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Editing Tips from the Pros
by Wendy R. Leibowitz

Lawyers are some of the best conversationalists and sometimes the worst writers. It's a paradox that constantly surprises me. I'll have a great discussion about a new issue in the law with someone who obviously knows every wrinkle and can explain the complexities clearly and succinctly. "Could you write that up?" I ask. And nine times out of ten, a piece arrives that begins, "Section A of the new law provides…subsection b lists exceptions that provide.…" I rarely make it to Section B.

I certainly am guilty of the same flaws when I write: I want to be thorough, so my piece becomes wordy. I don't want to talk down to people, so I don't fill in the background that I assume they know. And I always write the article just on deadline, leaving me insufficient time to edit it for content. (After being burned a few times, I always spell check).

Long-suffering editors must deal with the articles that result. Here are a few tips that I think make sense. Please file them "Do what I say, not what I do." They come from experienced editors at Hanley Wood, LLC -- Jean Dimeo, Alison Rice and Lisa Clift -- who gave me permission to circulate them. Someday I might be able to adhere to them myself.

Editing Your Own Work

Editing your own work can be difficult, because it requires you to step back and make an objective evaluation of content that you've probably toiled over for a long time. You are close to the subject matter and it makes perfect sense to you, but can you ascertain whether others will understand your train of thought? Can you streamline your articles to coherently say more with fewer words? Are you cherry picking the important material and throwing away the rotten fruit?

Some tips:

  • Put it down! There is no way to objectively edit your own story immediately after you write it. Ideally, you should aim to finish a story one to two days before your deadline. Give it a rest at least over one night and then start the editing process with a fresh eye.
  • Once is not enough. You need to edit your work at least two to three times. Have a system of checks. For example, the first edit is a content edit, the second edit is a grammar/sentence structure edit, and the final edit is a fact-checking/fine-tuning/proofreading edit. Remember, if you don't do these steps, somebody else is going to have to do them for you, or the copy may be returned to you for revisions.
  • Get to the point. Make sure you establish the main objective of your story, and as you begin to edit each section reread your lead and make sure that you are not wandering off into a tangent (or many tangents) that is not relevant to your objective.
  • Think like your reader. Try to imagine that you have absolutely no information about the subject of the article when you self edit. It's easy to fill in the gaps when your head is full of all the backup information, but remember that your readers don't have access to your brain! Make sure the flow of thought is cohesive and there are no holes when you are explaining something.
  • Just the best facts, please. Don't feel that you have to include every scrap of information from your interviews in a story. You need to hone it down and discard all the information that is not germane to the specific angle of the story you are writing-even if it is good stuff. If you don't, you could end up using quotes out of context or watering down the focus of your story with extraneous information or forcing disjointed information together, which creates cumbersome transitions.
  • Don't repeat yourself. Don't repeat yourself. Check to make sure you didn't use quotes to repeat points you just made in a story. Quotes should support and enhance, not duplicate.
  • Quote judiciously. Check to make sure you are using quotes to enhance, not to fill space. Most people you interview are not public orators and they are not going to verbally deliver lengthy quotes that make sense. Also, pay special attention to whether or not your quotes are cohesive when you edit your stories.
  • Listen to others' views. Be willing to incorporate constructive suggestions from the editor/copy editor/managing editor and rewrite parts of a story if needed. Your own editing process does not stop when you file the story. Discuss weak points and review your story with a critical eye one more time when the editor is done with it.
  • Show, don't tell. When writing stories about an on-the-scene event, analyze the copy to make sure you offer useful information. For example, let 's say you go to a conference and there is a great session on improving your profits. Don't tell the reader the event had a great session on improving profits, tell them the useful advice that was conveyed by the speakers.
  • Remember your audience. When you edit your own work, remember how many readers your magazine serves every month and that they are all "industry experts." This will help to motivate you to do the best possible job. Let's face it: We all get stories we don't want to write or we feel like we are rushed to complete. If you remind yourself that 36,000 people are going to read XYZ story, and if it's terrible I'm going to look like I don't know what I'm doing, it will help give you the extra drive to do a good job.
  • Follow up. When you edit your work don't hesitate to call or e-mail your sources to ask questions. They want the facts in your story to be accurate and usually are very responsive. It shows that you are careful and concerned about doing a good job.
  • Does it sound right? Have a network of trusted industry "friends" that you can call on to run things by as you are editing your stories. If you're unsure if you've captured an industry trend correctly, pick up the phone and read it to someone you know and ask his or her opinion.

Editing Outside Freelancers

Assigning stories to outside sources and then following up with freelancer editing can be even more difficult than self editing because you don't have the benefit of access to the sea of information that was funneled down into the final editorial product. And, if the copy has holes or doesn't make sense, it can be difficult to determine what the writer is trying to convey and how to rework it. It can be a very frustrating exercise, especially if you don't allow ample time to send a manuscript back to the author for clarification and/or rewrites.

Some tips:

  • Evaluate the content of the story before you even think about copy editing. There's no sense in toiling over sentence structure and grammar if rewriting is going to enter the picture.
  • Do your homework up front. Don't verbally assign stories and expect to get what you requested. You need to send a detailed written outline. How detailed? It depends on the length of the story. This is a planning function but it is critical to establishing a justification for a rewrite at the editing stage. If you have a defined outline and the story comes in completely different, you have good grounds to back and ask the author for a rewrite.
  • Start the editing process before the story is even filed. Check in with your freelancer on the story's progress and the angles that are developing. First, it will ensure that your freelancer is working on the story angle you assigned. Second, it can help to refocus a story if some of the angles you suggested turn out to be dead ends. This will save you countless headaches when the copy hits your desk.
  • Make sure you set your copy deadlines early so you have time to rewrite if needed. A good rule of thumb is to set freelance deadlines at least two weeks before internal staff deadlines. Freelancers will be much more willing to work with you on filling in gaps with more interviews and/or reworking sections of the story if they have more than a day or two to do it. For example, if a story comes in and needs more sources, you can't expect a freelancer to do three more interviews and incorporate them in a story in one to two days. They usually need at least a week. Be fair to them, and they will be fair to you.
  • Double check facts, figures, and name spellings.
  • Go back to your original outline for the assigned story and make sure the story hits the mark.


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