Edit yourself to success

I’ve sweated out late nights in front of the screen, laboring for the perfect words as a deadline approached. I’ve tweaked my own writing until I could throw my hands up in touchdown victory — and then the edits came back. How can writing feel so right when it’s flying from your fingers and look so wrong when the
track changes come back from your editor? The answer may be in how much time you devote to self-editing.
Laying an objective eye on your own copy is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process and, from the side of the editor’s desk, it’s also one of the most apparent. Editing is a subjective business, but one where the basics never change — grammar rules, spelling and fact-checking, to name a few.
I spoke with a handful of colleagues about issues editors frequently encounter and how writers can step back and analyze a story to address many of these problems before ever submitting it. Those extra minutes spent are an investment in cleaner copy, which could pay off with more assignments. The less we have to do with what you send, the more we want to work with you again.
Ten ways to self-editing success:

  1. Lede the way, fearlessly
    It seems too few writers spend time crafting quality ledes. A good lede is a requirement. Shorter is usually better, full of strong verbs. Show conflict, irony, sentiment; but don’t confuse ledes with nut grafs. Great ledes make your story human, help readers relate to your subject or pique interest. And they take practice. Myriad websites offer tips on this, but be careful not to get boxed in by formulas. Creativity is key.
  2. Don’t stash your nuts
    Nut grafs are too often buried or don’t exist. Don’t make a reader wait 500 words to find it, and don’t forget about it. Once you’re done writing, highlight it. If it doesn’t stand out clearly, that might be a good cue to restructure a sentence or two to make it shine.
  3. Slay the zombies
    While it’s not a crime to write in passive voice, these sentences often fly to the top of an editor’s radar to tweak. Grammarly.com retweeted from teacher Rebecca Johnson a memorable way to test whether you’re writing structure is passive: If you can insert “by zombies” after the verb and it still makes sense, it’s passive voice. In these sentences, the subject is being acted upon. In an active-voice sentence, the subject is doing the acting. Active sentences make for stronger, compelling writing.
    The zombie test in action:
    – The town was attacked (by zombies). Yep, passive sentence.
    – Zombies attacked (by zombies) the town. Doesn’t make sense. It’s an active sentence.
  4. Follow the facts
    Check your facts and know the position of the publication. Make sure your story doesn’t convey misstatements of an agency’s position or research that’s already been published.
  5. Get off the crutches
    Therefore. Overall. Suddenly. Strangely. Additionally. We all have crutches — words or phrases that seem innocuous when used a couple times, but become downright annoying when sabotaged by repetitiveness. A host of online tools can help catch the catch phrases in your copy, including: wordcounter.com or autrocrit.com (invented for fiction writers but, remarkably, it works on journalistic words). There also are macros for Microsoft Word that count repetitive words and phrases right in your Word doc, and (for a fee) ProWritingAid can analyze your Google Docs for redundancies, cliches and more. Leave the overalls for the ranch work.
  6. Nail the style
    Know the publication’s style and use it, whether AP, Chicago or something else. And stick to the basics of journalism, like using only last names of subjects on second reference.
  7. Do your quotes runneth over?
    Quotes exist to further a storyline, not reiterate (sometimes verbatim) what the writer already stated. Choose quotes carefully. Don’t overuse them to get out of writing your own story. Fabricated quotes can be quite obvious.
  8. Get tense
    Pick a tense and stay in it. Switching tenses is a very common issue and easily fixable through self-editing.
  9. Sketch an outline
    Many outdoor publications deal with complicated biological and environmental issues. An outline can help a story’s flow and help the writer find a logical organization to the facts.
  10. Put the words down and walk away
    Allow for time to not look at a story. Build in time before deadline for this, it’s crucial. Finish writing the piece in advance, print it out and put it away. A couple days before it’s due to the editor, take it out and reread it. Lots of things will jump out at you. Give yourself a day to rework the piece without rushing it out the door. Trust me, your editor will notice. ♦

— Amy Bulger is a freelance writer by night, cloaked as the editor of Wyoming Wildlife during the day. And yes, she did self-edit this article.

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