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How you can improve your writing through self-editing


Global Business Journalism guest lecturer

Editing is where the magic happens — it’s the other half of writing. It’s the hidden, or behind-the scenes, process you use to craft your story.

Editing is like putting together the pieces of a story puzzle. The process of editing hones the message or theme that you want to convey. It removes distractions for readers that can undercut your credibility as a writer. It makes the story clearer and more concise. It often ensures the story “fits” the space allocated for it. It checks for adherence to grammar, spelling, punctuation and style guidelines. And it ensures factual accuracy.

Editing involves “big-picture” and “small picture” facets.

The “big-picture” review is often called developmental or content editing. This process includes reviewing:

o the theme or premise (What is the overall point of the story?)

o the story’s structure (Does the narrative structure convey the story’s theme and tell the story in a compelling way? If not, could the story be structured in a more effective way?)

o the supporting facts (Do the facts in the story build a clear case for the theme?)

o any missing information (Does the story have gaps that undercut the theme?)

“Small-picture” editing involves two other forms of editing: copyediting and proofreading.

o Copyediting makes sure that grammar, spelling, punctuation and tenses are correct and that your story conforms to style guidelines. It also watches for factual errors, missing information or continuity problems.

o Proofreading is a final pass to catch any remaining errors and includes checking embedded links and double-checking of dates, names, and titles.

As a writer, one of the best skills you can learn is how to self-edit your work before submitting it to your editor. Editing yourself is one of the hardest things to do in journalism.

Cyndi Hughes

Learning how to edit can happen by osmosis: If you read enough good stories and work with good reporters, editors, mentors and professors, you will start developing an innate sense of story structure. To become a good editor, you need to put in your time. Remember writer Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours rule” and invest the time required to hone your editing skills.

One way to start learning is to pay attention to the feedback you get from other reporters and editors. Understanding the feedback you receive will improve your writing and your skill set over time. When you begin, remember this: Don’t take feedback or criticism personally. Editing is a team sport, and you, your colleagues, and your editors all working together to put out the best content for your readers.

Over time, you’ll start thinking like an editor whenever you’re reading stories by other reporters, reading books, listening to podcasts, or watching television news and even movies and television shows.

Here’s a self-editing checklist you can use:

  1. Start by being kind to yourself. The first (or even the second or the third) draft of your story is rarely your final draft. And that’s okay. From then on, you’re editing and rewriting.

  2. Make sure your story has covered the 5 Ws and 1 H. (Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?)

  3. Examine your story’s structure and make sure it aligns with the story-structure expectations for whatever news outlet you’re working for.

  4. Double-check all facts and sources and do not take any facts for granted. Remember the famous journalism saying: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Find additional sources as needed.

  5. Make sure all verbs and subjects agree. Examples: Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen is my favorite mystery author. (No, they ain’t.) Facebook is changing their algorithms again. (No, they are not.)

  6. Be ruthless with adjectives and adverbs. When in doubt, delete. Examples: “Bill deceptively stepped back and then carefully took a shot from 6 meters away.” Just delete the adverbs. As American author Stephen King says, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs” – and we can add “adjectives” to that!

  7. Avoid passive voice and use active voice. Example: “Curiosity killed the cat” instead of “It was curiosity that caused the cat to be killed.” Save space. Be clearer. Polish your prose and use simple, direct language with strong nouns and active verbs.

  8. Eliminate wasted words. Rewrite any sentences starting with “There is” or “There are.” Delete words like “now,” “currently,” “presently,” “really,” “very” or other redundant words.

  9. Check spelling. And remember, the dictionary is your friend!

  10. Check punctuation. A magazine once printed this comma-deficient headline: “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” (Let’s hope she didn’t cook her family and her dog.)

  11. Make sure all quotations and facts include correct attribution.

  12. Make sure verb tenses are consistent. Most journalism stories are written in simple past tense and present continuous. Don’t jump back and forth between past and present tenses.

  13. Review your story for compliance with style guidelines. English news writing style varies around the world. American, British, Canadian, Australian, South Asian news outlets have distinct styles. It is important to know which style guidelines are used by your news outlet. (Global Business Journalism uses Associated Press and Bloomberg News style manuals.) Be consistent. Style rules are not “mix and match.”

  14. Use placeholders for anything you need to track down or confirm. If you’re editing and keep stopping to find missing information, that interrupts your editing flow. Finish your editing “pass” first, then add those missing pieces. Professor Rick Dunham uses “TK” for details that are “to come.” Some journalists use “xx” for missing facts and “00” for missing numbers. Make sure to fill in those facts before publication.

  15. Check continuity. The story should flow naturally from section to section. Avoid lazy transitions (“meanwhile,” “but,” “on the other hand,” “in other business”).

  16. Before submitting your work, proofread it: Read a story from the bottom to the top or from right to left (or left to right, depending on your preferred language) to look for typographical errors and final small problems.

Perhaps the most important editing skill you can develop is paying attention to your own Inner Reader whenever you’re reading anything or watching movies or television:

  • Where do you get bored?

  • Where does the story zip along for you?

  • Where do you stop reading — and what brought you to a halt?

  • When do you start screaming in delight, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming!”

  • When do you throw the book or magazine across the room or hit “stop” on your remote?

  • When do you get to “The End” and immediately turn back to the beginning to start rereading the book or re-watching the movie again?

At first, you might think you don’t have an Inner Reader, but just keep listening for it. It will appear.

One final tip: Find a mentor! Working with an experienced reporter or editor and reading behind him or her is priceless and one of the best ways to learn about editing.


Cyndi Hughes is president of Cynthia Hughes Literary Consulting. She is a former copy chief and deputy executive editor at Texas Monthly magazine and copy chief for the Austin American-Statesman’s Features section. She is the founding director of the Texas Book Festival and the former executive director of the Writer’s League of Texas.

This article is adapted from Cyndi Hughes’ lecture to Global Business Journalism Professor Rick Dunham’s Basic News Writing course.

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