How Is Editing Like Grooming a Dog?
I have a dog named Marko. He is a German shepherd and weighs over 75 pounds; people generally consider him to be a big scary-looking dog. The mailman would rather walk around the block than come all the way to our door with the mail if Marko is nearby. And you can forget about the meter reader. Recently, we took Marko to the groomers and told them to shave off his excess hair. A few hours and many dollars later, we picked up what they said was our dog. Bereft of his shaggy mane, Marko looked like a weakling. We could see his ribs, and he looked frail and vulnerable. Without all that hair, the truth was revealed: fierce Marko is actually a 14-year old canine with arthritic hips. This shaved-down version of our dog did not look scary anymore.
How is Marko's experience like editing a business document? Simple. When you write a convoluted document, full of long sentences, unwieldy phrases, and polysyllabic words, you are adding to the impression that what you are writing is Big and, hopefully, Important. You are creating a fuzzy halo around the core structure of your document. When you edit, you take away everything extraneous. You check your average sentence length and try to keep your sentences under 17 words. You turn noun phrases like "take under advisement" or "give careful consideration to" into shorter, more vigorous terms like "think about" or "consider". You turn the passive voice into the active voice. In short, you shave away the fluff. Then you are left with the true form of what you've written. Then you know whether you have a frail structure that needs reinforcement or one that is strong and healthy.
Once you see the skeleton of your piece, you can decide how to proceed. Unlike the dog groomer, you get to put back some of what you have taken off. Have you cut your sentences into short, choppy thoughts? Maybe you want to combine some ideas to form a more complex statement. Does the writing lack visual images? Drop in an adjective or description here and there. And always make sure that you have enough verbs, preferably verbs that convey vivid actions. Do the verbal equivalent of vigorous brushing, to make sure that there are no knots and tangles in your ideas.
Step back and gain perspective on your handiwork by putting the document aside for a bit. Then give it a final comb-through, checking for proper punctuation, spacing, and overall sense. If you've taken out too much or if your structure was unsteady in the first place, you'll be left like our overshorn German shepherd: looking weak. If your ideas were sound and well-structured and if you included enough verbal variety to keep your readers interested, you'll have the written equivalent of a sleek, well-groomed greyhound.
Of course, you can play the fluff game both ways. We all know people who own little yappy things named "Fifi" or "Pumpkin" or "Smoochins". The owners pay a small fortune to have tiny Fifi's fur teased up, blown dry and generally expanded so that an eight-pound dog takes up the space of a 20-pounder. You can do the same thing with your writing. Take a boring, obvious idea. Add scads of adjectives, adverbs, idioms and other extraneous verbiage and soon you will have something that, on first glance, seems substantial. But when the reader actually absorbs the document, he will realize that it's all fluff. And maybe a little bit of yapping.
So clarify your document's structure, shave off excess expressions, give it a brisk once-over, and you'll be off and running -- and looking a lot better than old Marko.
2011 Elizabeth Danziger