How to edit for voice and tone

Presented live on Tuesday, Nov 14, 2017

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The best copywriting doesn’t happen in the writing stage – it’s during editing. In this tutorial, you’ll see how to use the second of the seven primary sweeps – the Voice and Tone Sweep – to edit the awesome into your copy. Builds on this training on editing for clarity.

Joanna is writing in Airstory, the beautiful drag-and-drop document platform. 

Joanna: Okay. Hello everybody, good morning. It’s good morning here in mountain time. Anyway, good morning. Joanna here from Copy Hackers and Airstory. Thank you for joining me for today’s Tutorial Tuesday, where we are continuing on with the seven sweeps. We will be joined shortly by Sarah, I think her Mac is updating. Of course it has to update at exactly the wrong time. But, hopefully she will be here to help out with any questions that we’ve got as we go, otherwise I’ll just take them. But, quick housekeeping then. Yes, we are recording this session as always, we will post it over on under “Free Tutorials”, up in the top header if you go there. So, check that out as well for today’s recording, as well as other recordings and the transcripts that go with them.

Joanna: Okay, more housekeeping. If you have a question that you’d like answered in this session, and you do not want me to not answer it, then put it under Q and A. So that’s just a little Q and A area, you should see it. If you don’t see it, chat over if you don’t see it. Chat is the other option. That’s where you should put things that you want me to … or that you just wanna say in the moment. Like, people will say “Hi, I’m from Pasadena”, or whatever. Which is cool if you’re from Pasadena. Hey! Wherever you’re from.

Joanna: Okay, so yeah, go ahead, do chat. Or those “in the moment” kind of comments. And then Q and A for everything else, like the things you really want answered. If there are technical issues like I start talking like a robot, or I freeze up, that’s just the Internet. So, give it a second to refresh and hopefully I’ll come right back online, right away.

Joanna: Okay, so I think that takes care of everything. Wow, everybody’s quiet under chat today. That’s weird. Oh, Robert, born in Pasadena but not there today, okay cool. That’s … Pasadena’s cool. I’ve been there once, it was good. Alright, cool. And other’s who are saying “hi” now, thank you for humoring me and saying “hello”. Ooh, Italy. Neat. Lots of places are cool, that’s awesome. Okay, thanks guys. Cool. Alright, so let’s dive in then. We are two minutes in.

Joanna: So, we are going to … Abdul just asked “What are the topics we’re going to cover?” Today, we are talking about the second of the seven sweeps. And the seven sweeps again are what you do when you’ve got your first draft of something of the piece that you’re working on. You’ve got it complete. Oh, Sarah’s here. Hi Sarah. When you’ve got that first draft complete, then you go through and you do the seven sweeps in the order. So, let me first share my screen, and we can talk through exactly that. So let me go over here to this. Let’s … no, let’s do that, just to be safe. Share a screen, so I’ll share everything. Doot, doot, doo, doot doot, doot doo. Cool, cool, cool. Awesome.

Joanna: Alright, good. Okay, so you can see now my Airstory interface, so hold on a second. The seven sweeps again, are the “Clarity” sweep, we did that last week where you’re always looking for clarity first and foremost. Then comes the “Voice and Tone” sweep. That is today. Then we have “So What?” and “Prove It”, which happen largely together. The “Specificity” sweep, the “Heightened Emotion” sweep, and then the “Zero Risk” sweep. We’re gonna actually power through and cover a lot of those next week, but today, this week is “Voice and Tone”. And “Voice and Tone” is something that you’re probably thinking about while you’re writing. You’re probably thinking about all of these things while you’re writing. But, when we’re doing the sweeps, we’re making sure that our efforts pay off well. That’s it, right?

Joanna: So, are we actually communicating how we want to? This is really all about the “how” at this point. Less about what you’re saying except for when we get into “So What? and “Prove It”. But again, we’ll talk with that next week. Okay, so we always aim for clarity, then we go through the order that we’re showing here. Last week we talked about clarity. Again, that recording is online. Now this week we’re gonna talk about “Voice and Tone”. First, this isn’t a full session on “Voice and Tone” ’cause yeee, that’s like a really big topic. But, it is also something that the more writer-ly people in the copyrighting world really love. Largely because it can help it feel like you’re doing a sort of creative exercise when you’re working on voice and tone. Feel like you’re writing fun fiction sometimes, right? Like, it gives you that creative outlet so a lot of people jump to voice and tone, and that’s the tricky part.

