Magazine editors on where articles go wrong
More ways to sharpen your writing
Published: October 1, 2010
|In the November 2010 issue of The Writer, the magazine’s senior editor, Ronald Kovach, offered “25 tips to sharpen your writing”—an insider’s advice based upon a long career in editing. As part of his article, he surveyed a variety of seasoned magazine editors around the country to have them summarize the most common errors they’ve seen in manuscripts. Here are their observations.|
From Richard Snow, former longtime editor of American Heritage and author of a number of books, the latest of which is 2010’s A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II:
I edited nonfiction for many years on American Heritage magazine. There are, of course, a thousand cautions and rules about writing well, and many of them boil down to common sense: Put things in chronological order; explain again what someone or something is if it’s been a long time since you’ve introduced him or her or it; and if something dramatic is happening, understatement is almost always more effective than overstatement. Do not, for instance, signal its imminence with “Then all hell broke loose.” Do not say that the reader is about to encounter something “astounding” or “almost unbelievable.” That’s like prefacing a joke by announcing, “This is hilarious”—the listener will always put up his guard: “I'll be the judge of that.”
Trust the reader to be intelligent but not omniscient. I’ve known writers who like to display—or counterfeit—a casual expertise by throwing in the occasional unexplained technical term. (Once, with no previous context, a writer mentioned “RN.” He meant Royal Navy. Anyone who hadn’t served with the British fleet would have assumed he meant “registered nurse.”)
Every so often, read George Orwell’s brisk, funny essay “Politics and the English Language,” which might just as well be named “How to Write Good English.” It’s 60 years old and not very long, but it remains the best tutorial I know.
Don’t put at the head of your submission “3,700 words” or “Copyright (c) 2010 by [your name here]”—these invariably announce the writer is an amateur.
From Elfrieda Abbe, former editor and now publisher of The Writer, and a veteran freelance writer:
• What’s the article about: Lack of structure is a common problem I’ve seen over and over. Writers do their research, gather quotes from experts, and then assemble their findings in such an organized manner that they lose the readers. You may discern that the article is about yarn, but what exactly about yarn: Is it how yarn is made, artisan yarns, the yarn industry, the interest in knitting? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
You can avoid this pitfall if you organize your copy in a logical manner that readers can easily follow. Begin by letting the reader know what the article or story is about. You should state this close to the beginning in what is sometimes called a “nut graf.” This paragraph makes a promise to the reader: Here’s the benefit of reading my article.
An example I’ve used often in workshops is from an article by Michael Pollan on how beef is processed. Pollan purchases a feeder calf and follows it through to the meat-packing plant, where he retrieves some steaks. Here’s what he promises the readers:
“My primary interest in this animal was educational. I wanted to find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days, from insemination to slaughter.”And by the end of the article the readers know exactly how those steaks arrive on their plates.
• Multiple experts: It’s a challenge to organize an article when you have multiple sources. Too often I see quotes from experts presented willy nilly or with repetitive information. Try to organize your quotes around a specific topic. Don’t quote two experts on the same topic if they are saying virtually the same thing.
Keep one expert’s quotes together as much as possible. If you scatter them throughout the article, you’ll most likely send the reader searching through the article for the original reference because they’ve lost track of who is who. You stand a chance, then, of losing the reader. If you do mention the expert at the beginning of an article and then later, include some kind of identifying word or phrase to jog the readers’ memory.
From Corey S. Powell, editor-in-chief of Discover and a science writer whose work includes the book God in the Equation: How Einstein Transformed Religion:
There is a wide range of problems I run into with freelance writers for Discover. The most egregious ones happen at the beginning, with the pitch. Some people pitch to the wrong name (Discovery) or the wrong magazine entirely. That sends them straight to the delete file. Some people pitch stories that have just run in the magazine, or run in a competing magazine, or stories that are right out of the news. Delete. If everybody knows, what is the point?
