Writing self-help once you have something on paper.

I’m staying with the writing theme today… It’s a holiday, so I’m taking a couple of days off from writing about software management to write about writing.

Assuming we don’t fall into the fear trap, the quantity trap or the correctness trap, we’ll have some words on paper.

Now what?

I’m a big fan of peer review for writing. I have a group of fellow-writers who provide invaluable help. We attended Jerry Weinberg’s Writers Workshop together a few years ago. One the things we learned there was how to be an effective peer reviewer. Yes, there is an art to providing helpful feedback on writing. So we help each other. More on that later, perhaps.

Whether you have a group of writing peers or not, you can help yourself with these editing techniques. (I originally posted these on the AYE Conference wiki.)

I always edit on paper. I find I don’t see the structure of a piece as well when I’m working on a screen. Having paper in my hands allows me to flip through pages looking at the size of sections or scanning the flow of subheads. I also find it easier to go back and re-read a section, on paper than on the screen.

Get a feel for the article

Read the entire article from start to end to get a feel for it.

Sometimes the first part of the piece will be jumbly or dull. Authors often produce clumsy beginnings in their struggle to get started, so the first paragraphs are not always a good basis on which to judge a manuscript. Many of us were taught in school to start with a long wind-up — wind-ups work for pitchers but are deadly for writing. Bad beginning to articles are easily corrected, so if the beginning bog you down, skip down a ways and start reading there.

Are there parts where you wanted to read more? Are there parts that feel like a detour?

Understand the structure

Next, read the article paragraph by paragraph and make a note in the margin summarizing the what the paragraphs says. If you need to write two (or more) notes, it should probably be two (or more) paragraphs.

Read though the notes margin notes in order. Do the topics jump back and forth? Do they seem to progress and build on each other? This usually tells me where I need to start re-ordering to create a logical flow.

Once in a while, I come across an article (like the one I am trying to write now) that is truly jumbleacious. I get out my scissors and cut the sections and paragraphs apart. I sort the slips of paper into piles and label the piles to understand the underlying structure of the ideas. Sometimes I tape the sections back together in different order to see how it will flow. This is the physical form of cut and paste.

Look for reader interest

Is the writer saving the best for last? Is there a nugget that deserves to be more prominent or appear earlier in the piece?

Will the opening tell the reader why it is in it for her to keep reading? The author needs to capture the readers interest by the first two paragraph. The more the author can use these paragraphs to help the reader to identify with her, or with the problem he’s writing about, the more likely the reader will continue reading.

Most readers (especially magazine) readers flip through looking for something that catches their interest. You have about 20 seconds. Use them well!