Joanna: Yes, it can be very fun, but almost all brands out there that have a recognizable, or that are known for their voice, like MailChimp as an example, their voice is actually really mild. You don’t actually hear that much of their voice. And they depend largely on … honestly, on the artwork that goes with the copy. While we may think that we’re really aiming for voice when we’re writing, so much of what we do is support in emails and on landing pages, so much of that is supported by art. When you compare it to like … I mean, in the world of Harry Potter, if you were writing Harry Potter, well done you, if you were writing it you don’t have images or pictures to work with, right? So, J.K. Rowling had to really bring that to life of course. When you’re writing without art to support it, you have to create things in peoples’ minds. You have to build that world.

Joanna: We have art supporting our copy. So, you don’t have to go that deep or that heavy handed with your voice or tone. Okay, that’s just a quick summary. Now, let’s talk actually about what voice and tone are, and then we’ll get in to how to do the sweep. So, there’s a lot showing here now on my screen, hopefully you’re seeing everything. I’m just gonna close my cart library for half a second here, and I’m gonna zoom in a bit. Cool. I’m gonna mute Sarah ’cause I think we just heard her. Okay, so very easy quick thinking about voice and tone. Don’t worry too much about separating them. I conflate tone and mood a lot, and like traditionalists would not like me to do that. Whatever, it’s not the point. I’m not hired because I know the difference between voice, tone, and mood. That’s not the point. It’s “Do you know how to bring this stuff to life in your copy?” So, don’t worry about like “Oh, what is this? Is this voice or is this tone?” We’ll talk about them separately but don’t overthink it.

Joanna: The easiest way, if you’re like “What is the difference between voice and tone?” I like to think about … I know the sound of my mom’s, or in my case I know the sound of my dad’s voice. I know what he sounds like, I know how he talks, or spoke. And I knew when he had tone. I knew when there was tone happening, and I’m sure he would’ve said the same about me, right? He would’ve known the sound of my voice and he would know when I was bringing tone. You can do that for any, for like for your children. They might be subbing, instead of saying “Mom”. You know what your son’s voice is, you know how he talks, you know the things that he would think are funny, you know little jokes that he would make, and then you know when he’s got tone. Like, is he throwing some shade? Do you like, build with tone, right?

Joanna: So, that’s really the difference here, is voice is always happening. Voice is always going to be present across your brand collateral. Tone is more deliverable specific. So it’s like the exact conversation you’re having in a moment, it’s not the body of conversations you’ve had. Tone is deliverable specific. It is if you’re writing an email, tone is specific to that email. Voice happens across all your emails, all your landing pages, all your webpages, everything. Voice is always happening, okay? Tone is deliverable specific. It’s gonna communicate your deeper feelings on the subject. That’s really where tone lives, is in the speaker, and then it’s communicated to the person who’s reading it. And that’s where we have to be a little bit careful because we’re kind of transferring our feelings to our prospect or to our reader, when we’re dealing with tone.

Joanna: You wanna be careful about your tone and that’s why we see a lot of lighthearted tones. And we’ll get into some types of tone, but just be conscious that if you were to be aggressive with a tone let’s say, or to be negative with your tone as like a basic way of looking at it. If you were negative with the thing that you were writing or you were feeling negative while you’re writing your copy, or while you’re going through and doing this sweep, if you’re feeling that way, that comes through and it transfers over to your prospects. That’s not often good for conversion rate optimizations, so anyway keep that in mind. Remember that voice is more likely to be strong, tone is more likely to be kind of neutral in most cases. Or at least positive. I’ll get in to this a bit more as we go, of course with examples.

Joanna: So then, let’s move on to the voice and tone pre work. Before you actually sit down to do this, this second of the seven sweeps, before you sit down to do that you want to do some pre work. But, you wanna understand what your voice is and what the tone is for the piece. So, this is really straightforward stuff. I’m not going to coach too much on this today, but I will recommend that you check out a couple different places. And you can just, you can Google it and just come across this. But, Content Marketing Institute has this really … let me just chat this over to everybody, one second-o. Okay, this is a really simple way to look at your brand voice. It’s to do this quick chart that they have here. It’s awesome. I was gonna do it in today’s session, but that would be really ambitious to do live, while talking about it and thinking through it. It doesn’t work very often. But it’s a good thing for you to reference and put together yourself, as well.

