By SYLVIA SMITH
Global Business Journalism guest lecturer
Write short. It’s much harder than writing long. Although there’s infinite space online, there is not infinite attention among readers.
If you are editing a story, your goal is to shorten and enliven the article so it will attract (and keep) the attention of your readers.
Here are 10 editing tips that will help you tighten and sharpen news stories:
1. Read each paragraph from the bottom up. You are looking for missing words, improper punctuation, and bad syntax. By reading from the bottom, you will focus on the basics of English writing and are more likely to identify mistakes.
2. Read the article aloud. If you have to take a breath in a sentence, that sentence is too long. Shorten it.
3. Make “bullets” ( ● ) your friends. Organize your stories by creating bulleted lists. This can help you avoid awkward or wordy transitions.
4. Know your audience. Don’t use terminology those readers will not encounter in everyday life. Use references they will understand.
5. Avoid certain words for the sake of clarity or conciseness. Examples:
Most synonyms for “said.”
“In order to.” The word “to” suffices.
“Start to.” In almost all cases, the verb that comes after “start to” can stand on its own.
“That” after an action verb. No: She said that Mondays are good days. Yes: She said Mondays are good days.
“Really” and “very,” as in “really fun” or “very hard.” Neither adds any precision, so why use it?
“Currently.” If you use a present-tense verb (such as “is”), “currently” is redundant. No: I currently have a cold. Yes: I have a cold.
Many “ing” words. They often complicate sentences and add unnecessary words. No: Legislation establishing a commission or Legislation to establish. Better: set up. No: I am going to travel to Canada. Yes: I will go to Canada. No: I will be fighting for change. Yes: I will fight for change.
6. Look for redundant phrases: brand new; absolutely essential; tragic death; consensus of opinion; circle around. Eliminate the redundancy. Shorter and simpler: new, essential, death, consensus, circle.
7. Small edits can add up to big savings (in the length of your story). If you can cut six words in each paragraph of the average 250-word article, that’s about 60 words (or two paragraphs) of additional information you can add. Your “trims” can add up. Here’s an example of how you can do it:
President Trump said on Saturday night that he would not impose a quarantine on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut but would instead issue a “strong” travel advisory to be implemented by the governors of the three states. (38 words)
President Trump will not order a quarantine for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, he said Saturday night, but will issue a “strong” travel advisory to be carried out by the governors. (32 words)
8. Ask whether the first paragraph (or two) of the story is necessary. Often, the lead (or “lede”) of your story is buried several sentences into the story.
Here’s an example from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States:
Art studios may not meet the criteria for “essential business,” but for many artists they are essential to making a living.
Lisa Hersey is a self-employed bookbinder who operates her business, Antler Editions, out of a studio at Cottage Street Studios, where she also works with another artist in the building as an employee. Both businesses were shuttered this week as Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to cease in-person operations.
“I have no income, except for my very small unemployment check that I’m getting right now,” Hersey said Thursday.
Hersey may be cut off from her studio, but in that sense, she’s not alone in this city of artists….
Hersey understands the safety need for the order, but noted, “I also need to pay my bills that aren’t stopping.”
Here’s a revised version of the same story that is shorter and more focused:
Barred from her one-woman bookbinding studio because of the state’s closure of all nonessential businesses, Lisa Hersey is scraping by.
“I have no income except for my very small unemployment check.”
Hersey understands the safety need for the order, but “I also need to pay my bills.”
It’s a bind Hersey shares with many other artists, including her neighbors at the Cottage Street Studios.
9. Let the article “cook.” Go to lunch, work on something else, grab a coffee. Come back and read it with fresh eyes. You may find something else to cut.
10. To practice your editing skills, give yourself this assignment on something you have written: How can I reduce it by 50 words without omitting anything important? Good luck.
Sylvia Smith is a retired reporter and editor. She was Washington Editor of the Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana), Executive Editor of AARP Publications, Executive Editor for AARP Content, and Features Editor for State News at AARP Bulletin. She served as president of the National Press Club in its centennial year, 2008.
Sylvia Smith first presented these tips as part of the Global Business Journalism Lecture Series.