I’d been planning to focus on editing in my class this week, so when I got an email with a classic writing error, I thanked the universe and pasted the copy onto a slide. The writer had made a false start: the first paragraph bore no relation to the headline or to the actual point of the post.
Many writers fall into the false start. Sometimes it’s unconscious throat-clearing before launching into the main subject. Other times the writer may (also unconsciously) have something to get off her chest before she can continue with her real subject. That was the problem with the email, and my writers saw it immediately when I presented it in class.
On occasion, the false start happens because writers cannot pass up opportunities to talk about themselves. I once came across a blog post whose first paragraph ended with the sentence:
“But I digress.”
The occasional digression can be entertaining. But if you find yourself apologizing for a digression in your first paragraph, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve made a false start.
I knew that. But I did it anyway.
False Start, true story
Yes, the second example of false start I offered my writers came from this very blog. I figured, to paraphrase the Bible, that I can’t criticize the mote in another writer’s work while ignoring the beam in my own. (And because I always like to give proper credit, hat-tip to Matthew…or his ghostwriter.)
I didn’t have to scroll too far through the blog archives to find a false start. My post from April 1st, “It’s all about story at Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference,” contained a doozy. I should have started right in to praise the fascinating presentations I’d heard. But instead I used three of the first four sentences to praise my own. And then tried to justify hijacking my own blog post by adding, “But I digress.”
The post also had a pretty poor excuse for a conclusion, and I outed that to my writers as well. The last paragraph focuses on authenticity—which is an element of storytelling, certainly. But to fulfill the promise of the headline, the conclusion needed to focus on the bigger picture.
The second-to-last paragraph does that very well. So why did I add more? I was drunk on Demon SEO, and 15 words short of the magic number: 300. So I added 80 irrelevant words.
Now, that may be an acceptable choice for some people—the kind of people who just shovel words onto the interwebs in the hope that Lady Google will smile on them. But I’m not a word-shoveler; I’m a writer. I owe it to my readers and myself to deliver pieces written with integrity.
Nobody’s perfect—that’s why we edit
Which is not to say that you can expect perfect writing from me every time you click on a post. Nobody can deliver that. Our job as writers is just to do the best we can. Write every day and over time (I believe) your worst work will get a little less-bad, and your best work will shine.
If you want to do a deep dive on all the problems I found in my post, download the edited document here.
And if you’re interested in joining me for an editing program I’m putting together, click here to get on the list.