You will never publish a book without editing your first draft. At least, I hope you won’t. If you are about to give an important talk, you will revisit every word, every sentence, and every slide before you go out on stage. Hopefully. I know some people aren’t doing either of these things, but the benefit of editing and refining content is well-accepted when it comes to these types of content. Most people will agree editing is a good investment.
When it comes to everyday communication — our written interactions with our colleagues — most of us just write and hit send. I don’t think the reason is we believe what we write is perfect; far from it. We treat the information we send and receive at work as common and ordinary. After all, our inboxes are packed with similar content, so what’s the worst that could happen?
Well, much of what could happen is already happening. Most people feel frustrated with their workplace communication. We are flooded with emails, messages, presentations, reports, and meetings, most of which are ineffective. There are many reasons for that, but a primary one is we are too easy on the ‘Send’ trigger. We mostly dump in writing what we have in mind and share it with the world (or whichever subset of it is on the distribution list).
Effective communication relies on rigorous editing.
Effective communication is meaningful and intentful. We must intentfully design it to have value. The chances of creating meaningful content on the fly without editing whatever we happened to write in the first draft are meager.
I plan and design most of the things I write before I write them. I think in advance about what I am trying to achieve, the content that will help me achieve that, and the best way to structure and articulate it. And yet, when I re-read what I wrote, I always find ways to improve it — 100% of the time. And once I make the required changes, the content becomes better — 100% of the time.
What do I look for before I hit send? I can roughly divide my edits into three categories:
We communicate to co-create, drive action, or both. If the content we share is unclear, none of that can happen (or it will require much more energy to make it happen). Much of the frustration around our communication in general and workplace interactions, in particular, could be traced back to a lack of clarity.
If what I write is ambiguous, vague, or uses terms that people “on the other side” will not understand, I will not be able to promote my goal, and my associates and I will quickly become frustrated with the interaction.
On a second read, I often notice that things that seemed crystal clear in my head require further explanation or complete rephrasing.
Sometimes, clarity issues go beyond just wording and phrasing — they go as deep as the logical flow of the argument. In my head, I know where I am going with my arguments. That’s obviously a good thing, but often as I write the first draft, I might skip some logical steps. What seems evident can create a gap from the reader’s perspective.
When we communicate, we aim to transmit some thoughts from our minds to the minds of our partners in the discussion. We obviously cannot replicate everything we know, nor should we. We should process and simplify things without losing value so the people we interact with can use them. But in this process, we might skip some critical pieces of data, assumptions, or facts we take for granted.
When I revisit and edit an email, a report, or a presentation for a meeting, I look for things that I know are important, but for some reason, I thought they were too obvious to be included. I don’t add all these bits of information automatically, but I try to read what I wrote as if I am at the receiving end. If there’s any doubt, I prefer to add something I believe can help the reader rather than leave it out.
On the flip side, some things I added while being in the flow of writing are better left out. An essential part of any editing activity is deciding what to omit.
As a general rule, anything that doesn’t promote what I wish to achieve should be omitted. Repetitions are apparent candidates for omission unless they are deliberate. Contradictions must also be cut out of the text. They are not just redundant but also reduce clarity.
A more subtle type of omission involves pieces of information, thoughts, and statements that add no value despite being correct and coherent. We communicate to achieve something concrete and predefined. The last thing we want is to deviate from the path leading to our destination. We must be convinced that whatever we share can be used to promote that goal.
The author Stephen King famously said that as he re-reads his first draft, he deletes at least 10% of it. When it comes to emails, reports, and meetings, the stakes are probably lower, but every minute you invest in editing will increase the impact of what you communicate and turn the interaction from a frustrating activity into an effective, fruitful one.