Saturday, April 23, 2011

Edit it yourself

Years ago, my boss bragged that he could cut Shakespeare. That's not true, of course, 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!" He used one or two questionable words as he said it.

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. It's almost impossible to edit or cut his writing. My former boss would have had to jump it.

Another terrific newspaper columnist might be finished 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.

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.
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 "looking over my shoulder."

I just start writing; I don't have time for writer's block. I need a lead, of course. I'll put a so-called Associated Press lead (Joe Schmoe scored 24 points, including the last five, as So-And-So beat...). I'll often find a better lead in the middle of my story, so I'll move it to the top, and work the old lead 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. If not, well, I'll do my best.

Two things: Be on time, and be right with your information.

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

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

More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie

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