Look in the mirror to find your best editor

Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch


In an era of constant cutbacks, it can be difficult for newspaper reporters to get good editing.

Many experienced editors have fled or been forced out of a constricting industry. Some who remain are distracted by expanded job duties. Younger editors may not possess the experience and resulting confidence to aggressively edit or rework copy.

Meanwhile, copy editors — long the last line of defense against poor writing — are diminishing in number and may serve as page designers with numerous other duties. Opportunities for training have also been slashed or eliminated.

Yet, all is not lost. Whether or not one works with a top-notch editor, the truly devoted writer can use their skills, work ethic and commitment to quality to aggressively self-edit their copy and improve their writing. Becoming a great writer is a lifelong journey and invariably begins from within.

Here are some ways to eliminate errors, reduce wordiness and sharpen your copy on your own.

1. A common catchphrase from my coaching sessions applies here: “Your first draft is never your final draft.” Intense deadline or crisis writing aside, every writer should review their own work more than once (possibly several times) before turning it over to an editor. Printing off a hard copy and marking it up is a worthy technique. Reading the piece aloud and listening for clunky construction or confusing content works wonders. Underlining or highlighting each name, number and fact makes it easy to double-check for accuracy.

2. Examine your own copy for indicators — or what I refer to as “triggers” — that reveal the need for a rewrite or rework. You know more editing is needed if you see any of the following: heavy use of punctuation, overly long sentences, lack of parallelism among subjects and verbs, subject-verb disagreement, lengthy separation between a subject and corresponding verb, confusing use of attribution, repetition of sentence structure or word usage, long introductory clauses, quirkiness or AP style errors.

3. Sincerely ask for input or advice, listen to feedback and take it to heart. Every writer has tendencies — some positive, some negative. Reread your material after the edit and look for elements repeatedly changed or cut. Ask your editor what patterns of weakness he or she notices in your copy and heed the advice. Learn from errors and never make the same mistake twice. If you work for a complacent or burned out editor who reads your story quickly and says, “OK, thanks a lot, have a good night,” do not hesitate to push back and force them to spend more time and give more focus to improving your copy. Be a bit of a pest if you have to. Reading a story and editing a story are not the same.

4. Challenge yourself to expand your range and writing techniques. Try to be funny when appropriate. Seek out subjects for an in-depth, definitive profile (increasingly a lost art in modern journalism.) Suggest a first-person piece once in a while. Bend all the rules once you master them, such as starting with a quote, trying a one- or two-word lead, moving back and forth in time, setting a scene or beginning with the end of the story. However, never hesitate to pull the plug on a new method or technique if it simply does not work.

5. Learn some basic concepts of effective writing and implement them. These include sticking to the subject-verb-object sentence structure, avoiding jargon and high-brow or pompous words that are unfamiliar to most readers, rejecting passive voice, steering clear of adjectives and adverbs that weaken and dilute meaning, and always searching for clear, unique subjects and specific, active verbs.

6. Respect your readers’ intelligence and time. Most of us have heard the old saying, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I ran out of time.” That’s true in journalism, too. Cutting excess words, reducing redundancy, trimming back quotes and taglines are ways to speed up copy. Write in a conversational tone, but never get too cute or clever with copy to show off or appear boastful. Tell readers what is rather than what isn’t and write in the affirmative rather than negative voice. Just stick to the facts in most cases.

7. Be a student of the craft. Read major newspaper and magazines to see how the experienced professionals write. Emulate what you like from other publications or in the work of colleagues and be critical of your own work in comparison. Go online and read coaching articles like this one. Consistently ask to attend training conferences and eventually even the most frugal editor or publisher will oblige. Visit websites that feature writing and reporting tips and techniques (Poynter.org is a fine example.) Discuss writing with your colleagues and challenge one another to improve.

Writing effectively almost never happens by luck. Increasingly, it is up to writers to put in the time and effort on their own to improve their ability to communicate and write with clarity, concision and flair. In the end, readers will benefit and so will you.

 

Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, online at sdnewswatch.org. Write to him at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.