Joanna: What are the words that describe your brand? I’ll get in to that a little bit more. And then, how do they appear in your copy, and how don’t they appear in your copy? And if you’re at all familiar with editing, if you have a background in editing at all, you probably know about editorial style sheets. This is a lot like an editorial style sheet except it’s specific to your brand voice, okay? And if you don’t know what editorial style sheets, don’t worry about it. Just use this. Just try to fill out this simple table. Also, another one when you’re thinking about tone and mood, we’re gonna get in to well “What kinds of moods or tones can you create?” There’s a big, old list of tone and mood that you can create. And again, I’m conflating the two, like tone and mood I’m just calling tone. But you can go over there and check those out as well. So, I’ve chatted over a couple links for you to take a look at if you would like to.

Joanna: So, when we’re doing this voice and tone pre work, you want to just very quickly … Ideally you’ll have a strong sense for what your brand voice is if you’re a brand new company, or you haven’t thought about this. There’s a couple ways to go about thinking about how you want to sound. How does your brand sound to people? And this is a big part of establishing yourself, your company, as not just a sort of commodity provider but rather a brand. Like, something that people can stand behind and people can feel something about. Which is really, really important.

Joanna: For your voice, what two to three words describe how your brand sounds to people? And the few ways to kind of dig deeper into that, ’cause we might … A lot of people just jump to “Oh, it’s friendly, and it’s sassy” or something. Try to push yourself a little bit with those words. Or start with those high levels words that you have to describe your voice, and then dig deeper on them. Just do the exercise of really trying to unpack that. And that could mean … I rely on iStock photo a lot. Go over to iStock photo, enter the brand voice, like one of those keyword phrases that you thought up, like “friendly”. Put “friendly” in your search term. And then what comes up is a bunch of images that can make you feel things, that’ll dig deeper on “friendly”. And they’ll also recommend other words. So, if I search “friendly”, then they’ll come up with a bunch of other types of pictures that I might be looking for. And they’ll give you words like “joyful”, or “laughing”. Things like that, right? That can make you go “Okay, maybe it’s less about being friendly, and more about being joyful”. That can help you just kind of dig deep when you’re just staring at it, and not quite sure. Thanks Todd! I’m not quite sure where to go.

Joanna: So, you wanna find those words. Couple other ways, again to dig into voice is, if your brand had one day to live, one day, this is it, it’s about to leave the world. How would it sound? What would it be saying in that time? How would it express itself? Not just like, panic, because it’s about to leave the world. But like, what is it … It’s got one last shot to really say something. How does it say it? How does it sound? And this is a good one that I do when I used to offer certification, which took me an incredible amount of work to actually certify people, so I stopped offering it at least for now. But when I did offer certification in conversion copywriting, one of the exercises was to go through a paragraph off a landing page, and write it in four different characters. So, rewrite it as Eeyore was an example. How would Eeyore write this paragraph? How would Gandolf the Gray, I think it was, write this paragraph? And that can be a good exercise for you, like what fictional character is more likely to be the voice of your brand? Then that way you can kind of immerse yourself in the way that they talk. That can be a quick kind of shortcut in to your voice.

Joanna: Tone, on the other hand, is again in that moment for that deliverable. What is your attitude? And hopefully it’s not like … I mean, you can work on this as you go but really, what’s your attitude? Are you at the most basic? Is this a positive message? Is it a neutral message? Is it a negative message? I mean, negative happens. Sometimes it has to be a negative message. Sometimes bad things are going to happen, like apology emails, which we’ll never talk about in Tutorial Tuesdays. And if you’re … If you decided to shut down your app let’s say, which people do. That can be a kind of negative … You can feel a little negative about it. Your choice is to have the appropriate tone. So if you’re like “Well, it is negative, but I don’t wanna be negative. I wanna be positive about it because it’s actually a good thing”. Okay, then just make sure you choose what that tone is when you’re going through. And you wanna sweep for it to make sure that it is always positive, and not neutral or negative. Sometimes neutral is okay.

