Make your story sing before you hit the ‘send’ key

Reporters’ tips on self-polishing

Laurie Hertzel, projects editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, surveyed her paper’s writers about a widely ignored art: self-editing. Most reporters never become excellent at this because they never worked as editors. That experience, painful though it is, enables you to find more dispassionate ways of cutting and mending somebody else’s work. Then, after a few years of editing, you come to your senses, return to the reporting ranks and you begin applying the same cruel but appropriate polish to your own stories.

Make your story sing before you hit the 'send' key

Make your story sing before you hit the 'send' key

Self-editing techniques rarely make for inspiring after-work-in-a-bar conversations. So Laurie devoted an edition of her Above The Fold in-house newsletter to “polishing.” Steal what you like from what follows. Here’s Laurie:

“When I polish my own stories, I read them over and over and over, out loud, silently, on printouts, on the screen, and I tweak and I change and I rewrite. If a sentence sticks out, I don’t immediately beat it back, but I worry it and almost always eventually change it. I trust my gut, even when someone else reads the story and says they like it the way it is. My standards are high, and I don’t let go until I like it all the way through, or deadline grabs it.

“When I work with a writer to polish his story it’s much the same thing, though I am probably more efficient. First we work on basic structure. Then we tackle the lede and the nut section. And at some point, the editing ends and the polishing begins — reading each sentence for emphasis and flow. Striving for clarity — is there a more efficient way of saying this? A more direct way? Examining endings — endings of sentences, of paragraphs, of sections, of stories. Do they end with oomph? Do they end on a good firm clear powerful word? Or do they trickle away dully? If there’s passive voice, was it intentional and does it serve a purpose? Can we beef up the verbs?

“I don’t follow a checklist like that; I do it through reading and re-reading and re-reading. Some might call it tinkering. But I call it polishing. Polishing methods are intensely personal. Read on for tips on how some of the writers and editors in our newsroom do it.”

Rochelle Olson: I fire off a draft pretty quickly. Then I start at the top and go through it again, looking for everything from spelling to balance, context and accuracy. Sometimes that means very little work and sometimes it means a complete rewrite from top to bottom.

Curt Brown: One practical polishing ritual is to go to galley [column-width] mode to get rid of all widows. It’s amazing how many extra words you can omit. And as dorky as it seems, reading out loud reveals awkward clunkiness.

Connie Nelson: Once I’ve got a solid draft, I let it sit for a day, if I’ve got the time. Then I reread the whole thing straight through without making any changes. If something seems off, I take another run through it and make the necessary changes. Finally, I read the story aloud. It may bug my co-workers, but I find it much easier to hear if a story has abrupt transitions, awkward or run-on sentences or clunky wording.

Janet Moore: For a beat reporter, rewriting and polishing are real luxuries. (And yes, I do think they’re different. Rewriting is, well, rewriting a piece, while polishing is sort of like mopping up spare and unnecessary words.) I just walk away from a story — ideally for several hours. When I get back, there are usually words, phrases, sentences, entire paragraphs that seem awkward. Often, the whole story seems stupid. So I try to fix it. Sometimes I’ll ask an unbiased person to take a look at it and ask for feedback. (That wouldn’t include the editor; they’re too close.)

I remember years ago, I wrote a story for my hometown weekly and asked my mother to read it before I handed it in. She said, “It’s very nice honey, but what is it about?” I still ask myself that question, and if I can’t answer it, that’s when the rewriting part comes in.

Gail Rosenblum: I think I polish “by gut.” (I always print the story out and read the hard copy holding a red pen.)And then I trust that excellent editors will get it to its “final resting place” in the Source section. But I confess that I also have about one day a week of total panic after I’ve “finished” a story … this panic usually arrives a day or two after I’ve written the piece, when I realize I’ve left out a key quote or important piece of context …I’m quite sure that my sharp ace Susan and the copy editors wish I’d have this epiphany about 48 hours earlier than I do…If they’re gracious enough to give me one more crack at it, to add something essential or take out something inane, I feel better and feel like it’s really “done,” or as “done” as a newspaper article can be.

Josephine Marcotty: I try to read it as if it were the first time. I read sections out loud to myself to hear how they sound. I take out unnecessary words and quotes, and try to think of more exciting active verbs.

I just do what my editor tells me to do. (Joke.) I think of writing (re-writing) like trying on dresses at a store. I always try on several, even though they all fit. And then I choose the one that works best. That way I can let go of my equity in any one version of the story–any lede, in particular. For a narrative-like story, I focus on how to organize the events and facts that create the best story line. For other types, I focus on how the info best fits together so that understanding builds layer by layer in the readers mind.

