Copy Edit Your Own Stories

By Cort Kirkwood
Special to Poynter Online


Editors foul up stories. This complaint from writers is sometimes true, but editors also have a legitimate beef: Writers file poorly written or edited stories.


As particular as they are about editing, many writers fail at it. Often, they open the door for editors to recraft poorly-constructed sentences, edit verbose text, or correct careless errors. In the best case, an editor rewrites a sentence and improves it. Or an editor merely insults a writer’s pride, rewriting what the writer thought was an unalloyed gem. In the worst case, an editor inserts an error.


Whatever the case, here’s the solution for writers: Carefully copy edit your own work. Turn in perfect prose.


Typical Problems


Editors routinely face copy editing problems like this: “The board then decided in a 3-1 vote to buy new parking meters.”


Yes, writers, you file this stuff. A little copy editing would produce this: “The board voted 3-1 to buy 30 parking meters.” You not only fixed the sentence but also answered an obvious question: How many parking meters did the council buy?


Other verbose formulations include “were able to,” “was capable of,” “in order to,” and other horribly constructed, unclear prose. Often, an editor sees this nonsense: “The murder suspect was shot by a policeman after he chased a terrified woman for six blocks.” The passive voice leads to questions: Who chased the woman? Try this: “The policeman shot the murder suspect, who chased a woman for six blocks.”


Meeting deadline means filing a finished story, and finished stories have been copy edited and proof-read.How about this inscrutable mess: “After the riot, the suspect was seen running by police between the municipal building and courthouse.” Was the suspect running by the police? Or did the police see the suspect running? Were police between the courthouse and municipal building? Corrected version: “After the riot, police saw the suspect run between the municipal building and courthouse.”


Dangling participles are so obvious you wonder how anyone falls into the trap, but danglers even snare veterans: “As soon as he was completely anesthetized, the doctor made the incision in the patient’s abdomen.” We should hope not!


Meeting Deadline With Clean Copy


Editors routinely encounter this weak writing, particularly on deadline. But why? An editor’s job is not scouring sloppy stories or pruning book-length stories. An editor’s job is to improve a story by helping the writer clarify or sharpen it. An editor should be contemplating important content questions, not fixing poorly written copy.


As someone once said to me: Editors are not word janitors.


Even on evening deadline, two hours before the press rolls, editors often hear this: “I filed 30 inches so you can cut it back if you want.” When writers tell me that, I answer: “I don’t want. Cut it eight inches.”


Typically, any story can lose a few inches, but in any event a writer must finish stories early to allow self-editing. If deadline is 6 p.m., you can’t finish the first draft at 5:58, then punch the file button, Editors are not word janitors.expecting an editor to repair it.


Meeting deadline means filing a finished story, and finished stories have been copy edited and proof-read. For the 6 p.m. deadline, that means finishing a rough draft at say, 5 p.m., taking a 15-minute break, then coming back to the story to copy edit.


Many writers file stories with this thought: “It’s a little rough, but he’ll fix it up.”


No, you fix it up.


File Perfect Copy


For an editor, here is the ideal: He opens the story, reads it, and hits the publish button. No questions; no editing.


Doubtless, the ideal is rare. A question or two inevitably crops up. Even the best writers leave out a word occasionally, or need advice on smoothing a sentence. But minor patching is no problem, and content editing is easy if a story is well-written; i.e., if the copy is free of typos, grammatical errors, and poor prose.


So writers, before knocking editors, try this: File perfect copy.


Cort Kirkwood is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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