The most important editing tip you’ll ever use is deceptively simple. It seems so obvious, it hardly needs stating. And yet it’s so easy to forget, and so hard to apply.
Master it, though, and this one tip will unlock everything you write, from novels to Facebook posts and everything in between.
I’m about to share possibly the most important developmental editing tip you’ll ever learn.
This is a tip you can use for literally any type of writing—novels, yes, but also so much more. It’s so versatile, it can be the first tool you reach for to edit absolutely anything you write.
And it’s such a simple tip that when I say it, you’re going to think, wow, that’s obvious. Is that even really something that needs to be said?
But I’m telling you, yes, this does need to be said. This is so easy to forget. And even when you remember it, it can be so hard to do.
But when you embrace this—if you adopt this as the way you approach your writing, and especially your editing process—I promise this is going to make everything you write so much more powerful and effective.
In this article, I’ll tell you:
- The editing tip that works for everything you’ll write
- Where I use this tip in my writing
- What happens when you don’t use this tip
- What happens when you do use it
- Why this simple, obvious tip is so often really difficult to apply
And at the end, I’ll give you an exercise to help you apply this tip to any writing project you’re working on—truly, any project at all.
So we’ve got a lot to cover. Are you ready to dive in?
The One Developmental Editing Tip for EVERY Writing Project
Here it is:
Figure out what your point is. Then say that.
That’s it. That’s the tip.
I told you it was simple. I warned you it’s so simple that you’re going to wonder whether it even needs to be said.
But I think it’s so important and powerful to state that. That that’s what you’re doing: you’re identifying your point, and then you’re saying your point.
Where to Use This Writing Tip
I use this tip—which means, I literally tell myself, figure out what your point is, then say that—to write:
I send out an email newsletter every week, and I keep this tip in mind when I write it.
By the way, if you want to get editing resources from me every week and be the first to know when I have openings for new editing clients, sign up for my email newsletter in the form below:
As a thank you, I’ll send you my free guide to edit your novel!
The point is, I use this editing tip when I write emails. I also use it when I write:
- Podcast scripts
- Personal statements
- Thank you notes
- Website copy
- Short stories
- Facebook posts
(Well, I personally don’t write novels, but if I did, I’d use this tip—and I definitely use it for all the novels I edit.)
I use it for everything I write, all the time, everywhere. And it helps me every time.
4 Dangers of NOT Identifying Your Point
Why is this so important? Why is it so powerful to identify what it is you want to say, and then say that thing?
Well, let’s talk about the things that happen when you don’t do this.
1. You’ll add words without adding meaning
First off, when you don’t figure out what the point is, but you write anyway, it’s easy to get really frilly and elaborate and decorate your language in ways that don’t further your message.
It’s easy to add more words that sound pretty, but that don’t add substance or communicate your core idea to your audience.
2. You’ll add ideas without adding clarity
Second, when you don’t figure out what the point is, but you write anyway, it’s very easy to ramble and go off topic. Because you don’t have a clear point in mind, you can get distracted by all kinds of interesting threads of ideas that are only vaguely related to what you actually want to communicate.
You don’t have a filter to help you determine what’s relevant and what’s not, so it’s easy to ramble and lose track of your original idea.
3. You’ll get stuck with no ideas
Third, when you don’t figure out what the point is, but you write anyway, it’s all too easy to get stuck before you even start. You can get stopped right at the beginning, before a single word makes it onto the page, because you just have no clue what to write.
And you have no clue what to write because you don’t know what the point of this writing piece is.
4. You’ll get stuck with too many ideas
And fourth, when you don’t figure out what the point is, but you write anyway, you can get stuck because you have too many ideas for what to write, but you can’t fit them all into the same piece of writing.
It’s overwhelming to try to organize them. Again, you have no filter to determine what’s relevant and what’s not.
And if you try to write without figuring out your point, you’re probably going to fall back into that second problem: your writing will ramble and meander through a ton of vaguely-related ideas, but without communicating any one thing clearly to your audience.
Your writing might feel disjointed, or muddled, or end up really long when it was meant to be short.
So those are some of the dangers we’re trying to avoid—the pitfalls that happen when you don’t have clarity on what you’re trying to say.
4 Benefits of Figuring Out What You Want to Say
So what happens when you do know what you’re trying to say, and you commit to saying it?
(Because don’t get me wrong, that second part is just as difficult as the first, if not even harder.)
Here’s what happens when you do say your point.
1. Your writing process becomes easier
First, your writing process becomes so much easier because you know what you’re trying to communicate. You have clarity, direction, a filter for what’s relevant and what’s not, a specific goal you can accomplish.
2. Your writing becomes more effective
Second, your writing becomes so much more powerful because it clearly communicates a specific idea to your readers. It doesn’t ramble or leave your readers to do the work of figuring out what it was you were trying to say. It lays it all out for your readers so they can simply receive your idea.
3. Your readers can pick up on your message
And third, because of this, your readers are much more likely to take away the message you want to communicate.
If you muddy the message because you don’t really know yourself what the message is, or you try to hide hints and clues about the message but never clearly present it, then your readers are likely to miss it. Some people will understand your meaning, but a lot of people won’t.
