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You Don't Say

News You Don't Say

Here's how we do it

Earlier today, Robert of Cross Keys, a longtime reader here at Wordville, made this request on Facebook: "I would love to know the secret of making edits quickly and decisively, so that I may share it with my bosses who live to re-edit. If my office were a newsroom, we would still be tweaking the story of the Hindenburg disaster, while the piece on Kennedy's assassination would remain in draft form."

Hoping the Fellowship of the Rim will forgive me for betraying the secrets of the craft:

Editing is like sculpting Michelangelo's David: You take a chunk of marble and chisel away everything that isn't David. You look at a piece of prose to determine the single main thing it means to say, and you ruthlessly excise everything that does not contribute to it. 

And once you have determined that single main thing, you get to it as quickly as you can, avoiding prefaces, prologues, and introductions. As the Old Editor says, the crowd doesn't care about the windup; the crowd wants to see the pitch. 

After you have established the main thing, the secondary material, the background, can be laid out in an appropriate order. 

You will want to pay attention to register: vocabulary, syntax, level of formality or informality. For example, the sort of corporate, academic, or governmental bureaucrat who sits at a desk issuing directives to people who do actual work finds any piece of prose suspect that fails to present jargon, obfuscatory circumlocutions, and the cant of the day. Leave some of it in for such an audience. But if you are writing for people who need to know what exactly they are expected to do, lance and drain. 

Syntax matters. Some people churn out bursts of short declarative sentences. But not all elements are of equal value, so you will need to subordinate. Some people write loose, unconnected sentences containing extraneous elements. These will have to be broken down and reconstituted. 

About the time it would take your people on the Hindenburg and Kennedy assassination stories: Writing is not a natural activity, like napping, or flirting, or saluting the sunset with a Manhattan. It is laborious, and writers put it off as long as they can, often devising elaborate mechanisms of delay.

If you are waiting for a text from your boss, you are at the mercy of this tendency. But you can, and should, impose strict deadlines on subordinates, holding yourself ready to prod, poke, and chivvy as necessary. (You can also make a nuisance of yourself to colleagues at your own level.) 

Your boss will inevitably love to re-edit whatever you submit, like the chef who will not pronounce it soup until he has spat in it himself. Live with this. Endurance builds character. Over time you will develop so much character that you will scarcely be able to support it unassisted. 

This should get you started. 

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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