Precision Writing & Editing: 5 Timeless Tips
Last week, a friend who's been reading these "memmos" sent me an email that he's held on to for 13 years. The message was written by Hal Ritter, a former managing editor of the Money and News sections at USA Today and until earlier this year the business editor at The Associated Press.
The topic: "precision editing."
I called Hal to get his OK to share some excerpts. There are lessons here for reporters, producers and editors — whether they're working on pieces for the Web or the radio. Just substitute some words — "listeners" for "readers;" "correspondents" for "reporters;" "pieces" for "stories" and his advice works well. It could easily be a note about "precision writing":
"1. First, precision editing means getting it correct. Grammar, punctuation, usage and syntax are perfect. No rule is broken — or even bent. ... Every day, I see verbs that don't agree with their subjects, pronouns that disagree with their antecedents. ... I see words that are misspelled. ... I see prepositions used as conjunctions. And on and on and on. ...
"2. Second, precision editing means squeezing every unnecessary word out of a story. I swear I can delete 15% of the words in some stories and not lose a thing. Word editing means when you see 'away from,' you delete 'away.' 'Gathered together,' delete 'together.' 'Fell down,' delete 'down.' 'Burned up,' delete 'up.' 'In order to,' 'in order for,' delete 'in order.' And many words, like 'new,' you can delete almost every time you see them. You can't build an 'old' building. If you go through a story before sending it to the copy desk and challenge every word, you'll be amazed how many you can delete. And how much crisper the writing is when you're finished.
"3. Third, precision editing means writing for readers, not for sources. And that means getting rid of jargon or insider expressions. Language from Wall Street or Capitol Hill or Hollywood or the locker room that our readers won't understand. Or retaining the jargon and explaining it. Completely and conversationally. Readers will thank you for doing that. Sadly, I've heard some reporters say that their sources will make fun of them if the reporters don't write the way the sources talk. I say to hell with sources. Readers are the only people who matter at USA TODAY. Plus, those sources are wrong. The newspaper that does the best job of explaining jargon, completely and conversationally, is The Wall Street Journal. And The Journal's readers are likely to be well-versed in the jargon to begin with. A seventh-grader can read business and financial stories in The Journal and understand them.
"4. Fourth, precision editing means eliminating clichés and hackneyed expressions. Most of the time. I added that qualifier after rereading this week three wonderful pages that [Theodore M. Bernstein, long-time assistant managing editor of The New York Times] devotes to clichés [in The Careful Writer - A Modern Guide to English Usage]. Bernstein's last sentence on clichés is this: 'The important thing, however, as must be clear by now, is not to avoid the cliché, but rather to use it only with discrimination and sophistication, and to shun it when it is a substitute for precise thinking.'
"5. Finally, precision editing means careful attention to sentence structure. I believe that clear writing is 90% about sentence structure. What's the best sentence structure? Simple. Subject, verb, object. One independent clause. An active verb. Little or no punctuation. The worst sentence structure? Complex. 40, 50 or even 60 words. Several dependent clauses. Lots of punctuation."
My thanks to Hal for permission to share all that.
Someone may be about to suggest that the rules are different for radio. I would suggest that's wrong. For one thing, USA Today's best stories at the time of Hal's note were much like NPR's and about the same length. The writing was tight and conversational. USA Today writers and editors would sweat over how many characters — not just words — they could fit on a line. Think about how much effort goes into shaving seconds off some of the pieces that NPR produces.
Also, a reading of Jonathan Kern's Sound Reporting supports my case. Here's some of what Jonathan says about "how to sound like a real person":
– "First and foremost, say your sentences before you write them down; or at the very least, say them out loud after you've written them."
– "Don't use words on the radio you wouldn't say at other times."
– "Don't use syntax that does not occur naturally."
– "Use present participles — the 'present progressive' tense — to describe things that are going on at the moment."
– "Don't paraphrase actualities as if you were reading a quote from the newspaper."
– Keep your sentence structure simple."
– "Watch out for grammatical errors."
– "Recognize clichés and look for alternatives."
– "Avoid unnecessary jargon, acronyms and initialisms."
– "Check for typos, missing words and other clerical errors."
For those who want to read even more about proper usage, The New Yorkerthis week offers a piece on "Steven Pinker's Bad Grammar."