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Become a better writer, the easy way

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BY SHAWN PERICH
Let those without sin cast the first stone, because it surely won’t be me. I’m a writer … and I procrastinate. Rarely do I start writing until a deadline is looming. Then I pound away.
Writing for a deadline has a way of organizing your thoughts, so I’m not sure it’s a bad practice. Certainly, those of us who face daily or weekly deadlines are accustomed to deadline pressure. The only problem is a tight timeline doesn’t allow you any extra time to polish your finished product. Instead, you have a strong urge to send the story to your editor shortly after you complete it and hope your work is “good enough.”
The problem is what we think is “good enough” is rarely the best we can do. I prefer to step away from a freshly written story and give it a hard, self-edit the following day. Very often, I not only find several typos or grammatical errors, but make significant changes to sentence and paragraph structure, too.
As an editor, I’ve frequently worked on stories where it was obvious the writer did a slap-dash job just before the deadline. When you knock off a story at the last minute and turn it in, you create extra work for the editor. If you take the time to polish your story, you stay in your editor’s good graces and become a better writer. What follows are a few tips for improving your final product.

USE SPELL CHECK

It sounds obvious, but I occasionally edit text that wasn’t spell-checked. Misspellings can shake an editor’s confidence in your work. If your story contains obvious misspelled words, what else may you have screwed up?

DON’T TRUST SPELL CHECK

A computer is a machine, not a mind. It may not catch a wrong word spelled correctly, such as “there” when you really meant “their.” Always carefully proofread your stories.

BE A RUTHLESS SELF-EDITOR

Your words are not golden. Don’t be afraid to change them or even get rid of them. I’ve hit the delete key on many a pretty paragraph. Much of my self-editing involves eliminating words — from recasting a sentence to removing a prepositional phrase to deleting superfluous sentences or paragraphs.

READ YOUR STORY ALOUD

A couple of years ago, I began recording my weekly column for a local public radio station. I found recording was much easier if I’d previously read the story aloud. I also discovered it was a great way to find errors, awkward sentences and weak spots in the text. The corrections I made after reading aloud improved my story for my newspaper readers, too.

SHOW IT TO YOUR SOURCE

Most outdoor stories are informational rather than breaking news. To make sure the information is correct, I frequently show relevant portions of a story to a source to verify accuracy. Nearly all respond promptly and offer constructive suggestions.

DO A FINAL PROOF

After you’ve self-edited the story and made corrections, go over it one more time. Do another spell check and read it again, preferably aloud. You may make a few final tweaks to the text, but you should be satisfied the final version represents your best effort. Now you have a story that’s “good enough” to send to your editor.♦
—Shawn Perich, of Hovland, Minn., has been a member since 1985. In addition to his duties as publisher of Northern Wilds and North Shore Press, he is also a columnist for Minnesota Outdoor News and a book author. Contact him at editor@northernwilds.com.
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