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Editor’s Checklist

A 14-step approach to steering ideas, writers and stories into your pages.

John Brady By John Brady

Let’s say you are editor-in-chief at Blacksmith Monthly, and the publisher asks you to train a new recruit. How do you go about the task of assigning and editing a story? Let us count the ways.

1. Before assigning a story, discuss the idea with the writer in all of its particulars. Include sidebar topics that will give a story some breakup on the page. Ask the writer to be on alert for visuals to accompany the story.

2. As part of the preliminaries, make certain the writer is familiar with your publication (at least recent issues) and has read your Contributors’ Guidelines.

3. Write a memo summarizing what the idea is, the terms of agreement on payment (even if there is none), the deadline, and the word count for the assignment.

4. Give the writer a deadline that provides you with at least a week for revising or rewriting before your drop-dead deadline. Avoid Fridays as deadlines; these often become Mondays.

5. Editing requires a good bedside manner. Put it to work by checking in with the writer by phone or e-mail about a week before the first draft is due: “How are we doing?”  Use the editorial we. You want to know if the story is holding up, or if the slant has changed. Ask the writer to put a head and deck on the story, but make it clear that this is done in the spirit of “Can you top this?” Final heads, decks, pull quotes and packaging is done by the editor and art director.

6. When the story comes in, make sure that files and attachments open and acknowledge receipt immediately. Here we have an opportunity to edit by example.

7. Run the file through grammar and spell check, do a word count, and then read the story cold. Read the piece with an eye to its logic, its grammar, its factual content, and increasingly its legal ramifications.

8. Then re-read and, now that you have an overview, make marginal notes, but try to avoid marking the writer’s text. Foremost, does the story have a three-part sense of beginning, middle, and end? That’s the key.

9. Accentuate the positive. Make it clear that even when you are making line suggestions, you have the entire piece in mind. Then ask questions. “The lead is weak and the ending needs to be rewritten” may strike the sensitive writer (and nearly all of them are sensitive) as being an attack rather than a request. Instead, ask, “Is there some what that we can make the lead more engaging? ”

10. Make your editing suggestions in terms of audience: “Will our readers understand what you mean here? Is there another way we can say it?” Ved Mehta on legendary editor William Shawn of The New Yorker: “Not once did he make me feel that he was the dictatorial editor and I was a supplicant writer. There was not so much as a hint of coercion or condescension in his style. His only concern seemed to be the artistic perfection of the piece, his only aim to make it accurate to the experience and courteous to the reader, irrespective of its complexity or its length.”

11. Focus on the lead. If it exceeds ten percent of the story’s total word count, it is probably lacking in impact. The lead should establish what the story is about, and create intrigue so that the reader is motivated to read the rest of the story. Remember that old maxim: Well begun is half done.

12. Does the middle of the story tell the story convincingly? Is the story under reported? I recommend one interview for every 200 words of final copy or a minimum of five interviews for a thousand-word story.

13. Does the ending summarize things quickly and get out of town with punch? No more than five percent of the total word count should be allocated here.

14. If, at this point, the story requires more reporting and rewriting than there is time for, you may be forced to bump it to next issue. Or you may have to do it yourself. Most editors should be ready to take a story in from the ten-yard line. (“Which ten-yard line?” an astute junior editor once inquired of me in a workshop. Ah, yes.)


John Brady is visiting professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his workshop text Magazine Editing: The Practical Approach and his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his web site is, or you may e-mail him at

John Brady By John Brady

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