Editing is a matter of the heart

Learning to be your own editor is like learning to be your own therapist. It’s more empathy than technical skill.

Good editors aren’t necessarily experts on grammar or style, they have a working knowledge of it and know how to spot glaring mistakes in your writing. The best ones are empathetic to the needs of the three most important people to a story: the writer, the reader and the publication. They keep the needs of all three in mind when rendering judgement on the copy and make sure each is satisfied to the best of their abilities.

Editors also understand that the  purpose of writing is to communicate and the purpose of editing is to make sure the story is understood. When looking at copy, that means stepping outside of yourself and thinking about how it affects all others involved.

Managing so many different perspectives is difficult because each is in a solitary space when looking at the text. The writer isn’t thinking about the reader when sitting in front of the keyboard nor is the reader thinking about the writer when they are reading. The publication’s primary concern is how this one story fits in with all the others, which is a higher perspective than the other two.

The editor cleans up the connecting link between all three so that everybody is satisfied.  They hold the reader in mind when they remove a phrase that doesn’t make sense, but make sure to keep the writer’s original intent when rewriting certain sections. Sometimes neither the reader nor the writer dictate these changes, but the needs of a publication drive the decisions.

The biggest lesson you have to learn when editing your own work is that you can’t be selfish. The decision to make changes should never be your own. It should be done with the reader in mind.

Doing this is a simple matter of asking the right questions while you are editing. The first question is “who” as in who will be reading this story. This will put you in the proper frame of mind because it takes the focus off yourself. The second part is “how” or how will this impact whomever is reading this. The last question involves the author: “Is this what I really wanted to say?” If the answer is yes then move on. If it’s no well then it’s time to make a change.

The matter of satisfying the needs of your publication is more big idea stuff. It’s a question of selecting your topic and whether it fits in with where you are writing. This in turn will dictate the “who” of your story.

Asking these questions does not make the process any easier, but the rewards for being considerate to others will show itself in a thoughtful well written piece of writing

When it’s OK to drown puppies

Back in the days before the internet there were space considerations. Word counts were limited by column inches and writers needed more discretion when it came to what they included in their stories.

With the abundance of blogs and online magazines to get published there’s a lot more freedom to pile on the words. While the space may be available, there is something to the idea of restraint.

When I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz the advisor for the school newspaper Conn Hallinan always had a phrase when it came to editing stories. He’d always tell us “sometimes you just have to drown a few puppies.” No, he’s not saying kill a few animals in our quest for good writing, but to save the audience from an infatuation with our own words.

Having all those words to burn doesn’t mean its a licence to go crazy. In fact, given the short attention span of readers these days, it behooves any published writer to be even more discerning with their words.

Print journalists are used to cutting their stories, it’s just the nature of working with limited space, but being economical  is a practical skill for all writers regardless of platform.

There’s a reason cutting stories is akin to slaughtering cute animals. Writers ply their trade with words and it isn’t easy to part with them given the  thought and consideration it took to put them on the page. That cool idea, that lovely turn of phrase sometimes looks like an abandoned puppy with really big eyes and a cute face. Soon hitting the delete key tends to feel like taking a hatchet to your arm.

The antidote to that is to keep in mind that what looks like a puppy to you may not look like a puppy to another person that may be reading it. Keep in mind that we serve a set of readers with an attention span shortened by television and the internet. Short attention span readers are turned off by long sprawling stories that fail to make their point right away.

Whether it is a newspaper, blog or that trendy online magazine concise and entertaining writing is absolutely necessary. The responsibility falls on the writer to accommodate the audience or risk losing them halfway through your story.

Part of serving your audience means being ruthless and efficient with your words. It means making the tough decisions about what is absolutely necessary. It means drowning a few puppies for the greater good of your writing.

Here is some advice on “drowning puppies”:

Be aware of size and scope- The idea of “concise and entertaining writing” depends on the size and scope of the project. A breaking news story will have different needs than a feature story or a review for example.

For freelancers, it’s always a good to be aware of what an editor expects out of you. It’s always good to set guidelines for length ahead of time so that you have something to shoot for when it comes to writing and editing.

Prioritize your infomation- Be clear about the ‘big ideas’ that are going into your story ahead of time. Ask yourself “what is the most important thing a reader should come away with?’ then put that front and center. Knowing what to keep helps you decide what needs to be taken out.

The 10 percent rule- This works best with longer stories, but a good principle to live by. The idea is to shave 10 percent of the total word count after you are done. This will force you to look for places that need to be tightened up.

The best way to do this is to take a broad overview first and look for ideas that may have been repeated unnecessarily. Then go paragraph by paragraph with a double space in between. Try to cut out a word or two for each graph by rephrasing sentences or taking out repeated words.

After you are done, repeat until you hit the quota.

Faces of your audience- Keep perspective on your story and realize exactly who you are writing for. Be a role player by reading your stories from different perspectives. Read it once as yourself, another as an imagined reader and a third time as your worst critic.

Doing this will be like looking at your story with a fresh eyes. You may find some things that need to be taken out.