A 14-step approach to steering ideas, writers and stories into your pages.
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
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
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
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
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 johnbrady.info, or you may
e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.