Revise Zoom Out—Zoom In
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Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost. —William Zinsser
The word “revise” means to “see again,” and this is exactly what you need to do when preparing your writing for public consumption.
While writing, you are zoomed in. You’ve planned your purpose, analyzed your audience, created a structure, decided on a strategy, and drafted your message. To revise, you just zoom out, then in again.
Section OneSee It Again
When you finish a substantial first draft, get away from it. Go outside and run around the block. Get your mind completely off the topic for a while. Cognitively, your brain will assemble and organize the information it’s been processing for so many hours. Set an alarm or timer for when you’ll start work again.
The amount of time you spend revising your work depends on both its length and importance. An annual report is a major project, but even a short, critical email might take days to get right. When you come back from your break, you’ll be examining your writing in a new and powerful way: by mentally zooming out and then back in, just as your reader will approach it.
Make revising your emails standard operating procedure. Don’t fill in the TO: field until after you’ve written and revised.
Section TwoZoom Your Doc
Although you’d like to think that your audience will start with your first word and read carefully through each word in order, you know that’s not how it works.
As a reader you first notice the design and layout of a piece, glance at the title, scan the headings and visuals, and skim some lines. Only then do you decide whether you’ll commit your time to reading it through. So try revising by using that same sequence. Imagine yourself zooming out, then zooming in.
Zoom Out to 10 Feet
Layout | Design
Imagine yourself about 10 feet away from a printout of your work. What do you see? Layout, spacing, headings—not much else. From this distance, you can’t actually read the document. Instead, you get a sense for its overall design: headings, alignment, white space, graphics, contrast, etc. This is important because readers’ first (and perhaps most powerful) impression of your message will be more about its design than its content. More than ever before, good design = credibility. This Purdue Owl video demonstrates the basics of Visual Rhetoric.
At the 10-foot level, ask yourself these questions about Layout and Design:
- Does my document look good from a distance?
- Does it have a clear entry point?
- Should I use color to add interest or draw attention to key points?
- Did I choose attractive and clear fonts?
- Did I leave enough space to make my message look inviting? (Blank lines between paragraphs, 1.15 line spacing, comfortable margins?
- Is there any data that I should illustrate with a graphic?
- If this will be viewed online, is it readable on a mobile device?
Zoom to 5 Feet
Agenda | Organization | Headings
Your reader will be looking for quick signs that you are organized and trustworthy. Use the first two of the 4A’s to prove it:
Attention Do I capture the readers’ attention immediately? Do I provide the context of the message and tell my readers why they should care?
In a report, the title and opening sentence are your most important attention-grabbing tools. In a letter, your opening sentence serves the same function. In an email, focus on the subject line: keep it short, descriptive, and interesting enough to stand out from the dozens (or hundreds) of other emails the reader receives daily.
Agenda Can my reader easily locate a clear agenda that previews the content of the message?
Your agenda is usually the last line of your opening paragraph. It will set up the organization of your message and prime your readers’ minds to receive it. All but the shortest messages deserve agendas.
Zoom to 2 Feet
Content | Supporting Detail | Paragraph Structure
The third step is to examine the substance of your message. Make sure you support your attention grabber and your agenda. As you zoom in to the two-foot level, check the remaining two of the 4A’s.
Argument: Do I have a strong argument with all the information necessary to fulfill the promise of my agenda? Remember, an argument in this sense is not a conflict. It’s the combination of your main point and how you back it up. Ask yourself:
- Can I streamline the reading experience for my reader by deleting anything? Or can I link to information instead of including it?
- Have I remembered the readers' point of view and made clear why they should care?
- Have I given the details and support my readers will want or need? And have I checked my facts and claims to make sure they’re absolutely accurate and cited?
Action: Does my conclusion include a call to action for my readers, reminding them why the whole thing matters? Have I included information that will make next steps easy for my reader?
Next, make sure each paragraph passes muster. For each paragraph, read the topic sentence. Is it clear? Does it contain the main point of the paragraph? Does everything else in the paragraph relate to the topic sentence? Remember that busy readers often skim documents by reading only the topic sentences. If someone did this to your document, would they catch the main points of your argument? If not, it’s time to rewrite.
Zoom to 1 Foot
Grammar | Punctuation | Style
Your final step is to edit for grammar, punctuation, and style, so zoom in really close
Comb through your work at the sentence level to catch any errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation that will interfere with the message. Alert: You may have already read your work so many times that you mentally skip words, so try reading it aloud to force yourself to slow down and hear the words. To catch spelling errors, read backwards so you see each word instead of its meaning.
Style refers to tone, word choice, sentence variety, and a host of other elements. Everything you write has a style; you can’t escape it. As an analogy, think about what you decide to wear each day. Your wardrobe choices communicate something about you; they reflect your personal style or fashion sense (deliberate or not).
So it is with your writing. The way you use words, the rhythm of your sentences, even whether you use a semicolon or a dash—these subtle choices constitute your style
Style at the One-Foot Level
At the one-foot level, the ZOOM process forces you to notice and evaluate your style. Is it appropriate to the context and audience? Too stuffy for a quick check-in with your project teammates? Too chatty for an update to the vice-president? These are the questions to ask yourself at this stage of revision. If something in your writing sounds clunky or off-key, it’s a style problem that needs to be fixed.
More generally, style refers to a certain X factor that elevates writing from useful to delightful, informative to compelling. The best way to develop good style is to read, read, read. Get the voice of great stylists in your head so you can imitate their cadence, nuance, wit, and flair. The end of each chapter of this book has recommendations for further reading that will help you improve your own style. Great books, great thoughts, great style . . . what’s not to like?
“I know my stuff looks like it was all rattled off in 28 seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.”
—Theodor Seuss Geisel
Quoted in Philip Nel, Dr. Seuss: American Icon (New York: Continuum, 2004), 35.
Remember that doing a thorough revision allows you a fresh take. You see your work again.
Imagine yourself zooming out to get an overall impression of the layout and design. Then zoom in until you can just see structure—the title, agenda, headings, and logical flow. Zoom down another level to check the main content, paragraph structure, and supporting details. Finally, zoom all the way in and get really picky about grammar, punctuation, and style.
Make ZOOMing a habit. Your readers will thank you.
Please let us know.
Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.
“A General Guide to Understanding Written Plagarism.” EasyBib. Accessed February 2017.
Silverman, David. “That Written-By-Committee Flavor.” Harvard Business Review, December 21, 2009. Accessed February 2017.
Abell, Alicia. Business Grammar, Style, and Usage: The Desk Reference for Articulate and Polished Business Writing, Speaking, and Correspondence. Aspatore, 2003.
Cunningham, Helen, and Brenda Greene. The Business Style Handbook: An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job. McGraw Hill, 2013.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. University of California Press, 2006.
Nel, Phillip. Dr. Seuss: American Icon. Bloomsbury Academic, 2003.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style. New York: Viking, 2014.
OWLPurdue. “Purdue OWL: Visual Rhetoric.” YouTube, published January 1, 2013. Accessed February 2017.