Lisa Lepki is the Head of Communications for ProWritingAid, an essential editing tool for writers. She is also the co-author of The Novel-Writing Training Plan and 20 Editing Tips from Professional Writers.
We recently asked Lisa for her insight on tools that can help writers of all backgrounds do better work and get her take on why self-editing is such a critical part of finding success as a writer. Here’s what she shared:
Tell us about the mission behind ProWritingAid? How are you hoping to help writers of all backgrounds?
We want to help writers everywhere improve their craft and get their ideas out there. It doesn’t matter if you are writing “The Great American Novel” or a blog post about baking cupcakes, good writing means your ideas go further. And clear, concise writing helps people understand exactly what you want them to know.
Why do writers need more sophisticated editing tools than those available in their standard writing software?
Your standard grammar and spelling checker is still great if all you are worried about is spelling and grammar. Skillful writing, however, is about much more than grammar. I’m sure you have all read something that was grammatically correct and yet still difficult to read and hard to follow.
Let me give you an example. One of my favorite reports is the Sticky Sentence Report. A sticky sentence is one that contains more than 45 percent glue words (the 200 or so most common words in English: the, in, on, was, etc). On average, sentences in published writing contain fewer than 45 percent glue words, so if you have a sentence that contains 65 percent glue words, you should probably check it to see if it can be rewritten in a better way.
ORIGINAL: I was able to use the information that I have in my ﬁles and spoke to a number of people about the problem and managed to resolve it. Glue index: 57% – Sentence length 28 words
REDRAFT: I resolved the problem using my contacts and the available information. Glue index: 36% – Sentence length 11 words
The first sentence isn’t wrong, it’s just clunky and contains nonessential information.
Beyond, spelling and grammar, what types of editing should writers be doing to make sure their work is at its best?
There are thousands of writing issues that have nothing to do with grammar. For example, there are lots of words and sentence constructions that are fine to use occasionally, but become problematic when they are overused.
Words like “could”, “might” and “maybe” are indefinite in their meaning. “I could bring a salad to dinner” feels hesitant and unsure, whereas “I will bring a salad to dinner” feels resolute. If your writing is peppered with these non-specific words, it will feel unconvincing.
Intensifiers like “very”, “so” and “really” add little to your reader’s understanding. Writers use them when they are trying to give strength to a dull word. Instead, you should replace weak words with something strong enough that you don’t need the “very”. Instead of saying she was “very pretty”, say she was “stunning”. Instead of saying it’s “really hot”, say it is “stifling”. The tool will highlight areas where you use any intensifiers more than occasionally.
Some of the most common words in English are nearly meaningless. If someone reads a book and says it was “interesting,” that tells you almost nothing. Was it well-written? Was the argument convincing? It’s not even clear if they enjoyed reading it. Interesting could mean a million different things. Where possible, writers should choose words that have precise meanings.
Certain sentence constructions should also not be overused. For example, too many sentences that begin with an “-ing” word will make your writing feel overly complicated. This sentence construction tends to put your main idea at the end instead of at the beginning. “Training for the marathon, I sprained my ankle” is not wrong, but “I sprained my ankle training for the marathon” is simpler to read.
These are all issues that would be found by the Overused Words Check. In these examples, the words or constructions are only problematic if they are overused. The editing software can scan an entire article or chapter and tell you exactly how many times you have used indefinite language, for example. If it’s a lot, you probably need to go back and add more specificity to your language.
ProWritingAid runs over 25 writing reports. Each writer has a different style and voice, and so some reports will appeal more than others. Here’s what a sample summary looks like after running several reports together.
Will editing technology eventually replace human editors entirely?
Of course not. In fact, many professional editors recommend that their writers use editing tools because it means that content is delivered to them in a much better state. Editors always prefer to focus on the meat of your content rather than on word choice and syntax.
What happens when writers don’t take the time to thoroughly review their work? What are the risks to their careers and/or the organizations they write for?
As the Editor of the ProWritingAid Blog, I spend a good part of each day reading submissions. If a piece of writing comes to me and it is full of errors or is not clear and succinct, I will decline it. I don’t have the time or inclination to spend hours editing articles that have not been appropriately self-edited before they reach my desk. I am much more likely to accept a submission that just needs a bit of tightening up.
Similarly, if I visit a website or blog that is not well-written, I immediately assume that they are not professional. It makes me question the integrity of the whole company.
What are your favorite tools for improving the entire writing process (aside from ProWritingAid, of course)
We love writing technology! In fact, we have a whole section on our blog where we review different kinds of Writing Apps.
For my editorial calendar, I use Google Spreadsheets. It allows me to collaborate with my writers so that everyone knows what’s coming up, when it’s due, and any specific content requirements.
To keep myself organized, I use Trello. I have multiple boards that I share with different members of the ProWritingAid team. It keeps things from falling through the cracks!
Professionally, I do most of my writing in MS Word and edit using the ProWritingAid MS Word add-in there. But, I have recently begun using Scrivener for my personal writing projects. It’s amazing at helping me turn my vague creative ideas into functional plans.
I also often use Canva to create the images that go along with our content. It’s free and easy to use.
What advice can you offer writers in the digital marketing space on writing content that is engaging and unique? What are the dos and don’ts of better online content?
I can’t speak for other Editors, but I love content that has an original angle and some clear takeaways. I know it’s a bit old-school, but I still love this format for articles:
- Introduction: Here is what I’m going to tell you in this article.
- Body: Here is the information and some clear arguments and evidence for why it is true.
- Conclusion: Here are three concise sentences that encapsulate what I just told you.
I love examples and metaphors that help readers understand complex ideas based on how it relates to something familiar in their life.
Practical how-to articles that leave readers with some tips or techniques they can use in their own lives are also great.
I want to know that the writer is focused on the reader and what they will get out of the article.
What are some overused writing styles or conventions that make you cringe in the digital space? Why should writers avoid them at all costs?
In contrast to my examples in the last question, I think too many content writers forget about the reader and only think about what they want to write about. “Let me tell you all about my product” instead of “Let me tell you how my product can benefit you.”
I also get frustrated with wishy-washy inspirational pieces. There has never been a reader who suffered from self-doubt that read “You must believe in yourself” and suddenly began believing in themselves. It just won’t happen. And yet, I am constantly reading submissions like that.
If you are targeting writers suffering from self-doubt, I want you to give them five practical things to do that will help build their confidence: find a beta reader, write every day for a minimum of 10 minutes, spend some time outlining, etc. Make it practical, specific and do-able.
What’s one final piece of advice you can offer writers of any type on achieving their writing goals?
I think Ira Glass gave the best advice in an interview:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass
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