In terms of the actual writing, there are certain repeating themes. I see a lot of buried ledes: I read and read and read and somewhere around paragraph 13 I start to understand the point of the story. Or sometimes I find the lede in the penultimate paragraph of the feature (more often than you’d think).
All too often writers think the way to pump up the interest of a story (especially a science story on a topic that might seem intimidating to some readers) is with exaggerated drama: “Dr. X was staring at his test tube, astounded. What he was seeing could not possibly be true—and yet there it was.” I also see a lot of stories in which every small advance is a “breakthrough,” and a lot of stories in which “everything we thought we knew is wrong.” Take a deep breath and let the story tell the story. We’re not here to sell used cars.
I personally am allergic to the overuse of the first person. If there is an “I” in the story there better be a damn good justification for it. “I” works when it allows the reader to put him/herself in the shoes of the journalist and experience something truly remarkable. When “I” is there to prove that the reader got a cushy junket to a nice conference, I’ll pass.
The flip side is that some journalists feel it is their job to remove all personality from the story, to make the information seem as if it descended from heaven. Discover is all about narrative storytelling, so I want narrative. We write about scientists who spend years and years working on a problem. Something big motivates them to do that, and I want to understand the underlying drive. I want to feel the hunger. I want to crave the answers as much as they do. I want to know why it matters. I am asking a reader to invest time and money in this magazine; I want that reader to come away feeling like this was the best investment of the day (if not the week, or month).
From Kurt Chandler, senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine and author of Shaving Lessons: A Memoir of Father and Son:
Most writers struggle with organization, particularly when writing narrative. They’ve collected so many bits of information from so many sources that it becomes mind-boggling to figure out how to sort it and piece it together in a cohesive, readable order. As rudimentary as it sounds, I encourage writers to make an outline, breaking out salient points or themes and weeding out what’s secondary or just plain extraneous.
In my own writing, I sometimes jot things down on Post-its and stick them on a wall, arranging them point by point, sometimes chronologically, sometimes by “characters” in the story, sometimes under subsections that I’ve identified. As I read through my notes, I fashion a linear storyline, of sorts, that (to use a worn metaphor) allows me to see the forest through the trees.
A good narrative isn’t so much WRITTEN as it is CONSTRUCTED, detail by detail, quote by quote. As the puzzle comes together, gradually, piece by piece, a writer can step back to get perspective and, hopefully, some sense of structure.
I also see a lot of under-performing verbs in narratives. Adjectives and adverbs dress up a description, but a perfectly chosen verb can make a narrative really move. Writers get lazy when it comes to verbs. But, like adding one more mile to your morning run, finding just the right verb can make a piece of writing more muscular, and certainly more evocative.
Take this sentence: “The woman in the silver boots ran down the sidewalk.” It’s adequate, but pretty static. Now, try these alternatives: “ The woman in the silver boots DARTED down the sidewalk.” Or “SCURRIED down the sidewalk.” Or “FLOATED” or “ZIGZAGGED.” Each has a different connotation and adds more vigor to the sentence. I also tell writers to make good use of their thesaurus. Just don’t become a slave to it. Use it as a way to push yourself to come up with that gold-standard verb.
From Errol Laborde, who as editor-in-chief of Renaissance Publishing Co. serves as editor and associate publisher of New Orleans Magazine and editor and publisher of Louisiana Life Magazine:Some suggestions:
• Move quickly into the heart of the story, which is to identify the problem, or conflict, then tell the story of its resolutions. All compelling writing is about problem resolution, albeit seeking peace in the Middle East or making a better pie. After establishing the story, then the embellishments can be added.
• Avoid the gratuitous Wikipedia statement. If, for example, you are writing about housing, there is no need for a statement such as, “The Romans first constructed public housing as early as 23 BC.” Also, while the Internet can be a powerful research tool, avoid ripping off information from websites.
• Never end an article with a quote attribution, such as, “ ‘We will try to do better in the future,’ Smith says.” That is the most boring of all closings.