Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.

Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.

Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.

1. Get it on the page.

When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.

In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)

You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.

2. Relax your grip.

When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.

3. Fact-check.

Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.

4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.

The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs.  So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.

If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.

The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.

Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.

5. Crosscheck before take-off.

Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)

Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

5 Questions to Ask Before Challenging Your Editor

by Michael Foust

For most of my journalistic career, I have see-sawed back and forth between the role of editor and writer. I began my career as a writer, then served as a newspaper editor, then switched jobs to become a writer again, then switched jobs once again to become an editor. And now, I’m back to being just a writer.

This means I’ve experienced both sides of the give-and-take that occurs between editors and writers. I’ve sat at an editor’s desk when a clueless writer submitted a supposedly perfect masterpiece. And I’ve sat on my writer’s couch at home, stewing that an incompetent editor turned my masterpiece into a heap of unreadable trash.

So no matter which side of the fence you find yourself, I feel your pain. This column, though, is for writers.

Over the years as a journalist/writer, I’ve developed the following five questions that I always ask myself before challenging my editor.

1. Are They Right?  

Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility serves any career well, but especially within the field of writing, in which you have a gatekeeper—the editor—who can become either a good friend or a thorn in your side. I’ve written thousands of stories during my life, and I have yet to pen one that didn’t have an error in the first draft.

You’re not infallible, and your copy isn’t inerrant. Maybe, just maybe, your editor is right.

2. What Can I Learn?

To be humble is to be teachable. Think of your editor as a college professor who is giving you free lessons. More than likely, they know something you don’t.

My first editor taught me to use quotes sparingly. My second editor improved my transitions and headlines. My third editor taught me the significance of keywords for social media.

Unless a kindergartener is editing your copy, you likely can learn a thing or two.

3. Is It Worth It?

Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.

Are your editor’s changes tantamount to a person with a minor cut that can be ignored? (They changed “said” to “says.”) Or are the changes equivalent to a deep wound that requires surgery? (You wrote “Bob shot Jim,” but they changed it to “Jim shot Bob.”)

By my experience, most editorial changes are like minor cuts that can be ignored. Rarely does an editor make a change so severe that it impacts the story’s intended meaning. Besides, editors often improve the story. Guess what? The reader won’t ever know—and you’ll get the credit.

4. What Might Happen?

If you gain a reputation as a constant complainer, you may forgo future writing opportunities with that publisher, who might look for a different writer who is more manageable. Are you are willing to cut those ties? If not, it might be best to swallow your pride in order to build a relationship. Then, after you’ve written additional stories and gained the editor’s trust, you can speak up more often.

As the old maxim goes: Pick your battles wisely.

5. Are You Being Charitable?

Perhaps you’ve decided this battle indeed is a “hill upon which to die”—or at least one that can’t be ignored.

If so, write your email carefully. Be charitable in your wording. Sprinkle compliments in with your concerns. (“Great job editing this.”) Avoid sarcasm. Begin your sentences with phrases like, “I may be wrong but …”—thus indicating you are bringing an item to their attention they may have overlooked. That way, you don’t come across as haughty, and they’re able to hear your opinion.

Finally, proofread your email before hitting “send.” You don’t want misspellings and typos in an email that’s complaining about shoddy editing.

Recipe for the Perfect Interview: 5 Easy Steps

My brownies are kind of famous. When people ask for my recipe, I laugh and tell them I use a box mix. Then I let them in on my secret: I literally count out the suggested 50 strokes when mixing, instead of stopping when the batter looks well stirred. This trick ensures a perfectly gooey texture.

Successful recipes—even those on a box—work because they’re tried and true. This principle has proven true in my writing, too. When someone I interview says, “That’s a great question!” they might as well have complimented my brownies. I grin and think: Nailed it! Strong interviews are the backbone of news reports, profiles, and feature articles, but the same skills are useful when researching for a novel and other types of stories.

Here’s my recipe for the perfect interview.

1. Gather everything you need.

First, set up the interview immediately. You may have a few weeks until deadline, but that doesn’t mean your subject is available throughout that timeframe. Leave room for last-minute rescheduling and follow-up questions. When scheduling the interview, mention how much time you anticipate needing (always overestimating in case the conversation runs long). Be clear about the purpose of the interview but do not send your questions in advance. Your subject should be able to think about the topic without rehearsing responses. Before you call or meet with the person you’re interviewing, do your research. Collecting biographical information ahead of time (personal and company websites are a good place to start) eliminates the need for unnecessary questions—and the risk of annoying your interviewee. Identify secondary sources of information, such as other people you can talk to. If your story is about a conflict or controversial topic, explore both sides of the issue.

2. Write every question you can think of. Then write some more.

Go through your questions and prioritize those pertaining to your topic. Ask off-topic questions only if they may shed light on the interviewee’s personality and add interest to the story. Ask a couple of these at the beginning and, if there’s time left over, at the end. Avoid questions that diverge from the topic with no purpose. Mine for interesting anecdotes and not only dry facts.

3. Be punctual. Be pleasant. Be professional.

Show up for the interview or make the phone call when you said you would. Be friendly but not overly familiar, and address the interviewee respectfully regardless of your personal views. If your subject says something you disagree with, don’t debate. Your job is to record what is being said, not to assert your own opinions. Be empathetic but not too chatty when reacting to your subject’s comments. Don’t make assumptions about the topic or the interviewee. Resist the temptation to write the story in your head before the interview is done. If there is a pause in the conversation, allow a few seconds of silence before jumping in with your next question. Some of the best quotes come after such pauses because the interviewee was processing what he or she just said.

4. Always end with “Is there anything I didn’t ask but you want to tell me about?”

. . . or some variation of this question. Nine times out of ten, I get excellent quotes when I ask this, especially if my interviewee is passionate about the topic. A freelancer I know even asks if the other person wants to ask her a question. This could give you additional clues on how to move your story forward.

5. Review your notes right away and follow up on anything that’s unclear.

Do this while the conversation is still fresh in both your minds. Don’t try to decipher your notes or guess what was meant. It’s better to ask than to publish something inaccurate or misleading.

Serve warm.

Sorry, wrong recipe!

Ann-Margret Hovsepian