Tag Archives: writing coach

How to make the editor your friend (II): Adhere to the word count

When I was in high school, my journalism instructor used to say that I was hard to edit because I wrote so tightly. She meant it as a compliment—emphasizing that I didn’t tend to write fluffy, loose paragraphs loaded with dross—but that tendency of mine did come back to haunt me when I had to cut a piece. One of the hardest situations a writer can face is to over-write a piece, and cut repeatedly, and STILL be over on the word count.

 

Adhering to an assigned word count is like the other two previously mentioned ways to make your editor your friend: it’s just common sense, as well as common courtesy. Despite this, I have received 400 word stories when I asked 2,500 and 1,500 word stories when I asked for 500. The first was from a first-time writer working on a trade magazine article who was in over his head. The second was from a long-time writer, who had also edited the publication I was working at before I did, who just felt he had more that he “wanted readers to know about” that he had to stuff in his op-ed column.

 

Guess whose piece I revised gladly? Guess whose piece completely hacked me off (since this all took place after deadline)?

 

I think most writers, experienced or not, don’t write long or short with ill intent. It also seems to me that the vast majority of writers miss word count by over-writing rather than under-writing.

 

Many writers do as I do when I write an article and over-research, which can lead to writing long if the scope of the article wasn’t clearly delineated when the assignment was made. Plentiful research, as useful as it is for finding the telling detail or confirming speculations made by sources, can also tempt the writer into wanting to find a way to cram everything into the article.

 

One of the most helpful cures when you’ve gone over your word count is to go back to your “nut graph” and strain the paragraphs that follow through that filter. How directly do they relate to the main point of your article? If the content is mostly diversion, can you make a convincing argument that the words must stay—and find other words that can go instead?

 

Other typical easy ways to trim an article:

 

  • If you have a tendency to put “echo quotes” (a second source more or less agreeing with the first person, with little elaboration) in your stories, take them out.
  • Write in the active voice. Passages written in passive voice almost always take more words to say the same thing.
  • Watch for the tendency to engage in “throat-clearing” and write useless set-ups for our quotes.

 

Links to learn more about adhering to word count and writing tightly.

 

Trouble Sticking to Your Word Count? Try These Editing Tricks

Five Ways to Cut Your Word Count

Write Tight! Tips from Chip Scanlan of Poynter Online

Five Myths About Short Writing


 

 

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Who am I this time?: Roles editors play

I never set out to be an editor. When I pledged myself to the writer’s life (at age 13, flushed with enthusiasm after reading the fictional exploits of S.E. Hinton’s character Ponyboy Curtis in the young adult novel “The Outsiders”), I had the opinion that the role of editor pretty much boiled down to being a copy editor, the leader of the hazardous “comma patrol” that must be run through most stories before they are published.

This opinion was further burnished in college when I got a B+ in a copy editing course. I actually did pretty well in everything except headline-writing, at which I failed miserably because it required that I master the now-archaic skill of producing titles that fit with in a specified “count,” but the course put a bad taste in my mouth for editing. I decided I really was a writer, and should focus my energies on marketing my prose-crafting skills to the world.

That would have been lovely, except for the fact that the world I encountered after j-school graduation seemed to need editors a lot more acutely than it needed writers. Or if they needed writers, they needed authors who could re-write the prose of executives, line managers, degreed professionals, or volunteer retirees.

Despite working at several jobs with the title “editor,” it wasn’t until 2005 that I realized how much of an editor I was, or had become. I attended a conference hosted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s College and University Editor group, and heard Jacqui Banaszynski describe the story coaching method she used with her writers at the Seattle Times.

Story coach. There was an editorial metaphor I could get behind. I suddenly realized that my view of myself as primarily a proofreader and fact-checker for my publication’s writers had been very, very incomplete.

After my editorial epiphany, I started collecting metaphors for the sort of editing I’ve done, primarily as a managing editor for magazines and other print publications. (I’ve also done quite a bit of multimedia production, but that’s another topic for another day.) Beyond having a good command of language and grammar and style, as a good copy editor does, a managing or assignment editor is also a(n)…

Project Manger. For publications that run more than about 16 pages, and have advertisements, having one person who plans the entire issue’s content, and can monitor its journey from idea to completed draft, is essential. Someone has to be there to work out the kinks in workflow (and even to recognize there is such a thing as workflow!).

Traffic Cop. Knowing where the missing story is for next issue is one thing; having the wherewithal to go find out what’s wrong and how to get if fixed is another. Editors have to advocate for what’s best for their publication—from the quality of the articles to how they are presented in the design to their impact on readers.

Architect. Editors have to be conversant in structure, both on the level of an individual story and the structure of an entire issue of a periodical. They have to be able to help writers construct articles that will withstand reader inspection, and they have to be able to design a space where an entire of “community” of articles can live and play together in a manner appealing to outside visitors (= readers).

Mom. As an editor, I am a professional hand-holder and on occasion, a butt-wiper. I make sure stories have everything they need to thrive, and help clean up the messes that are made along the way. I have to care about my stories and my publication more than almost anyone else on staff. I can never foist responsibility for their development on anyone else.

8th grade English teacher. Ahh, middle school English—in my time, 8th grade was the year everyone drilled on sentence diagramming and the parts of speech. Editors have to care about proper language use—not primarily because we’re the guardians of civilized syntax, but because poorly constructed sentences distract from good thinking and consistency in writing helps the story shine through.

Coach. As I said earlier, this was the metaphor that resonated most deeply for me. I’m thinking of a life coach or voice coach for my parallels, not Vince Lombardi. My job is to help the story—and the writer—be all that he, she or it can be. It’s a collaborative relationship which, if done correctly, provides benefits for everyone.

And while we’re on the subject of roles, there are a few roles I’d rather not be cast in as an editor.

A Sadist. I don’t send stories back for revision to shame or humiliate writers. If you want that sort of relationship with an editor, please find a professional dominant and work out your issues.

A Writer’s Enemy. If the story fails, I fail, too. Period. My aim is to support my writers so that they can provide deliverables that do the job assigned in as few drafts as possible.

A Frustrated, Mediocre Writer. I didn’t become an editor because I couldn’t write. Quite the contrary — and the more I learn about editing, the better able I am to apply it to my own writing. In my mind, an editor who “can’t” write is suspect as an editor.

Miss Priss. I have had some contributors, often less-experienced writers, seem to fear my opinion of their writing, as if I existed as an editor to lacerate their initial efforts at writing. I don’t take joy in marking up poorly written copy (see the I-am-not-an-editorial-sadist statement above); what I enjoy is the challenge of making it better. What I find is that more experienced, confident writers feel the least defensive around editors; they tend to be the most realistic about their writing ability, and trust and appreciate the benefits they receive from collaborating with an editor.

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Welcome to Write Livelihood

I’m the owner of the Creative Liberty blog and I’ve created this new blog to discuss issues specific to writing and editing nonfiction.

I’m a professional editor and have worked for several trade, association, and consumer magazines over the past 8 years. I’m also a freelance writer with more than 240 published articles to my credit. Aside from the print publishing world, I’ve also produced training videos, worked on e-learning projects, edited resumes and done public relations for a public library.

I hope to post instructional material and advice weekly, and look forward to building community with other writers and editors.

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