Writing crisper copy – highlighting, lowlighting and Blaise Pascal

What colour is your favourite highlighter pen? Green? Yellow? Orange? Pink?

Mine’s black. I’ll tell you why…

But first: some words from Blaise Pascal. In 1656, Pascal – French philospher, inventor, physicist and all-round busy man – wrote in his sixteenth Provincial Letter:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

A couple of hundred years later, Mark Twain is thought to have written something similar and in English:

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. 

There’s doubt as to whether Twain did write this or not.

In any case, we probably all recognise the issue: writing briefly and to the point is hard work. We waffle, repeat ourselves, use lengthy phrases rather than single words, pad things out with barely relevant facts, go off at tangents… .

Editing copy can be dull and tedious. The longer the draft and the lower the target word-count, the more the temptation to slash paragraphs with abandon – especially if the deadline for submission is looming.

So, how can we make the job a little easier? I go into this in detail in my copy-writing workshops, but here’s the gist.

This is where my highlighter pens come to the fore. I use four colours: green, orange, pink and black. On a first read-through I use the first three to prioritise what text to keep.

  • Green – must keep
  • Orange – probably keep
  • Pink – maybe keep

I’m not too prescriptive about what exactly gets which colour – I go with how I feel the text meets its aim. My only rule is that not all the text must be highlighted.

The black pen is for the second read-through. This is for ‘lowlighting’. I use it ruthlessly on any text that wasn’t highlighted in green, orange or pink. But I don’t limit myself to that. The previously highlighted text is not immune. In particular, I usually find a lot of the pink text can be ‘lowlighted’. The key thing is using a black pen: it covers any other colour and, above all, obscures the text so I can’t be distracted by what it’s saying.

Having cut all the lowlighted text, the highlights allow me to prioritise the nitty-gritty of editing – improving structure and phrasing. Before I started using this technique I would waste time trying to amend text that nowadays I immediately throw away.

Of course, if you’re doing this then it can be done on screen using the text highlighting tools of the word-processing software of your choice.

NB — The highlighting and lowlighting technique also works very well when reading reports. In particular, wielding the black pen helps remove from view the padding and flannel that so many reports seem to have.

A very brief example …

The following is a paragraph from the 2013-14 annual report from the Office of Rail Regulation:

Prompt payment

We are committed to the prompt payment of our suppliers and seek to pay all valid invoices as soon as possible. During 2013-14 99.1% of invoices were paid within 30 days (98.3% in 2012-13) and 59.0% paid within 10 days (39.3% in 2012-13). We have set more stretching targets for prompt payment in 2014-15, aiming to pay 100% within 30 days and 80% within 10 days.

Microsoft’s Word tells me this is 66 words excluding the title.

Here’s the first pass highlighting:


This is an annual report; we must include this year’s performance, so that’s in green.

There’s a good case for keeping last year’s figures for comparison and next year’s targets, so they’re in orange.

The second half of the first sentence isn’t highlighted at all because paying as soon as possible essentially repeats the commitment to prompt payment.

What’s in pink is ‘nice’ but not essential. Indeed, if we’re properly ruthless we wouldn’t have highlighted the first part of the first sentence.

A good test of any text like this is how does it sound in the negative: “We are not committed to the prompt payment of our suppliers and don’t seek to pay all valid invoices as soon as possible.” It sounds daft. Yes, the commitment is nice but in what way does saying it add value. If there must be extra text wouldn’t something about the actions being taken be better? Indeed, implicitly there is because there are targets for next year.

So, let’s wield the black pen:


This leaves us with:

Prompt payment

During 2013-14 99.1% of invoices were paid within 30 days (98.3% in 2012-13) and 59.0% paid within 10 days (39.3% in 2012-13). We have set more stretching targets in 2014-15, aiming to pay 100% within 30 days and 80% within 10 days.

Word says this is now 42 words not including the title. That’s around two-thirds of the original 66 words – without any loss of substance. Imagine if we could achieve something similar across the whole report.

Going a bit further … 

Using other tools, we can make this easier to understand, and have more impact.

I would suggest:

Meeting our commitment to prompt payment of invoices

In 2013-14, we paid just under three-fifths of invoices (59%) within 10 days, and nearly all (99.1%) within 30 days. (Last year’s figures were 39.3% and 98.3% respectively.) For 2014-15 we aim to pay the great majority (80%) of valid invoices within 10 days and all within 30 days.

Yes, that’s now 49 words rather than 42, but still way below the original 66. And the text is ‘active’; it’s clearly ‘owned’ by the organisation. I’d also say it’s easier to understand as the performances and targets are set out in words, supported by the percentage equivalents in brackets. Finally, the heading now clearly sets out the organisation’s corporate objective.

So, the highlighting/lowlighting technique helps us get rid of redundant text, making it easier to focus on communicating best what is really important.

After all that to paraphrase Pascal … I would have written a shorter posting, but I haven’t the time. I have piano scales to practise!

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