Joanna: What’s the mood you wanna create? That’s kind of part of this as well. What is the emotion you want your reader to feel? How am I supposed to, as your reader, how am I supposed to walk away feeling? That’s a key part of it, okay? So you do that work before you get started here. Who someone’s saying my screen is black. Is it black for other people? Are we seeing my screen? Good. No, others are saying it’s good. I don’t know why … Okay, everybody’s saying they can see it. So, thank you guys for jumping in there. Cool, cool, cool. Good, so let’s get in to the actual sweep itself.

Joanna: Here’s how it works. Really straightforward. So, you’ve already done the clarity sweep. You’ve gone in and you’ve edited for clarity. Okay, cool. Now you go on to voice and tone. This is where … This is, again I’m talking about the two together, but you wanna start by reading line by line, start to finish, and asking yourself “Is this appropriate to the voice?” Okay, then you read line by line finish to start and identify if there was too much voice in any line. And this is a really key one. The finish to start one is something that I learned versus a proofreader. When you wanna go through and proofread things and not get caught up in following the story, or the narrative or whatever that’s pulling you in, you have to pull yourself out of that. Going backward through your text can do that. Read the lines finish to start to say “Is there too much voice?” And then we want to, once we’ve got that all identified, then you want to read without stopping to see if that has the appropriate mood.

Joanna: This is where we’re switching from voice to tone to make sure it’s cool. And then go over it once more from start to finish, looking for voice. I rank voice higher than I do tone, but that is like with an asterisk, because sometimes you have to have a certain tone in order to get the message across just right. Voice can kind of take a step back against the tone that you’re trying to express. Which again that … And that happens in highly emotional situations like if there was … Nike once wrote something about, or did a big ad, about women in sports. The tone was very strong, and the voice … I wouldn’t even say that there was voice. But, you’ll know that there are certain moments when the emotion is gonna be so strong, that tone is going to rank higher than voice. By and large you’ll know when that happens, so if that’s not the case, if you’re like “Mm, emotions actually not that high”, voice should always be more important than tone.

Joanna: Okay, so let’s actually look at what this means when we’re going through. So, let’s go over. We had the control, which we looked at, which I’ve kept all of these clarity highlights on. Then I went in and did a clarity sweep. I like, updated. Like, did the editing to those highlighted areas except for this headline. Gosh, I don’t know what they’re trying to say. I know what they’re trying to say but they’ll never get there.

Joanna: Corbett asks “Is this an Airstory card Joe was referring to”? Nope, this is just a tutorial. That is not an Airstory template or card, this is just how I do the work inside Airstory. And the tabs are a big, big part of that. Okay, so this is a swept one. I’m not gonna worry about this headline at this point. It needs more work than we can handle in this sweep stage. Allow things that are too hard to get through to just sit there for a while. It may work later, or you may just have to go and do some more voice at customer research, or work with your team to come up with a better headline. Okay, I know we’re 20 minutes in so I want to quickly do this sweep.

Joanna: So, we’re gonna go through and again, we’re gonna go read line by line looking for brand voice characteristics. Let me open up the card library here. The voice that we’re looking for with Asana is friendly, calm, and smart. Those are the three things we’re looking for and I kinda decided like, it should sound like the coworker that you actually like running in to at the water cooler, okay? Just you know, this a friendly person. They’re calm, they’re smart, you like being around them. Okay, cool. The tone is going to be optimistic, let’s say. For lack of a better option, right? Okay Rachel, I’ll get to your question another time. The voice that we’re looking for is friendly, calm, and smart. So, we want to read through line by line and ask, is it friendly? Is it calm? Is it smart?

Joanna: “Asana has the easiest way for teams to track and complete tasks.” Friendly? Sure. Calm? Sure. Smart? Not not smart. Okay. “To get results” … Yep, all those things are true. And again, a sweep is a fast thing. It’s a sweep, right? Imagine your broom. This is me sweeping. Obviously I don’t sweep a lot, but it’s a fast movement, okay? So, “to get results”, quick gut reaction. Is it on voice? Yep, move on. “Track projects from start to finish.” Friendly, calm, smart, sure. “Your team’s responsibilities next steps are clear.” Okay. So, “You can set aggressive goals.” Hold on. What’s this aggressive word? Is that friendly? Is that calm? Is it smart? I would say no. So, I’m gonna highlight this. “And we’re gonna go back over it afterward and actually hit them.” This also feels aggressive. This hitting thing, it doesn’t feel friendly or calm, so I’m gonna highlight that as well and move on.

