When Charlize Theron as Agent Lorraine Broughton kicks butt in the movie Atomic Blonde, she’s like some editors I’ve worked with – ruthless. The mission? Clean, accurate copy at all costs.
I don’t want to make an editor work that hard, so I’m tough on myself before I turn in copy and follow this checklist (nunchucks not included):
Use verbs that pack a punch
For my first draft, I don’t worry about verbs. I’m trying to get my ideas down. But when I proofread my content, I review verbs. The first rule? Find alternatives to “is” and “are” as much as possible.
Not to the point of turning decent sentences into pretzels to do so, but “to be” doesn’t describe and therefore lacks muscle. Instead, I go for strong verbs, such as “pack,” kick,” “kill,” etc.
Stop repeating yourself
In one fight scene in Atomic Blonde, Agent Broughton dismisses her adversaries with everything from a garden hose and a pot to a freezer door. Imagine the same scene as a series of right hooks, over and over. Dullsville, right?
The same rule applies to writing. Avoid using the same expression or words ad nauseum. Mix it up.
Adjust your sentence structure
If Agent Broughton began each battle with a leg kick to the face, her enemies would predict her every move. For her, that could mean death. For your readers, the same ol’ sentence structure, such as noun/verb/object, will snuff out any interest they have in your content. Look for those monotonous patterns and rework them.
One tendency of mine is lists of threes, such as red, white and blue. I can get away with it in one paragraph, but not the next one or the one after that. Unlike an assembly line, which depends on uniformity, writing comes alive with variation and creativity.
Agent Broughton escapes the bad guys by jumping off a balcony while holding on to that aforementioned garden hose tied to a bad guy’s neck. What if we didn’t see that jump? What if all of the sudden she’s crashing through the window of another apartment? Now you’ve got a confused audience.
Writing is no different. Transitions from one sentence to another – and from one paragraph to the next – help ensure you make your case logically for the reader. Does the transition “In fact” actually introduce a fact? Is the quote from the pharmaceutical company too abrupt after the paragraph about fentanyl? How do you ease into that quote?
Writing flows when transitions move you smoothly from point A to point B.
Use good quotes or lose ’em
If Agent Broughton were a writing teacher, she would snarl, “Kill your little darlings.” Those refer to nuggets of information we writers love but do nothing to move the story along. In this case I’m talking about quotes, which serve three primary purposes:
- They show authority.
- They provide color.
- They explain something.
If they don’t do that, remove the quotation marks and paraphrase instead. And don’t cry about it.
Just as Agent Broughton would verify she’s got her gun, some ammo and a tube of lipstick when starting her day, writers must do the same when it comes to spell-check. Never assume a quick read will suffice before submitting copy.
In a rush, I once forgot to review the spelling for web copy I turned in to a financial services client. My editor noticed and she told me not to forget again. Fortunately for me, she was polite about it. Spell-check matters. Do it.