What does it mean to have “stuff?”

Now that baseball season is upon us, you’ll probably hear a lot of references to pitchers and whether or not they have their best “stuff” on a given day. The really good pitchers, broadcasters will invariably say will be able to work through difficult counts with tenacious batters and handle the middle of the order even if they don’t have their best “stuff.” I’d like to relate this analogy to writing texts for small businesses, startups, and people like you and me.

When a client gives me a text to write or—as is often the case—rewrite, there’s usually a reason. They couldn’t summon their “stuff.” Most of us can write, however, few of us can write well most of the time and under pressure, especially when facing deadlines from other parts of their job. Most of us have to wait around for our “stuff” to come. This, of course, can be a challenge when your boss or client is waiting for a report and a deal is in limbo until your partners have a look at it.

In my career I have written, rewritten, rearranged, or edited more than 5,000 texts ranging from 70 characters to several hundred thousand words. Even when I don’t have my stuff, I have my instincts, which have been sharpened and strengthened precisely because I have so much experience writing and rewriting. I know what tools to use, what resources to summon, and more or less know an off ramp out of any bad sentence.

Editing is not a matter of replacing a wrong word with a better word. Instead it is knowing how to look at a piece of writing and figure out quickly both what’s wrong and how to fix it. Let’s take a look at the following text.

During any travel, even the most well-planned one, there is a risk of facing unexpected circumstances. This is especially true when we speak about traveling in Russia. Let say, your food reserves are over, and there is an unapproachable mountain ridge, an erupting volcano or a minus 50 degrees Celcius temperature between you and the nearest supermarket. Then, to stay alive, you will have to cook from what you will find at hand. Our culinary recipes will help you not to starve in different regions of Russia.

This was the lead-in paragraph for a travel article. The writer’s instincts were to front-load all of this information when instead it would fit more organically in the text. In addition, there were specific references that could be confusing for the intended audience if not placed in context. I decided to strip the information down to its basics to lure the reader in.

Even on the best-planned trips, risks remain. This is especially true when traveling in Russia. Our culinary guide to Russia’s various regions will help you survive and even thrive when exploring some of the country’s more gastronomically challenging provinces.

I turned this busy opening into simple and attractive prose.

One good rule of thumb for any type of writing that serves the purpose of attracting readers is simplify, simplify, simplify. Oftentimes even the best writers do not heed this advice.

My experience has shown that writers often get far too attached to their material to the extent that it can cloud their judgment: they can forget what the purpose of the article is: to attract, to convey, to excite. I am frequently surprised by how statistics, numbers, and other figures are used to lure in a reader in what should be a thought-provoking and subjective piece of writing. Let the prose do the walking.

What distracts writers and inexperienced editors? Their blinders are up and they don’t know what they are looking for. Most times their supervisors tell them, “edit this,” without giving clear instructions. The rookie will rush to the mound full of confidence that their stuff will overpower the batter. But then they realize that the foe is an intractable one and they don’t have a strategy to get them out.

I have dealt with texts that would frankly blow your mind: they don’t make sense and I’ve got just a couple of hours to perform surgery. Sometimes I know a text is in bad shape in advance; sometimes I figure this out only when I open the file. As difficult as a text may be—I am never afraid. I always have a particular style and style guide in mind when I sit down with a text; I know what questions to ask before I begin, because I don’t want to get lost and I realize that the bases are loaded and the clock is ticking. I can quickly figure out when a Band-Aid won’t be enough.

Let’s go back to the pitcher. A pitcher that doesn’t know what to do when they can’t summon their stuff on a particular day often gets jammed up when they face pressure. This leads them to put too many hitters on base, which allows the other team to score runs and win the ballgame.

A good manager will know when to pull a younger pitcher, who may shine from time to time, in favor of a veteran. What the veteran has, that the younger pitcher may lack, is strategy. It’s not just pure talent that enables the veteran to put the ball over the plate—it’s also experience. The veteran knows what the batter is thinking and tries to shake things up to their advantage. They save the team’s progress and bring them closer to the finish line.

An experienced editor will take a text that is struggling and make it shine. And it’s not so much talent as knowing how to act decisively when a technique is not working. We know shortcuts out of any wordy paragraph, run-on sentence, or painful phrasing. Many companies today hire staff members that they hope to shift around through various assignments. However, it’s much more cost-effective to bring in a specialist for the text-based assignments that need polishing. It’s more time effective and you can put employees on tasks that better suit their interests and strengths in the company.