How to fix rambling, repetitive prose

It’s an editor’s nightmare. The writer produces content . . . reams of it. There are many ideas, but lots of repetition. And there’s no logic connecting it all. How can you turn this rambling wreck into a usable nonfiction narrative?

The key is recognize that the problem here is structural, not textual. Editing the words won’t help (at least not at first). You need to reassemble the content puzzle first.

I’m in the midst of a project like this right now. The author is brilliant and the text is voluminous and full of nuggets of wisdom, but it doesn’t tell a story. It seems impossible to fix.

The concept map

The first step to fixing the structural problem is to make an inventory of the concepts. For my project, the inventory looked like the list below. (Due to confidentiality, I can’t tell you what the idea shown as x is, but for the purposes of this exercise it doesn’t matter). Each heading listed here covers between 100 and 600 words, a good chunk of content. They don’t match up neatly to the author’s sections, because the author’s thoughts aren’t neatly organized, they’re all over the place.

Opening case study (problem statement)

The battle for customers

x is the secret weapon

Experts think it’s easy. It isn’t.

What x includes.

How x helps

The key to building x

The value of x

False starts toward x

x solves the problem of synchronizing business processes

x varies by industry

Why x is important

Opening case study (successful conclusions with x)

Metaphor about x

How x paid off in the case study

Parallels between x and the way people work

What x tells you about your business

IT can’t just build x

People think they do without a full x. They can’t.

The top-down approach to creating x (9 steps)

How to apply x to solve problems

Validating x to prove it works

The bottom-up approach to creating x (5 steps)

Yup, there’s a fair amount of repetition (and if you were able to read the text, you’d see there’s even more). On the other hand, there are an awful lot of good ideas here. It’s just hard to follow — you keep asking yourself “Why am I reading this part?”

Building a narrative

Editing the text to remove these redundancies won’t work. It never works to apply a detailed word-level edit to a manuscript that has a broader problem — it’s like sanding and finishing a cabinet that’s not nailed together properly.

Instead, figure out a narrative that makes sense. There’s no universal narrative — nonfiction stories are diverse — but for any given collection of content, there’s a narrative that makes sense. In this case, I noticed that the story could go like this:

  1. Full case study (problem and solution)
  2. The benefits of x
  3. What exactly is x?
  4. Some approaches that don’t work
  5. A practical approach to building x

Notice a few things here. First off, I love to start chapters and articles with case studies that draw people in. But a case study has to be a full story, with a problem and a solution. “These folks had a problem” isn’t a useful case study. “These folks had a problem, they tried things, they figured out a solution based on a new idea, and here is that new idea”: that’s a useful case study. You don’t have to put everything about the case study company in one place, but you do have to at least resolve their problem to keep the reader reading.

Having resolved the problem, the reader naturally asks “Well, how can I get that kind of result?” And now you have permission to explain.

That’s a clear lead-in to a detailed explanation of the solution. But again, you need a narrative approach: First show why the solution works, then describe it in detail, then tell us how to (or not to) create it in detail.

Grouping sections in this way helps you with the redundancy. For example, under “The benefits of x,” these concepts appear:

Why x is important.

The battle for customers

Experts think it’s easy. It isn’t.

x is the secret weapon

How x helps

The value of x

x solves the problem of synchronizing business processes

What x tells you about your business

People think they do without a full x. They can’t.

There’s plenty of duplication in these sections, but once you put them next to each other, you can identify that repetition. Now you can get into more detailed word edits and combine repeated concepts. The result is shorter and flows better — and it also sets up the next section nicely.

Editors solve puzzles

A good editor can identify a problem like this. A better editor can solve the problem

Solving that problem is like reassembling a puzzle — you hope you have all the pieces and can see how they fit into something that makes an identifiable picture.

Telling business stories like this has become second-nature to me; so much that it surprises me that it’s not obvious to everyone. But it’s not. I haven’t got the knowledge the author has, and he doesn’t have the storytelling experience that I have. Put those talents together, and we can turn his knowledge into a compelling story.

Editors, when you’re faced with rambling, redundant content in a big piece of writing, don’t despair (much). Just assemble the puzzle and you’ll make the author seem as smart as they actually are.

And writers, you can do this yourself if you put your mind to it and save your editor some heartache. It’s the difference between the ability to know what’s true and the ability to persuade others of that truth. That’s a talent worth developing.

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  1. Hi Josh,
    I am struggling with the bones of a manuscript, (good oidea, lots of value, way too many words) and knew the problem was structural, but did not know how to address it.
    Your outline has helped

    1. Once I’ve addressed the structural issues, there are usually gaps that I send back to the author for filling in with more targeted material and to address and correct the connective tissue in the new structure.

      I may do a surface line edit after that but the granular editing, is that not a whole other level of edit in your mind? The heavy copy edit at this point for me would be a new contract or even a new person, given I’ve been staring at the same words and might miss something.

      Do you do all of that too?

      1. I tend to do both. It will often take a second pass/revision, but by then I have enough objectivity left (that is, I forget stuff) that I can give it a useful read.

        I can’t do a copy edit for correctness — I leave that a trained copy editor.