Worse, they’ll likely interpret a different message from your writing.
And while the beauty of art is that everyone can interpret their own meaning from any piece of art, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re creating art—you’re telling a story—because there’s something in your mind and on your heart that you want to express to your readers.
It doesn’t have to be the only thing they take away from your novel. Our measure of success here is not whether your ultimate point was the only idea they understood.
But if they read your story and take away a message that’s the complete opposite of your point because you didn’t do the work to make your idea clear, that’s not success.
It’s on you to determine what your point is and put it into your writing so your reader has the best chance to pick up on it and understand.
Why Is it Hard to Say What You Mean?
Now, why is this so hard? Why is this principle that seems so simple—figure out what you’re trying to say, and then say it—actually so difficult?
Why do so many writers miss this, and create writing pieces that don’t communicate their point?
Well, there are several reasons why this is hard.
Remember, this tip has two steps:
- Figure out what your point is.
- Say that. Let that point be the thing you say in your writing.
Both of those steps are difficult. But they’re difficult for different reasons.
I’m going to share four reasons why writers struggle with this.
The first two reasons are about step one: figure out your point.
And the second two reasons are about step two: say that point.
2 Challenges of Finding Your Point
Let’s start off with why it’s difficult to figure out what your point is.
1. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re trying to say
Reason number one: sometimes you don’t actually know what you’re trying to say.
How can you make a point if you don’t know what it is?
And sometimes that idea isn’t obvious, so you’ll have to do some soul searching to find it.
If this is the reason why you’re stuck, here’s what I recommend. Take time to pause, step back from whatever it is you’re writing, and seriously consider what it is that you want to communicate to your audience.
Who is this piece of writing for? What do you want your readers to know? If they walked away with just one idea stuck in their minds, what would you want it to be?
When I’m thinking about these kinds of questions, I find it absolutely invaluable to go on a walk. In fact, I’ve started including “go on a walk” as a mandatory step before I undertake any major writing project. I need that time and space to let my mind wander and explore ideas so I can figure out what my point really is.
If this doesn’t work for you, you can also try writing your way to an answer. This is the beauty of first drafts, and why I love the editing process so much.
When you treat writing like this, writing is thinking. Your first draft especially, and sometimes more drafts than that, become the space where you are putting words down on the page to help you see and understand your ideas.
Once you have a draft written, you can go back through it and pan for gold: sifting through what you’ve written to find the gold nuggets of your idea hidden within.
And then, once you know your idea, your next drafts become the space where you make that idea clear.
2. Sometimes you don’t know the goal of the project
If taking a step back from your writing, going on a walk, or writing your way to your idea doesn’t work, the problem might be deeper. You might be experiencing the second reason why this is hard:
You might not have clarity about the goal of your project.
When I was in college, I worked in the Elon University Writing Center.
(And I want to give a quick shoutout to writing centers here. I absolutely loved my time as a writing center consultant, and I got to help so many students write better papers and be less stressed about their writing assignments. If you have access to a writing center, I cannot encourage you strongly enough: go use your writing center. They’re amazing.)
And here’s the tip I have for you today, drawn directly from my time in the writing center.
When a student came to me in the writing center, the first thing I’d ask for was their assignment sheet. I needed to know:
- What writing project were they working on?
- What was the goal of the assignment?
- Who was it for?
- Were there any parameters it needed to follow?
- How would it be evaluated?
- What constituted success for that assignment?
Until I knew that, I couldn’t give them any relevant feedback. And without that information, they couldn’t come up with a point they would want to communicate in their writing.
So if you’ve thought about your point, but you haven’t come up with anything, this might be part of your problem. You might not have clarity about the goal of your project.
You probably don’t have an assignment sheet that helpfully lists out exactly what you need to do. But you can step back even farther and ask yourself questions about the purpose of your project.
- What is this writing piece?
- Why are you writing it?
- What’s your goal for it? What do you want this piece of writing to accomplish?
- Who is it for? Who will read it?
- What do you want your reader to do?
Do you want them to . . .
- . . . Feel something?
- . . . Think something?
- . . . Understand something?
- . . . Do something?
In novels, the goal is often about:
- A feeling you want your reader to experience
- A way you want them to respond to your writing
- Or an idea you want to express to them about what it means to be human in this world
In writing that serves a very specific practical purpose, this is often about an action you want your readers to take.
- I want my email subscribers to click on the links I send them.
- You want a hiring manager to hire you after they read your resume and cover letter.
- I want you to take the concepts in this podcast and apply them to your writing.
And once you know what the goal is, then you can follow that line to its logical conclusion: what’s the point you need to make in order to achieve that goal for your ideal audience?
2 Challenges of Saying Your Point
All right, so those are the first two reasons why this tip is difficult to apply. Remember, both of those reasons are about part one: figure out what your point is.
It’s tough to do that when you don’t know what your point is. And it’s even more tough to do that when you don’t know what the goal of the whole writing project is on a larger scale.
These are logical, cognitive challenges, things you can think your way through.
