Sunday, February 6, 2011

Making it fit

Years ago, a newspaper writer came to me and complained that I was changing his articles. I was taking out words, he said, and he wondered why. After all, he reasoned, I didn't need to shorten the story, so why cut words?

I explained that, if he said the same thing with fewer words, the story would be better. Shakespeare wasn't great because he used a lot of extra words; it was because he used EVERY WORD so eloquently. This guy was no Bill Shakespeare, and I couldn't turn him into one. But I could make him better.

Later in the week, the same writer came back and wondered if I could cut something out of the high-school page to get more of his story in. I showed him the newspaper page and asked what we could cut. Nothing, he said, after looking at the page carefully. I waited, and he asked if he could cut the story himself. Sure, I said, not revealing that that was exactly what I wanted. Twenty minutes later, he came back and said the story was done. It was tight and exactly the way he wanted. And it fit.

Thereafter, he came by every Saturday and told me his story was there. I put it on the page, and he went away and trimmed it to fit. He jammed every bit of information into each of those 16-inch stories.

The moral? When I was cutting his stories and tightening them, he complained. When he realized they HAD to be that length, he cut and tightened them himself. It was a great collaboration between writer and editor, a rarity in any business.

Even rarer, we were both happy.

P.S.: In 2002, I was freelancing for a newspaper in Mississippi, and one of the paper's writers was working beside me. I watched as he called up the newspaper page on his laptop's screen, and he wrote the story directly onto the page. He had to fill that hole; he had no choice.

It's a great idea. The copy editors still need to back-read it and write a headline, but it saves steps and time. And the writer can look at the page and tell when there are mistakes there.

It'd be great if all newspapers used that system.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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