A reader had a question:
“You say in The Book on Writing that we should write fast and edit slowly. As a reporter, I found that advice helpful, and I’ve tried to follow it. Problem is, I’m now a copy editor — and I edit too slowly. Most of the stories I edit are on deadline, not long on story-telling, and my approach is simply to start at the top and work to the bottom — a laborious process. I have no blueprint for streamlining the editing task. Do you?”
This copy editor is probably doing a lot of rewriting, a time-consuming activity that creates fresh thought, expression and images — in other words, an activity that leads one to write rather than to edit. Writing and editing are not the same things. This copy editor realizes that, and she wants an easy-to-follow editing procedure.
I devised such a shortcut years ago when I was a university writing teacher who graded hundreds of student compositions each semester. My shortcut was a brief checklist of the most common problems afflicting media writing. Checking the work against that list helped lay mechanical problems bare even before the real work of editing began.
My editing procedure involved a handful of bedrock goals that apply to virtually all media writing. For me, those goals were (and are) that good informational writing is accurate, clear, brief and conversational. In other words, good editing helps writers and editors achieve those goals, and everything the copy editor does during editing is toward that end.
With those bedrock principles in mind, copy editors should check the unedited story against the list of common flaws. They should look for certain writing characteristics that frequently damage media writing. For example, the checklist might ask if the lead “backs in” — that is, if the lead delays the subject by beginning with a long dependent clause rather than with a subject-verb-object sentence.
Backing in can create many problems, but it is easy to recognize and fix. Here are two versions of a lead, the first original and the second edited to avoid backing in:
“Standing before vast crowds from Washington to Los Angeles to Parkland, Fla., the speakers — nearly all of them students, some still in elementary school — delivered an anguished and defiant message: They are ‘done hiding’ from gun violence, and will ‘stop at nothing’ to get politicians to finally prevent it.”
“The speakers, nearly all of them students, stood before vast crowds from Washington to Los Angeles to Parkland, Fla., and delivered an anguished and defiant message: They were done hiding from gun violence, and would stop at nothing to persuade politicians to prevent it.
“The students, some still in elementary school, seized the nation’s attention Saturday when . . .”
Another checklist item might ask if the story is cluttered with prepositions or other “chaff”— always damaging to clear writing:
“The company — previously known as TXU — was acquired in 2007 for $45 billion in the largest leveraged buyout on record at the heady peak of the private equity boom in the years before the financial crisis.”
Imagine how much more readable and accessible that paragraph would be if it had fewer prepositions. Such editing is routine and easy to do early in the editing process.
More checklist items:
- Is the story wordy or repetitive?
- Does it use simple, conversational words?
- Is sentence length manageable? (A sentence length average of 25 words is considered readable.)
- Are sentences cluttered with prepositions, numbers, or symbols? (Readability guidelines suggest a maximum of three such elements per sentence.)
The point is that copy editors can work faster and with better results if they spend a few moments checking mechanics before hunkering down to the editing task. That means clearing dense passages that may become rabbit holes later, when the copy editor is dealing with the complexities and technicalities of content. The checklist helps copy editors start with cleaner, clearer, briefer copy — as well as end with it.
PAULA LaROCQUE is author of five books, including The Book on Writing. She has authored two mystery novels, Chalk Line and Monkey See. Available from Amazon.com.