Joanna: “Asana is trusted by teams everywhere.” Friendly, calm, smart. “From companies with off the charts growth to local business and non-profits. Teams love Asana.” It doesn’t seem off-voice. Okay, “finish short and long term projects together.” Okay. “See how creating moving projects forward and Asana will help your team.” We’re not getting a lot of smart here, but that might happen during specificity. So, let’s like … I’m not gonna worry about it. “You’ll know who is doing what and when they’re doing it.” Okay “You’ll know who is doing what and we’re there doing it.” I still feel calm. I still feel like Asana’s friendly. It looks like Asana is smart, but we could work more on smart. We could push a little bit harder on smart. “Get started today.” Okay. “If you could make a list or send an email, you can use Asana.” Okay, this still bothers me and it bothered me on clarity. I’m gonna highlight it again. “Starting a team is really that simple.” Okay, yeah. All good.

Joanna: Now, this the part where you would go through and read backward to make sure voice is not too heavy. In this case, I’m not going to do that because voice is clearly, for me, not heavy in this. And also, we’ve got a time limit that we’re already over and I’ve read through this 7,000 times in preparation for this anyway. What we wanna do though is, because I didn’t do editing for clarity last time, I did that off screen, right now I’m gonna do it onscreen. So, “You can set aggressive goals”, we would just wanna replace that with “Set”, let’s say “lofty goals.” Lofty might sound a little friendlier, and actually, let’s say “reach them”. Okay, so now when we look at it, “Your team’s responsibilities and next steps are clear so you can set lofty goals.” Lofty, I might still push further on, “and actually reach them”, that feels friendly, calm, and smart.

Joanna: Pretty straightforward stuff. Then we go over to tone. Read without stopping, start to finish. Is there an appropriate mood in the end? And the mood we’re going for is optimistic. Did we feel optimistic by the end? We did just read through this. I would read through this again but again, I’ve already read it 7,000 times, so I know that in the end I feel optimistic that Asana will do what it says it will do. Do I feel convinced of that? That is another point entirely and that’s not the job of the voice and tone sweep, is to say “Do I feel convinced of that?” Do I feel optimistic? Has the language, is the copy expressing something in such a way that I walk away feeling like “Hm, they might actually solve my problem”. Yes, I don’t think that we need to push further on that. And, as we go through the next sweeps, we’ll still go back and do this sweep. And that’s the important part to note here as well. Let me go back to this.

Joanna: Once we’ve done that, once we’ve gone through this sweep and again it’s a fast sweep, once we’ve done that then we go back up the ladder. This is always the way it goes. We will go back up and say “Okay now, is it still clear though?” So if we go back and read through it again, we’d read through it and makes sure that it is still clear. Then next week, when we work on the next of the seven sweeps, we’re probably gonna conflate a bunch of them into one, just to kind of fly through it. You can get a better sense for how quickly this should move. Once we do that, we’re still gonna go and go back up the ladder every time. So, we move down through the sweeps and then back up each time. Going down and up. It might sound like it’s gonna take a long time, but it won’t the more you do it. And it pays off because in the end you’ve actually got your butt covered for all of the things that people worry about when they’re doing copy reviews.

Joanna: So, we’re at the end of our time. That is the core of what I wanted to share with you today. We have two notes in Q and A, and also Rachel said “I’d love to know what you don’t like about the headline. I’ve always liked it.” So we look at the Asana headline. “Move work forward.” I don’t know what there is to like about it, Rachel. I don’t know. What’s it trying to say? It’s so busy trying to be …. What, did they just decide they were gonna have like this giant font and they’re like “Well, that only leaves room for three words.” Like, this is your headline. This is your headline. This is where people are pulled in, or where they’re like “Uhhh”, and then they just read and look for something else. Like, if you want them to read your copy, you better give them something worth reading. And some weird, clever thing that I have to figure out … Like, I am a copywriter who’s been doing this for 15 years and I look at this, and if anybody in the world reading this copy is going to be able to make sense of the point, it should be a veteran copywriter. I should know. But that’s not my job. My job is not to figure out what you mean by “Move work forward.” And that’s not your reader’s job either.

