23 tips to cut fat from your story
My biggest complaint with the Times is having to pour through redundant type, book-length articles that need a Rider’s Digest condensation job . . . Starting a news item like some melodrama has me rolling my eyes. I usually move on to less complicated stories.
–A subscriber in Upland, California, in an-email to a Los Angeles Times Metro reporter on Dec. 6, 2007
Presciently, an hour after that e-mail was sent, small groups of L.A. Times reporters and editors participated in sessions designed to offer tips on cutting fat from their copy. Here is a summary of the participants’ suggestions. Read this if you’re interested in streamlining–or simply evading the wrath of that reader in Upland and countless others like her.
1. Test your quotes. If you can do a better job communicating in your own syntax, do it. We must fight against obligatory-sounding quotes.
2. Squeeze each sentence.
3. Read your story aloud-and, if you have true courage, have someone read it aloud to you
4. Write a “theme statement” at the top of your screen and don’t allow yourself to use any language that doesn’t advance the theme.
5. Check your sentences that precede a quote. You can often find redundancy. Kill these “echoes.”
6. Try to avoid passive voice
7. Edit on a print-out, not the screen.
8. Read your print-out with the margin tightened to resemble the published column-width version.
9. Put a non-deadline story down for a day.
10. Pretend you are a subscriber
11. For editors: Ask your reporters if they’d be willing to read the story with your editing marks suppressed
12. Use shorter words
13. Take out “boring” words
14. Try to avoid parenthetical sentences
15. “Of” is a sentence-stretcher you can often lose
16. Value periods over commas, which can create extraneous phrases
17. Squeeze the “background” elements of your story
18. Can you read your first paragraph with one breath?
19. After you decide you like your story, give it one more read
20. Kill jargon
21. Trim widows
22. Too much of the word “that” can slow down the story.
23. “Stage” your story to keep it in focus.
Most of these tips are obvious, but what’s also obvious is that we don’t pay enough attention to them. Make this pledge: Try one of these techniques on your next story. It shouldn’t mean more than a 15-minute effort against the hated foe: fat.