By: Matthew Jelalian

Cutting Your Way to Clean Copy

February 7, 2018 8 minutes

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Ask a dozen people who their favorite writers are, and you’re likely to hear a dozen different answers.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Harper Lee and W. E. B. Du Bois are all considered great authors, but their writing styles differ greatly. For example, Tolstoy can write about one tree for pages while Vonnegut scribbles stick figures and inserts them directly into the book.

Any one of these authors could write a scene describing a person crossing a road, but each author’s writing would convey that scene differently.

Great writing is partially a matter of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but it’s also largely a matter of style. Style is a matter of using words, literary devices, and sentence structure to convey your ideas.

That first half of good writing is easy to teach, but that second half is not.

Not everyone is cut out to be a great basketball player, similarly, not everyone is cut out to be a good writer, and that’s ok. The world needs more than athletes and writers to make it work.

Although not everyone can become a great writer, we can all learn how to cut our way to clean, practical copy.

Here are some things you can do to clean up your copy.

Cut the To-be Verbs

Sometimes the to-be verb is necessary and sometimes it isn’t.

When editing your content, scan the copy for every conjugation of the to-be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being) and ask yourself, “If I removed this, would the sentence still make sense?”

If the answer is yes, cut it.

Let’s say you’re a consulting company which helps companies with retention issues. It’s quite possible that you’d need to write a piece of content that includes the keyword “customer retention” somewhere in the copy.

Let’s say the following sentence is somewhere in your copy:

“We at Company X, can really help you get the customer retention you have been looking for.”

The phrase “have been looking for,” does nothing to improve this sentence. It just adds to the word count. It’s better to cut the phrase from the sentence and finish the sentence some other way.

The following sentence is cleaner:

“We at Company X, can really help you get the customer retention you want.”

Everyone overuses the to-be verb when writing and this is an easy way to clean up your copy.

Cut the Auxiliary Verbs

This rule expands on the to-be rule.

Auxiliary verbs are any verbs that help give tense to another verb without conjugating the verb itself. Examples of auxiliary verbs include: am, is, are, be, been, being, can, could, shall, should, may, might, must, do, does, did, have, had, has, will, would, was, and were.

These verbs, which include the to-be verb conjugations, are often used in spoken language but add confusion when put into copy.

Going back to our last example:

“We at Company X, can really help you get the customer retention you want.”

The “can” is unnecessary to the central idea of the sentence. In the original version of this sentence, the phrase, “have been” is another auxiliary verb phrase and luckily, we already cut it from the copy.

This sentence would read better still, by cutting more fat.

Here’s the edited sentence:

“We at Company X really help you get the customer retention you want.”

Cut the Adjectives And Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are helpful sometimes, but not always.

Adjectives are words that describe nouns. The word “red,” in the phrase, “red pen” is an example of an adjective.

Adverbs either describe adjectives or verbs. The words, “bright” and “dark” in the phrase “one bright red pen and one dark red pen,” is an adverb, because they modify the adjectives “red.”

Let’s go back to our example sentence.

“We at Company X really help you get the customer retention you want.”

Currently, the only adverb in this sentence is the word “really.” Does the “really” serve a purpose? No. It’s not like other companies market themselves as faux help.

So let’s cut it.

“We at Company X help you get the customer retention you want.”

Cut the Words “Really” and “Very”

We’ve already done this in our example, but words like “really” and “very” are especially grievous adverbs and adjectives that many miss when cutting. At least adverbs and adjectives like bright “red pen” clarify the pen’s image in your mind. “Very” and “really” do little to give the reader additional information.

There are plenty of online resources to find alternatives to these two words. Whenever you find the word “very” or “really” in your content, ask what the word is accomplishing, and if that could be accomplished by changing the phrase to something else.

Put Your Keywords In Last

Although this last example is hard to illustrate, one thing I’ve found as a 97thfloor writer is that it’s easier to write content without thinking about the keywords and adding them in later. Trying to include keywords in the copy as I write usually slows down the writing process and creates long, unruly sentences that are bending over backwards on themselves to make the keywords fit.

If you want to do TF-IDF keyword research beforehand to stay informed about what others are writing, then by all means do that. But wait until you’ve written your piece before consciously plugging in keywords. Putting the keywords in after writing will help you find places where they fit naturally in the copy while also shortening the time you spend editing and cutting out unnecessary content fluff.

In our content example, you see how the keyword “customer retention” was thrown in at the end of the sentence. It’s not terrible, but the keyword could be better utilized.

“We at Company X can really help you get the customer retention you have been looking for.”

Even when we cut the fat from the sentence, it still feels a bit forced.

“We at Company X help you get the customer retention you want.”

It’s possible that, if the content were written without trying to pack in the keyword, the sentence would look better. Even a throwaway sentence like, “Company X helps clients improve customer retention,” reads better than our edited sentence.

In this final sentence, you get the keyword in your copy with less editing and fewer wasted words.

Anyone Can Have Clean Copy

Not everyone can write like Tolstoy, but most people do not need to.

When all else fails, what’s most important is that your copy is clean, practical, and easy to understand. It might not move people to tears with emotion, but it will get people to understand your product or service.

Anyone can cut their way to cleaner copy.

Anyone.

Written by Matthew Jelalian on February 7, 2018

Matthew Jelalian is an Enterprise content marketing manager and writer at 97th Floor. He writes, edits and creates content on his team for various clients.

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