Joanna: “Move work forward” requires that I sit here as a reader, as a prospect, where I’ve got tabs. I don’t have a tabs I could go to. I’ve got other things I could be doing and my job is to sit here and figure out what “Move work forward” means? Mm-mm (negative). That’s clever. That’s not clear, that is not clear. When we’re doing our sweeps, you’ll note that clever is not one of the sweeps. It is trying too hard to be too smart. Not smirks. Too smart. So, that’s what I don’t like about it. That’s the beginning of what I don’t like about it. But I get my back up as soon as I see a three word headline. Because I have been through enough review sessions to know that there were people sitting there saying “Oh, nobody reads online so we have to make that shorter.” Which makes me crazy because I’m in conversion rate optimization, I’m not in the business of being clever for the sake of being clever.

Joanna: I get bitchy about this stuff, sorry. Okay, good. Thanks Rachel. Cool. Awesome. Okay, so Abdul says “Can you please give me the link of this?” I don’t know what you’re referring to, Abdul. So, if you can … I put some links in there. Those are the only links that I think you need to see, unless you want to see the Asana page which I will chat over, right here and now. Yeesh. It was a landing page for an ad, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that it’s pretty nuts. Okay, Kate says “Make a list or send an email” bothers based on voice. Which voice adage did do that not fit? Okay, here. So, when we go to swept, “If you can make a list or send an email, you can use Asana.” Now, is it friendly? Yes. Is it calm? Yes. Is it smart? It just rubs me the wrong way. It makes me feel like I don’t know if we’re on the same playing field for smart. It feels like there’s something here that I’m supposed to know that I don’t know.

Joanna: Like, what does making a list and sending an email have to do with it? It’s begging me to connect those dots, but it’s also coming out with an assumption that I should get what that means. That doesn’t sit right with me for smart. It’s not unfriendly, and it’s calm enough, but it’s not working for me for smart. And that doesn’t mean that I am absolutely … I mean, maybe it’s perfect. Maybe it’s exactly right. But for me, it’s not sitting right. And that’s part of the whole sweep thing, right? You are still going through this. This isn’t about using data. This isn’t about like “Okay, are we gonna take in survey responses and redo our mastery hierarchy?” This isn’t about a lot of the stuff that we do in conversion copywriting, which is very data driven. This, the sweeps, are you going through as a copywriter and copywriting. You’re being a copywriter in this moment which means that there’s a lot of art to it. The sweeps try to break it down into a framework, but at the end of the day it’s still “Joanna the copywriter” looking at that and going like “Hm, something feels wrong about it.” So, I highlight it. I haven’t changed it. I highlight it and I go back.

Joanna: When I did the clarity sweep I also highlighted that. Then when I went through and actually edited for clarity, I removed it because it still seemed clear. After the voice and tone sweep, when I edit this, I might still leave that as it is. But, I have to identify the things that aren’t quite working for that sweep, okay? Cool. Thanks, Kate. Cool.

Joanna: And then, Alexander says “Do you do this for every newsletter?” You should do it for everything. And this gets to be really fast, right? Like, this is a really quick exercise the more you do it. You don’t go through necessarily and say “Hm, is that line friendly, calm, and smart?” You don’t. You’re reading for things that jar you, for like “Oh wait! Hm, that didn’t seem friendly at all.” Like we did when the word “aggressive” popped up, and then followed by the word “hit”. That’s not very friendly. A friendly person might not say words like “aggressive” and “hit”. So, what do we do? We highlight it and go through. But, this happens swiftly, right? Point is, it happens during editing, not during this early draft stage where you’re just trying to get these great ideas on the page, in the right order. Okay?

Joanna: That is everything for the questions. Okay guys, cool. So, next week we’re going to fly through a good number of the remaining sweeps, because the following week we have some cool stuff ready to go for people who are trying to do more as freelance copywriters. Next Tuesday we may just kinda fly through the remaining sweeps, but I’ll see how it goes. I’ve been working through how we’re gonna do it. We’ll see. For now, this has been recorded so we’ll pop it online and if you have any questions, feel free to Tweet them over to us and hopefully we will see you guys again next week in the next Tutorial Tuesday. Okay, cool. Thanks everybody. Thanks for great chats too. Okay, ‘bye.

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