But the next two reasons why this tip is difficult to apply are about the second part: state your point. Just put it right in your writing and say that thing.
And these challenges aren’t about logic, but emotion.
3. Sometimes it takes courage to state your idea
Sometimes it takes courage to state what you really want to communicate.
When you really dig into your idea, when you do that soul searching to discover your point, you might find something personal. Something profound. Something intimate. Something vulnerable. Something painful. Something honest and raw.
You might find something that will take courage to share. Something that’s extremely important to you, and equally frightening to express to others.
And because sharing that thing is scary, plainly expressing your point in your writing gets really difficult.
When you’re afraid to plainly state something brave, it’s tempting to write around it and obfuscate your point.
But that’s doing your readers a disservice, and it’s doing you a disservice.
If there’s something you want to share, and it’s important to you, it’s going to take courage to share no matter how clear or muddy you make it. A piece of writing with even a seed of that idea hidden deep within it is going to feel extraordinarily vulnerable to put out into the world, even when your readers will likely completely miss that seed.
You’re going to feel the vulnerability hangover anyway.
So, since you’re writing something brave, do yourself and your message the honor of clearly stating it.
That way, you’ll know that no matter how your message is received, you communicated exactly what you wanted your audience to know.
You were brave. You said the thing that you needed to say.
4. Sometimes you’re afraid that if your readers don’t pick up on your idea, you’ve failed
Sometimes you’re afraid that if you do state your idea and your readers don’t understand it, then you have failed. And so you self-protect by avoiding stating it plainly so you can avoid the risk that your readers might miss it if you do put it out there.
This one applies especially to writing novels and telling stories. It’s a little less scary to make your point in an email than it is to make your point in a novel.
And to be clear, when I say make your point clearly in your novel, I do not mean, have someone literally state the theme to the character and the reader like this story is a fable and you’re teaching a specific moral to children.
This is actually another fear that can crop up when writers are working on their novels—they’re afraid that if they do state the point, they’ll state it too clearly and their writing will come across as didactic.
But the truth is, great novels do have points. And the authors intentionally identify them and use them to craft the story.
What it really means to clearly state your point in your novel is to organize your story and ideas around that point that you’ve selected. It’s not just a bunch of exciting events happening—it’s a bunch of exciting events happening for a reason.
I have a whole article on finding your point in a novel, and I highly recommend you go check it out. It’s called Your Story Has Deep Meaning. Do You Know What It Is?
I think it’ll really help break down what it means to make a point in a story, even though a story is a very different form of writing than a resume or a memo or a persuasive essay.
But the fear here I want to explore is this: writers are afraid to clearly incorporate their point into their stories because they are afraid their readers might not get it.
And if that resonates with you, if you’ve ever felt afraid that your readers might miss your point, I want you to know:
At the end of the day, your success isn’t measured by whether or not all your readers took the one single right point away from your novel.
Your readers are going to interpret your story in so many different ways, including a ton of ways you’ll never see coming.
No, your success is measured by whether you gather the courage to say what you intend to say in your story.
By whether you shy away from your message, or take the bold risk of shaping your story around it, whether your readers pick up on it or not.
Saying What You Mean Is Hard, but Worth It
Saying what you mean is a courageous act.
Saying what you mean becomes even more courageous when:
- The thing you want to say is personal or vulnerable.
- The thing you want to say is controversial.
- The medium you’re using to say it is an art form that feels vulnerable to share all on its own, even before you add your courageous point.
Whew boy, that was a lot. But really what it boils down to is this:
It’s hard to say what you really mean in your writing when you don’t know what your point is and when you’re afraid to share it.
First, you’ve got to figure out your point. And then you’ve got to work up the courage to say it.
Your Turn: Figure Out What You’re Trying to Say
So how do you do that? I have an exercise for you to help you put this into practice.
Think of something you’re writing. It could be anything—from your current work in progress novel to a Facebook post. Anything at all.
Now, write the point you want to make in that piece of writing in one sentence.
If you had just one sentence to communicate this grand idea in your head, what would you say?
For practical writing, this is often a statement of fact, an argument you’re trying to make.
For novels, this can be one of two things: a premise or logline, or a statement of your story’s theme.
Essentially, your premise sums up what happens in your story, the external action and plot. You distill all of that down to just one sentence about your character, their goal, and what they’re going to have to do to accomplish it.
And your theme statement sums up why that plot matters. It’s what the message of your story really is.
For more on finding that statement, check out this article on finding the point of your novel.
My Point: Find Your Point, Then Say That
So that’s it. That’s your task.
Write the point of your piece of writing in one sentence—the one thing you want to communicate to your readers.
And to give you an example, here’s the point of this article:
Figure out what the point is. Then say that.
(Could you guess it? I hope you could!)
I invite you to give this a try the next time you sit down to write.
Maybe your next writing task will be . . .
- Planning a novel and figuring out why this story matters
- Writing a scene and figuring out what these five or ten pages are really about within your larger story
- Writing a Facebook post and moving from rambly inspiration to a specific idea you want to communicate clearly
Whatever you write next, ask yourself: what’s your point?
And then say that.