Saturday, May 28, 2016

Editing yourself on deadline

I KNEW A GREAT NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST who wrote well, then spent an hour or so editing and proofreading his work. He honed and polished it, and his editors looked at the clock, bet on when he'd file, then grab for the phone when he called. His writing was so polished that it's almost impossible to edit or cut it.

Another terrific newspaper columnist would sometimes write a column about something other than the event he was covering. I once asked him what he was writing about, in case we clashed. He told me not to worry; we wouldn't write about the same thing, guaranteed. And he was right; I'd never go where he went in that column.

That second columnist 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.

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 ever 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.

Me? 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 and even bodybuilding. I wrote features and game stories, and it was a battle for me. If I hurried, my writing was mediocre. 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 "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.

The old newspaper saw goes something like: It's not much of a story, but it's in, so it's a great story.

CONTACT: Email me at tgilli52@gmail.com or nc3022@yahoo.com. Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

Entries from The Dog Blog


Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(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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