Seventh and Eighth Rules to Write by: the Gruel Theory and Dog Pile Theory

My seventh rule to write by is The Gruel Theory. When writing a document that will be reviewed by a number of people, put more content in the first draft than you know will survive. People are more likely to remove information than add it. And if your first draft isn’t strong enough, by the time reviewers are done, all you’ll have left is gruel.
Perhaps it’s because I deal with accountants and attorneys on a regular basis, but often it seems reviewers are at their happiest when they can cut something out of your copy. For some—such as the groups just named—it’s a need to be conservative and reduce risk. For others, it can be a way of feeling superior. And occasionally, when you’re really lucky, it’s because you’ve found a good editor who improves your writing by tightening it up. (See the sixth rule: The Few the Proud Theory
There is, of course, the eighth and inverse rule: The Dog Pile Theory. When people see that others already have edited your text (the double-edged sword of Change Tracking), they want to add their comments, too. They pile their changes on top of each other—just like a bunch of grade school kids playing tackle—and the result is a meaningless heap.
This just happened to me. The 600-word article I sent to a client two weeks ago returned with more than 900 words today. If it had been 300 more words of worthy content, I would have been happy to see it. Instead, it was just bloat.
Here’s what I do to deal with both theories:
  • Trick #1: Laugh. The article I wrote was about a diabetes management program. My laugh was that it went out thin and came back overweight—the opposite of what the company intended for the program I was writing about. My greatest chuckle came from reading a 63-word sentence, with the end repeating words from the beginning—because it was so long that even the re-writer forgot where it started.
  • Trick #2: Don’t look for imagined slights. Don’t begin with thinking, “People don’t like my ideas (or me) and took them out,” or “They don’t think I covered everything adequately so had to add something.” People make changes for all kinds of reasons—and many have nothing to do with you. It could be someone had a bad day and is taking it out on your copy. It could be that someone hates a particular turn of phrase and will remove it whenever it appears. It could be that one reviewer doesn’t like another, so feels compelled to alter that person’s suggestions. You can only guess, so don’t begin by feeling inadequate.
  • Trick #3: Ask for amplification. If someone makes a change you don’t understand—or don’t agree with—ask about it. Most people are happy to explain their suggestions. This situation presents two opportunities for you: 1) to learn something you might not otherwise know (ask me about the subjunctive tense …), and 2) to show you cared enough about what a commenter said to inquire further. Who knows: by discussing something, you might even convince the person that your approach is better.
  • Trick #4: Ask “Does the change make the copy better?” Did it take too long to say something, and now it’s more concise? Did I need to include a longer explanation so the ultimate audience for this piece has a better sense of what is meant? Did I get sloppy and use incorrect grammar and punctuation, which someone has corrected to my shame? Remember, you want to have the final piece meet your goal: to persuade, to educate, to whatever. If someone’s comment moves you closer to your goal, that person has actually helped you.
Sometimes you’ll be forced for whatever reason to make changes that don’t improve the text, for reasons beyond your control. Here’s a trick for that, too. I call it the “brown thought cloud.” In my head, I give the person the talking to I think he or she deserves about the stupid change I must make. I get really snarky about it. Then I let it go—and return to Trick #1.
Lynn Franklin says she started Lynne Franklin Wordsmith 16 years ago because …”I was in danger of being made a partner at the world’s largest investor relations agency.  Or because a tarot card reader told me to.  Or because I wanted to prove my theory that wearing pantyhose didn’t make me more productive.  All of those would be true.”

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