Chris Welsch: I continually rewrite as I write. Every time I reopen the file, I comb through the draft for places to tighten, redundancies to clip and verbs to strengthen. I look for connections between segments that I can build on for transitions.

Once a rough draft is done, I let it sit for a few hours or overnight to try to regain a fresh eye. When I’m coming back to a completed draft, I’m also trying to assess the critical question: Did I make the point I was trying to make?

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from an English professor named Bob Bergstrom. He recommended letting a story rest for a day or two between revisions. He said you should think about the story just before going to sleep — not to wrestle with it, but just to bring it to mind. He believed the subconscious has a lot more firepower than the conscious mind when it comes to the complex, creative act of writing. I have great success with that approach when I have time to use it. It can resolve difficulties with a lot less agonizing. Unfortunately, we seldom have time for that kind of luxury.

I have a bad habit of using “it” a lot, and a few other annoying quirks that I can’t seem to quit as a writer but can usually find when I’m being my own editor. I do focus on making the verbs active. I’ve internalized the advice of one of my journalism professors, Richard Streckfuss, who said “Sentences are designed to carry only one idea at a time.” When I see a sentence with two or three ideas, I can almost guarantee it’s not clear.

I also “hear” my writing. I don’t read it out loud, but I sound it out in my mind. That’s where I reinforce the rhythm and pacing of the story and try to give it a uniform tone.

I am always worrying about accuracy, but I do a particularly hard-nosed double-check for accuracy after the first draft is completed. I make a list of things I’m not sure about and call back sources, do Web searches, whatever I can do to verify information.

The other thing I do, which is mainly internalized at this point, is to make sure that the whole thing tracks from scene to scene. When I’m editing other people’s travel stories, I often give this tip: When you’re writing a narrative, the readers are like blind people you’re leading on a rope. If you don’t tell them you’re about to go up some steps or through a doorway, they’ll trip or bang their heads on the wall. So I try to make sure that each step of the way, the readers know where they’re going next. I don’t want them to let go of the rope.

Chris Serres: I like to make sure the tone is right, that the language fits the gravity of the story. To do that, I like to read my stories aloud, often to my wife, Karolina. She is brutally honest and will tell me when a story falls flat. It’s probably annoying, but when I’m done reading the story I ask Karolina what she liked and what conclusions she drew. If she liked a particular anecdote, I might move it up higher in the story. If I have to explain a lead and why it’s relevant to the point of the story, then I know something is wrong and I’ll ditch it. I don’t do a lot of word editing at the polishing stage, though I do check for active verbs, cliches and unnecessary cuteness. I dislike baroque writing and try to stick to short, simple sentences.

Claude Peck: I don’t have specific polishing tips, but I do have personal editing preferences that I tend to come back to. Similes need to really work and be fresh and applicable, not just tossed in for e?ect. The perfectly apt simile may be the one thing that a reader remembers and takes away from a story or a review. Introduce a simile or a metaphor, but don’t belabor it by using it two or three times at the top and again at the kicker.

In almost all cases, I like “said” as a quote attribution. Not “explained” or “added” or “mumbled” or “hypothesized.” I like “said” because it’s so simple and short and omnipresent that it more or less disappears.

Quotes should be used to advance a story, and therefore they shouldn’t need a summary setup that robs them of that function.

Maybe my single biggest emphasis is on clarity. That gets into flow, argument, logic, structure, language. Don’t forget that quote fragments often work as well as the quote that occupies an entire paragraph.

I may do a major edit, and I may do or suggest fairly large rewrites, but I hesitate to call it rewriting. More often, I suggest a new lede and say why, or suggest a different transition and say why, then I let the reporter rework it. I also may make structural suggestions: Move your third section to the #2 position and rework the transitions to make it work. Or peel this section off into a sidebar. Or find your lead in the draft’s third paragraph.

Another part of a big edit is taking out stuff that doesn’t work and suggesting the addition of things that seem missing. Additional reporting may be necessary.

Longer stories should not be a straight line from A to B. They should turn corners, open up new lines of inquiry, search out drama and maybe even foreshadow and delay gratification. You want a reader to stay with you till the end, and you may want to use literary tricks to keep them reading.

If you’d like to be on Laurie Hertzel’s electronic-distribution list for Above The Fold, e-mail her at: lhertzel@startribune.com