Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Edit your work

YEARS AGO, MY BOSS bragged that he could cut Shakespeare. That's not true, so I took up the challenge. We had to write newspaper columns that came up a little short so we could put a little info box underneath. So I worked on a column that was a little long to see if he'd jump it inside ... or just end-cut it.

He read it confidently, then went back through it a second time. Then a third time. After a fourth attempt at editing and cutting it, he was getting almost angry. He turned to me and said "Jump it!" in a harsh voice.

I know a great newspaper columnist who writes well, then spends an hour or so editing and proofreading his work. He hones and polishes it, and his editors look at the clock, bet on when he'll file, then grab for the phone when he calls. His writing is so polished that it's almost impossible to edit or cut it. My boss would have had to jump it.

Another terrific newspaper columnist would sometimes write a column about something other than the event he was covering. He might be done 20 minutes after a sporting event was done; sometimes he'd even beat most of the traffic. He was good, but he'd have been even better if he'd read his work a few times and found his typos and misspellings. Once, I found two names misspelled in his column. The next day, we learned that he misspelled the two other names in the column.

I've worked with a couple of men who would file stories five or six hours after a football game ended, and you'd still pull your hair out trying to fix it. They were not natural self-editors.

Another guy threw the kitchen sink in his writing. He used every note and every quote he had. It was up to us to figure out what would be the lead, the sidebar and, perhaps, the notes. He was a good writer who could have really stood out if he'd been willing to make more choices.

Still another writer thought so much of himself that he didn't self-edit. And his writing was a mess. One editor wasn't enough; five might not catch all of his errors. (Please, please, please edit your own writing before you send it in; don't be like this guy.)

I once worked with a copy editor who turned everything to mud. If you were a terrible writer, he improved it to mediocre. If you were a great writer, your writing devolved to mediocre. My writing was good, and, yes, he dropped it a notch. I actually regressed as a writer during that 34-month stint. I never saw how my writing could get better while working with this guy, and I wondered "why bother?"

Over the next job or two, I got back to my old style and eventually improved.

FOR YEARS, I COVERED sporting events, usually auto racing, although you'd see me at football, basketball, baseball, golf and even bodybuilding. I wrote features and game stories, and it was a battle for me. If I hurried, my writing was a mess. If I had time to edit, it could shine.

Which means that I am a typical professional writer. Sometimes I'll be 30 or 45 minutes ahead of time, but, usually, I'm fighting the clock and the editor in my head who is "looking over my shoulder."

My style is to just start writing; I don't have time for writer's block. Do I need a lede? Sure. I'll put a so-called Associated Press lede (Joe Schmoe scored 24 points, including the last five, as Notre Dame edged...). I'll often find my lede in the middle of my story, so I'll move it to the top, and work the old lede into the story.

I always write by the number of words. If a story needs to be 500 words, I write 550. Then I tighten it to 480 and write some more. Then I cut it to 500 again. I'm always adding more information and finding ways to tighten and improve. If I have time, great; I edit it again.

And if there's time, have someone backread it for you. You never have too many good pairs of eyes on your stories.

Contact: Reach me at tgilli52@gmail.com or nc3022@yahoo.com.

(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

1 comment:

  1. Faultless as always Tom. (No errors that I spotted anyway!)