Writing is hard, and writing under deadline pressure is even harder. If you’re like many of the writers I work with, you may be squandering precious minutes before your deadline making relatively minor sentence-level edits — changing a word here, cutting a word there (and then putting it back). You should certainly spell-check and proofread every document before you click submit. But if your message isn’t as clear as it needs to be, changing the word “purchase” to “buy” is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: it won’t save you.
When you’re pressed for time — which, let’s face it, is most of the time — you’ll get the best results if you prioritize edits that will sharpen your message. Instead of spending those last five minutes obsessing over a single sentence, try focusing on the big picture with these three strategies:
1. Cut the “since the dawn of time” opening and get right to the point.
Consider this opening paragraph to a budget memo:
Budgets are generally complicated and difficult to create because of the number of stakeholders that must be satisfied in a variety of situations. We do not have infinite resources, nor can we please everyone all the time. We must think strategically. When we consider the pros and cons of increasing spending on digital marketing, things get even more complicated. Since the data does not support increasing digital marketing, after careful review, I have concluded that we should focus on growing our sales team.
Everything in this paragraph before “since the data” is a “since the dawn of time” opening because it might as well say “Since the dawn of time people have been having thoughts about budgets. Here is a general and not very illuminating overview of those thoughts. When I have sufficiently bored you, I will share my specific thoughts about this topic with you.” While writing “since the dawn of time” sentences may help you get to your main point while drafting a document, those sentences actually end up obscuring your point. Here, the point comes in the last sentence:
After careful review, I have concluded that we should grow our sales team.
In most cases, your readers don’t need to hear every thought anyone has ever had about your topic. They need to know what they should think about the topic right now. When you lead with your main point, you focus your reader’s attention where it belongs. Keep only the background information that’s important to your message, and cut the rest.
2. Turn those descriptive topic sentences into topic sentences that make claims.
The first or “topic” sentence of a paragraph tells readers what to expect in the rest of the paragraph. Consider the difference between these two topic sentences:
Descriptive topic sentence: I met with the client on Thursday.
Claim topic sentence: After meeting with the client on Thursday, I recommend rethinking our pitch.
While the descriptive version offers potentially useful information (a meeting occurred, it happened on Thursday), readers won’t know yet why these facts matter. On the other hand, the claim version of the sentence immediately focuses a reader’s attention: the meeting on Thursday matters because something that occurred in that meeting caused you to change your mind about the pitch. Now I know what I’m getting in that paragraph: I’m going to find out what we should do about the pitch and why. And you know what you have to deliver.
But what if you actually just want to describe something — a meeting, a conversation, a product? Even in those cases, your topic sentence should tell your readers where to focus their attention. Consider these two sentences that could begin a paragraph describing a client meeting:
Descriptive topic sentence: I met with the client at his office in Boston.
Claim topic sentence: My meeting with the client focused primarily on plans for future growth.
Both sentences prepare readers for a discussion of the client meeting. But after reading the descriptive version, readers only know that the meeting occurred in Boston. In contrast, the claim version clearly establishes that the meeting yielded plans for future growth. When you begin a paragraph with a claim, you teach readers what to expect — and you remind yourself what the rest of the paragraph should deliver. If you make a habit of writing claim-based topic sentences, you’ll have less editing to do in the future.
3. Make sure people are doing things in your sentences, unless you don’t want them to be doing things.
Consider the difference between these two sentences:
All managers should approve and submit expense reports by Friday at noon.
Expense reports should be approved and submitted by Friday at noon.
In the first sentence, we know who should do what: Managers should do the approving and submitting. In the second sentence, we know that two actions must occur, but we’re not clear on who should do what. Should the managers approve the reports but leave the submitting to team members? Or are the managers responsible for both steps? Does everyone on the team already know who is responsible for approving expense reports?
You may have learned somewhere along the line that you should always use active verbs — and you could certainly solve any confusion about the chain of command for expense reports by employing active voice. But I’m not suggesting that you adopt the “active verb” rule. In fact, you should only make people do things in your sentences when you want them to be doing things. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
The CEO decided to close the branch locations.
The decision was made to close the branch locations.
In the first sentence, we know exactly what’s going on. The CEO made a decision, and that decision was to close the branch locations. In the second sentence, we know the what: the branch locations are going to close. But we don’t know the who: Who made this decision? Before you rush to rewrite that second sentence, you should stop and consider your purpose in writing the sentence. It might be that the closings are the important news, and that you actually don’t want to draw attention to the fact that the CEO made this decision. In that case, you’d go with the second version. On the other hand, if you are writing about a series of decisions made by your bold new CEO, you might choose to go with that first version.
Next time you finish a document with a few minutes to spare, try these three strategies first. If you get in the habit of using them, you should find you won’t need to do as much last-minute editing in the future.
Jane Rosenzweig is the Director of the Harvard Writing Center and the author of the newsletter Writing Hacks. Follow her on Twitter @RosenzweigJane.