Elance Blog

3 Small Revisions, One Big Impact


Revising is often overlooked because we don’t think we have the time to devote to it and because most of us think we “revise” while we write. The truth is we just draft and use the backspace key. However, if you’re focused on certain “high-yield revisions”, you can make a piece better in minutes rather than hours. Here are three areas to focus on:
 

  • Beginnings.
  • Endings.
  • Pruning.
     

Start to Finish
The beginning is the most important part of a piece of writing because if readers aren’t hooked at the top, they’re unlikely to even get to the bottom. Endings are second on the list because readers who have followed you all the way to the end often expect a nice reward for their effort. That’s why I like to develop several alternate beginnings and endings in revision and then try them on in order to find the best fit for my audience and purpose.

Revision 1: Beginnings
Spending time figuring out the best way to improve your opening is time well spent. Here are four of the many types of beginnings you can experiment with:

Executive Summary. Providing a summary and recommendations at the start of a document gives all readers key information right away. A summary should just capture the highlights, so it should just be a paragraph or two—even for a long document. If you’ve got multiple sections, you can provide a summary for each section at its start, too. By the way, one thing I've noticed is that it’s much easier to write the summary after you’ve written the document. Also keep in mind that by providing the summary and recommendations at the top, you relieve some readers of reading any further. This can be a big bonus to both author and audience: You get the basics of your message across; readers get the message in what little time they feel they have.

Anecdote or Scenario. Some documents, especially marketing documents, can begin effectively with an anecdote or scenario. These engaging and informative little stories typically exemplify a main point you will be making later on. By weaving key details into a story-like format, readers see what the document’s about and the path we’ll be taking through it. Here’s an anecdotal beginning to a report on using personality tests in hiring for the apartment-management industry:

Imagine losing half of your employees every year to turnover. For many multifamily companies, that’s a stark reality, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. Even worse, the relationship was probably doomed from the start. Researchers at the Harvard Business School found that more than 75 percent of turnover could be traced back to poor hiring practices.

Questions. Why use a query lead? Because once a question is posed, few readers can resist wanting to know the answer. Question leads get attention and set the stage for the rest of your piece. Use questions you or your reader may have. Here are a couple examples:

With applications for any job opening in the hundreds, how can our department vet candidates more quickly and effectively without adding new staff?

How long will the economy stagnate? When will sales pick up? Where can we find new customers? Answering these questions will help us develop a plan for Q4.


Purpose. This is the most utilitarian option because it directly serves your document’s purpose—and the feelings, thoughts, or actions you want to elicit from your readers. You may want to jot those down before beginning the actual revision. Here are some notes for the opening of a report on a media outreach campaign:

THOUGHTS/FEELINGS:

  • The plan was executed completely, but was thwarted by the timing of the healthcare reform bill and the intense national media focus it consumed
  • The PR team has come up with some good ideas for retooling
  • We should follow their recommendations


ACTIONS:

  • Authorize revised work plan to reflect recommendations
  • Begin planning 2011 outreach


Here’s an ending that focuses on the THOUGHTS:

The media outreach plan was executed completely, yet some traction was lost because the signing of the healthcare reform bill occurred the day after the news releases and calendars were sent out. The PR team developed the following recommendations to get better results next year, particularly when there’s interference from unrelated news events.

This example is based on the ACTIONS and the final two THOUGHTS:

Based on the results of the Texas outreach project, we recommend the following:
 

  • Foregoing general media calendars in favor of working two channels with demonstrated efficiency and effectiveness
  • Creating promotional materials for associations and agencies
  • Sending direct invitations to hospital and clinic chiefs of emergency medicine
  • Adopting a truly issue-oriented focus through an issue awareness program
     

Here is a deeper look at each recommendation...

Revision 2: Endings

Endings must feel satisfying to your readers; you don’t want to leave them asking, like Miss Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” There are many formulas for a good ending. Here are some of the most common:

Recommendation/Call to Action. You can’t go wrong ending with a clear piece of advice, a recommendation, or a call to action. In fact, for sales pitches or reports, it’s pretty much a requirement. This ending’s effectiveness depends on your clarity of purpose—the emotions, thoughts, and actions you want the reader to have. Here’s an example from a report on reducing theft in a retail operation:

THOUGHTS/FEELINGS

  • Theft may be costing more than we think.
  • We keep more money over the long term if we invest a little in loss prevention now.
  • New tools and strategies can reduce theft.
  • Reviewing our operation and determining our vulnerabilities will help us understand the problem and find the right solution.

ACTIONS

  • Find the holes in our theft-prevention system.
  • Engage our employees in reducing loss.
  • Review available solutions to our problems.
  • Find the right tool or strategy for our situation and budget.
  • Lose less inventory; keep more money.

This example uses the THOUGHTS to offer advice:

YourCo can invest in tools and strategies that will reduce theft and increase profits. By reviewing operations and determining vulnerabilities we will identify opportunities for solutions. No single activity or device will solve the problem completely, but enhancing and adding to existing controls will produce a meaningful reduction in losses and a corresponding increase in profits.

This example uses the ACTIONS to create a recommendation:

No single activity will completely deter theft, but enhancing and adding to existing controls will produce a meaningful reduction in losses. We recommend the following activities:

  • Join the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention
  • Continue verifying incoming inventory versus shipping orders
  • Start checking orders versus receipt at exit,
  • Increase the number of electronic/video surveillance monitors
  • Install an exception-based loss prevention system
  • Improve employee reference-checking and begin background checks
  • Investigate using electronic article surveillance or RFID systems

You could even put these two together to make a really strong ending.

Main idea and implications. Another fool-proof close is a clear statement of your main idea (the one most important thing you want your reader to know) and its implications:

Retail theft is on the rise. According to The National Retail Security Survey, retailers lost more than $31 billion in stolen merchandise last year. Theft of building materials and equipment in the Gulf Coast alone rose 22 percent, according to the National Equipment Register. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that employee theft is growing at 15 percent annually. Failure to address this will result in rising costs and eroding profits that could put you out of business.

Questions. Is questioning an effective ending strategy? You bet. You can use questions you know the audience will have, or queries related to the unresolved issues you have after doing your research, like this:

These questions remain:

  • Which solutions that YourCo is currently using are the most effective at identifying or reducing theft?
  • Which ones are least effective and how can they be strengthened or replaced?
  • What is the budget available for improving loss-reduction?
  • What changes can we make that will cost little or no money?
  • What are the long-term financial implications of not acting?

Further discussion of these issues will help us determine a course of action that will reduce losses and improve operations without breaking the budget.

Revision 3: Pruning
Studies have shown that most of us over-write by at least 10 percent – more likely 20. The usual culprits are deeply nested constructions and introductory and parenthetical phrases. Jettisoning all that makes your copy easier and more enjoyable to consume. Here are some examples:
 


 

Focusing your revising time on these areas will create more compelling and concise content without monopolizing a lot of your of valuable time—or your readers! Questions, comments, observations? Email me at margot@thewordfactory.com.

About the Author:
Margot Carmichael Lester is the owner of The Word Factory, a content and creative company in Carrboro, N.C. She’s currently working on Be A Better Writer: Corporate Edition following on the heels of Be A Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers, which won a gold medal from the Independent Publishers Association in 2007.