishing a speech for your director. As you read it aloud (remember, it’s a speech), notice where listeners might get lost. Insert signals for them such as “our main objective,” “three essential points” (followed by details on Points 1, 2, and 3), “a helpful analogy,” and “our next steps.”
When you edit a written document, insert headings similar to those above, or make them more descriptive, for example, “Our Main Objective: Raise $110,000.” Headings help readers follow the flow even when it takes a surprising turn.
4. Sentence length. Does the message communicate in clear, easy-to-read sentences that average 20 words or less?
Long sentences make readers work hard to reach their conclusions, and their parts compete for attention. Any time two or more ideas compete in a long, stringy sentence, your job is to divide the sentence into its logical parts.
Editing a budget proposal, how would you break this 60-word sentence into several sentences, with each expressing a single idea? Decide before scrolling down to my revision.
While it’s true that a portion of the budgeted dollars (less now than in past years) is spent dealing with design and construction deficiencies, most of the maintenance budget dollars are spent for normal upkeep and operational costs, for example, landscaping, fire protection, access control, equipment maintenance, power washing, lighting, painting, elevator and HVAC maintenance and repairs, and so on.
This three-sentence version keeps the writer’s content but communicates it in shorter, clear chunks:
It’s true that a portion of the budgeted dollars (less now than in past years) is spent dealing with design and construction deficiencies. However, most of the maintenance budget dollars are spent for normal upkeep and operational costs. Examples are landscaping, fire protection, access control, equipment maintenance, power washing, lighting, painting, and elevator and HVAC maintenance and repairs.
5. Clear language. Does the writing use language that suits its readers? If the language slows down or confuses readers, the message will not succeed. As an editor, repair items like these:
Vocabulary: Change cognizant to aware. Change ameliorate to improve. Keep language simple yet precise.
Jargon: Jargon works fine if readers understand it, so review the communication as though you are part of the intended audience. If readers will recognize downstream vertical integration and legacy systems portfolio reduction leave the terms alone. If not, define them. Change DC to Design Consultant or Distribution Center if the readers might think of the U.S. capital. Do not make readers guess.
6. Concise language. Does every word play an important role? Readers don’t have time for wordiness and repetition.
When you polish someone else’s work, you need to respect their style. But you do not need to preserve wordiness. How would you edit this wordy opening to an announcement of a new tool?
Over the past long months, from February through August, we have had a myriad of discussions and work group sessions about how to make improvements in the consistency of our training program implementations. You may have participated in those fruitful discussions and hands-on sessions. Well, the investments we have made have paid off, and our new tool is ready. I am pleased to announce our new online Training Implementation Checklist.
If the writer doesn’t have pride of authorship, you might cut the 70-word version to this one sentence:
I am pleased to announce our new online Training Implementation Checklist.
To keep the author’s style and content without burying the reader in verbiage, you might compromise with this version, which cuts the original by 50 percent:
From February through August, we have had discussions and work sessions to improve the consistency of our training implementations. Our investments have paid off. I am pleased to announce our new online Training Implementation Checklist.
7. Positive language. Does the piece include positive language to persuade or to maintain relationships?
As you edit a document, remember that a positive outcome is the goal of virtually every message. Maybe the objective is to gain approval or acceptance, retain a customer, win a contract, build a relationship, or move to the next step in a process. Positive language contributes to all those goals.
Make sure recommendations and proposals refer to benefits, solutions, improvement, increases, and similar positive results. In customer communications, include polite wording such as welcome, thank you, glad to, pleased, appreciate, and value. Be sure that every piece you edit, fix, or polish includes positive language. If it doesn’t, why would you send or publish it?