I always hate it at CLEs when people say things like, “There’s no good writing. Only good editing.” Sure, a first draft is just that, and that you can’t compare your first cut at a brief with another writer’s finished product. 10-4. But how are you supposed to get from that first draft to the finished product? Like, mechanically, what are you supposed to do? In GTD parlance, what is the next physical, visible action?

For years, I didn’t know. So I would just print out my brief and read it, and edit, over and over again. How would I know that I was done? Either I would run out of time, or I would get to the point that I was reversing changes from an earlier iteration.

This was a deeply stupid approach. And it took forever.

I’ve gotten a little better at this over the years. Here’s how:

First, I’ve become an obsessive outliner. Thinking through organization up front saves a ton of work at the back end.

Second, I used to struggle with what to cut. But over time, I’ve realized that I just write too much. I always get way more interested in the case than any reasonable reader would be and, if I’m being honest, I also want to show off a little of the work that I put in. None of that helps. So my default rule now is to delete everything. If I have to spend more than 30 seconds thinking about whether something belongs in a document, out it goes.

Third, I’ve imposed some structure on my editing process. I stole this idea from Thinking Like a WriterInstead of just reading a document over and over until I go blind, I give myself four passes. Each has a purpose:

  1. Editing for the big picture: Is the document’s tone, length, and basic approach appropriate?
  2. Editing for organization: Does the document make sense structurally? Are the transitions coherent?
  3. Editing at the sentence level: Are my sentences clear? What about grammar and punctuation?
  4. Proofreading. No, clients are not paying me to proofread. I try to turf this step when I’m billing by the hour. But then my OCD kicks in and I have to proofread the document myself, too. On my own time and on my own dime.

When I complete those four passes, that’s it. I’m done.

Fourth, I’ve picked up some dumb proofreading tricks:

  • Let the document sit for a day.
  • Convert it to another font.
  • Read it backwards, sentence by sentence. This takes forever! So make the document shorter.

Fifth, I cheat and use BriefCatch.