Thursday, July 5, 2012

Editing your own writing

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. His writing is so well-edited that it's almost impossible to edit or cut it. I've changed a word every now and then, but it's hard.
Another terrific newspaper columnist might be done 20 minutes after a sporting event was over; 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, he wrote a column about golf, and there were four names of famous golfers. I caught the misspellings of two of them; the next day, all hell broke loose, since the other two names were spelled wrong, too.

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. He once wrote a feature AND LEFT OUT THE FIRST NAME OF THE PERSON HE WROTE ABOUT! (I had a terrible time finding that guy's first name; this was long before the Internet.) He wrote a quote that said, "He's a fine football," or something similar. He meant "He's a fine football player." If he'd gone back and read his story again, he'd have caught it.

I once learned a trick about self-editing (and it works with editing others' writing, too). Read the last paragraph first, then the next-to-last paragraph. Keep working your way through your story backwards. You'll be amazed what you'll find.

When I was covering games for newspapers (I think I covered four last year), I used that last-to-first method. I wasn't expected to be a columnist. I covered sporting events, usually auto racing, although you'd see me at football, basketball, baseball, golf, soccer and even bodybuilding. I wrote features and game stories, and it was a battle for me. If I hurried, my writing was weak. If I had time to edit, it would 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."
My style is to just start writing. Do I need a lead? Sure. I'll put a so-called Associated Press lead (Joe Schmoe scored 24 points, including the last five, as Notre Dame edged...). I'll often find my 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, they'll have something to work with.
But I always try to give my editor my best given time constraints; self-editing makes the difference.

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