February 25, 2013

The accelerated pace of journalism means many reporters have to write, edit and quickly publish their work online, sometimes without the benefit of an extra set of eyes.

Given this reality — and the fact that there are fewer copy editors these days —  it’s more important than ever for reporters to become their own self editors.

Here are a few steps you can take to help yourself produce cleaner copy and avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Print out stories, proof them

Tom Orsborn, a sports writer covering the Dallas Cowboys for the San Antonio Express-News, often picks apart his own stories long before his editors have the chance.

Self-editing is one situation where exhibiting obsessive-compulsive tendencies can help, he said during a phone interview: “Sometimes I can’t let go of a story because I just want it to be perfect. It can take a toll on you mentally, but it also leads to clean copy.”

Orsborn said he tries to give each story at least three reads. He’ll read once for content and flow, once to check facts and again to check for grammatical mistakes and typos. “I’ll take a story apart sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph,” he said. Then, he’ll read the story from top to bottom and again from bottom to top.

Often, Orsborn said he’ll try and print a copy of the story then step away from his desk. “It can really help to take a walk with it, get a cup of coffee or something,” he said. Occasionally, though, there just isn’t time. And printers aren’t always easily accessible on the road, which is where he and many sports reporters do a lot of their work.

In those situations, Orsborn said he tends to develop close relationships with copy desk colleagues. “I’ll always call if I see any type of error in my stories,” he said. “I don’t worry about irritating people. Some young reporters may worry about calling the desk more than once or twice, but I say call them. I do.”

Still, he tries not to rely on the copy desk too much. “You have faith in the copy editors, but ultimately you’re responsible for whether there’s a mistake in the story or not,” he said, urging reporters not to fall into the trap of expecting copy editors to catch their every mistake.

Read stories out loud

Another option when you can’t print is to read a story aloud to yourself, said Poynter Editing Fellow Jacqui Banaszynski.

“When I read my own work out loud, I hear things that my eyes look over,” she said by phone. “I hear when sentences are getting too long or when I’m using adjectives or adverbs I might not need. I also hear when I’ve built in some lack of clarity.”

Still, like Orsborn, she also likes printing stories. She suggests going through hard copies with a marker to highlight verifiable facts and parts of speech whose use may be questionable.

“I almost always find a typo that I read right over when working on the computer,” she said.

Banaszynski also suggests narrowing the width of the copy on the pages you print. “When you narrow your columns, you might see more,” she said. “Otherwise, your eye isn’t going to be looking as closely at that stuff on the periphery.”

Find your editor persona

Meticulously editing your own copy before filing takes time. But savvy reporters can get faster with practice, particularly if they’re able to separate themselves from their stories. “The real key is to switch gears in your head so you’re looking at your copy differently,” Banaszynski said.

Los Angeles Times reporter Rick Rojas sees it as switching from his occasionally sloppy writer/reporter persona to his exacting and picky editor persona. “I try and go back to my stories with a different mindset before I file,” he said.

His editor persona tends to look for strong verb use, word choice and potential holes. “I’m looking at everything I can to see if the story can stand up to scrutiny,” Rojas said by phone.

“I am always a little paranoid that people are going to find something to quibble with in the story.”

He’ll double and triple check all facts, spellings and ages, particularly if a story has been in progress for some time. And he admits his weak spots to himself in the process. “I’m a terrible speller, so I have to go back and make sure that I spelled things correctly,” he said.

Switching between personas, however, can be a challenge. As a self editor, Rojas said, “You can’t look at a story like it’s your baby. You have to step back and distance yourself from it. Ask yourself questions like ‘is that nice phrase really accurate?’”

Putting yourself in the readers’ shoes can ultimately help you be a better self-editor, and a more thoughtful reporter and writer.

What tips would you add? Tell us in the comments section.

Related: Check out News University’s upcoming online group seminar, “Writers without editors: How to edit your own writing.”

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Meena Thiruvengadam is a writer and editorial consultant whose prior stops include Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Yahoo. Her first full-time news job was as a…
Meena Thiruvengadam

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