I recently had someone write to me with a question:
When do you call it quits on “tweaking” copy for your own stuff? (Outside of split tests)
Do you give it a few revisions and then just say that’s it? Or do you find yourself adjusting things down the line?
I far from suffer from perfectionism, but I do find myself tweaking my copy here and there long after it is “done” and am wondering if I am ingraining bad habits.
Here’s what I wrote back:
Hi, I think there are a few different aspects to this problem. You have to make a judgment call on what to do next – and when you’re happy to stop working on a piece of copy.
I’ll list a few things I do to save myself time and anguish.
Pay attention to your mood:
The way you’re feeling affects how you interpret a piece of writing. If you’re stressed and irritable then it’s very difficult to edit.
You might even think, “This is shit,” when really your copy is okay.
If I suddenly hate something I’ve written – especially if I’ve been working on it for a long time – I resist diving in with the red pen. I check my mood. Sometimes, if I return in better spirits, I find the problem is easy to fix – or there wasn’t much of a problem to solve in the first place.
Step away from your draft when nitpicking:
Don’t keep agonising over the same sentence over and over. When you’re stuck in a rut, step away.
If possible, set first drafts aside for 2-3 days before editing. If that’s not possible, 2-3 hours can still work wonders. Exercise is the best way to reset your brain if you’re in a hurry.
If you find yourself continually tweaking copy, this may help solve the problem. Chances are, you’re so involved in what you’ve written, that improvements only present themselves to you bit by bit. When you step away, and come back with fresh eyes, you see how the entire piece of writing works as a whole.
Switch between formats:
I never write anything straight onto a computer. I’m sure it has saved me months of editing overall.
I always write a first draft freehand, then type/edit draft #2 on Word. Then, if it’s important copy, I’ll print and edit it again on paper before retyping. So it goes like this:
Paper >> Computer >> Paper >> Computer
Each time you switch you notice new ways to improve your copy. And these improvements happen much faster, so you’re not stuck in front of your screen all day.
Adjust your effort based on the copy’s importance:
Sometimes “good enough” is good enough.
If I’m writing something which has to be top-notch (a book or client copy) then I do re-read and edit several times. Probably 7 or 8.
If I’m smashing out a blog post or light-hearted email, then I’ll settle for a couple of re-reads.
You could strive for perfection over every little thing, but editing is the most time-consuming part of writing. Sometimes you’re better off just hitting ‘send’ and moving on to something else.
Read your copy aloud:
This is definitely the best way to spot problems.
Stand and read your copy as if you were a salesman delivering a pitch. The words should be easy to say out loud. If you get tongue-tied, or find certain sentences don’t flow very well, then you can think about what you might say instead.
Grab a red pen, and adjust the copy until it sounds natural.
Overall, I try to edit in set blocks of time. When I’m finished editing, I put the copy aside and don’t touch it again until my next scheduled edit.
I used to jump in and out of my drafts, picking them up and re-reading them at random times. But this did my health no good. For 3 years, at least, I was a wretched insomniac.