How to Edit Your First Draft: What to Keep, What to Cut
By Freelance Writer, John Forde in Paris, France
It’s a rare writer who can crank out perfect copy in a first draft. The rest of us rewrite. But here’s a dilemma for you… what should you keep and what should you cut?
Here are some guidelines to help you answer that question:
On the one hand, you’ve got “need to know” information. This is stuff the reader has to have handy if he or she is going to do what you recommend. In a travel context, that might mean addresses and telephone numbers, seasons, availability, special tips on how to do what you say to do, and the like. These are the essential “tools” the reader needs to take action on your advice (and 99.9% of travel articles are all about giving someone some advice).
But on the other hand, you’ve got what’s called “want-to-know” information. These are more about the “color” you’re giving to the article. For instance, travelers look for excitement, luxury, one-of-a-kind experience, variety, value, beauty, and all kinds of other things that will make their trip an emotionally rewarding experience as well as a practical one.
So when you review a restaurant and describe the freshly sautéed scallops drenched in butter… visit a vineyard and write about a fragrant and fruity wine… or review a resort next to the glistening Mediterranean sea… you’re probably giving the kind of “want to know” information that will make your travel article that much more fun to read.
To write a successful travel article, you’ll have a healthy mix of both practical facts and mouth-watering details, as described above. The skill you’ll develop as a writer is deeply connected with knowing how to achieve that balance between the two.
** USE COLORED HIGHLIGHTERS TO SEPARATE “NEED TO KNOW” FROM “WANT TO KNOW” INFORMATION
Get two highlighter pens of different colors.
Read through the first draft of your article. Each time you come across a useful, actionable detail in the copy — a “Need To Know” detail — highlight it in one of the colors. Now go back, read it again, and mark the tantalizing details — or “Want To Know” information — with the other highlighter.
You want a healthy mix of both kinds of information. With this exercise, you’re identifying the details you’re most likely going to keep. But hold on, because you’re not done yet.
** USE A RED PEN TO DISTINGUISH “NEED TO TELL” FROM “WANT TO TELL” INFORMATION
Now get a red pen.
Read through the article one more time, only on this pass you’re looking to distinguish between details in a different way. You’re looking to mark the difference between what’s called “NEED to tell” information and “WANT to tell” information.
“NEED to tell” information is what your article has to have to succeed. Without this kind of information, your article doesn’t entice. It doesn’t inform. And it doesn’t show the reader how to do what you hope they’ll want to do once they’ve finished reading.
On the other hand, “WANT to tell” is definitely not as essential.
That’s because “WANT to tell” is the stuff writers throw in for a different reason — because they simply can’t resist leaving it out. In particular, we’re talking about things like jokes and puns so irrelevant, you had to bend over backward to squeeze them in… or extra-clever subheads and lengthy anecdotes you just had to tell… and excess trivia that shows how smart you are… overall, the kinds of extras that make you feel pretty good about yourself as a writer, but that do little or nothing to help the reader follow your advice.
** INCLUDE DETAILS THAT ENRICH YOUR CENTRAL THEME
The strongest articles are those that unfold around a “big idea,” a central theme. Any detail that doesn’t enrich that theme in some way is a detail you can cut.
For example, if your article is about what to do in Chicago on a rainy day and you spend an entire, descriptive paragraph talking about how drenched you’ll get if you decide you want to see the seals at the Lincoln Park Zoo… delete the paragraph.
It might be well-written, but it belongs in another story.
Or say you’re writing about a great source of handmade jewelry in Belize — a French woman who peddles her wares to guests at various hotels. You might detail her schedule. You might describe the type of jewelry she produces. You might mention the prices she charges. You might even talk about how long she’s been on the island or how long she’s been making jewelry. The fact that she has two children, however, is probably irrelevant (even if you did find them cute and charming).
It’s this “want to tell” stuff you’ll want to cross out with your red pen. Be ruthless. Imagine you’re trying to make space in a crowded attic. And you have to consolidate five boxfuls of ideas into one or two.
What you’ll have left, of course, will be a multi-colored mess. But now you’ve re-read your first draft at least three times, you’ve re-evaluated the core message, and you’ve drawn out the essential facts. And you’ve picked out the bits that, while they might feel good to get in there, you can drop the second time around.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]