What goes through my mind when I'm editing a travel story?
First, the coffee.
Through a long career as an editor at a travel magazine, editing thousands of stories—narrative and service, long and short, feature and department, first-person and reported—I always start with a beverage that activates my brain.
Editing, after all, is an intensive process of cogitation and organization. If the writer’s job is to tell a story, the editor’s role is to make sure that story is told in the most effective way and that it aligns with the voice of the publication.
In an increasingly squeezed environment – where manuscript editors are doing double or quintuple duty as producers, copy editors, fact checkers, and publishers – writers who can think like editors and anticipate their needs will have the competitive advantage.
It boils down to this: The less work we editors have to do on your stuff, the more assignments we will give you.
Here are five questions I ask myself when editing a piece:
Like a building made without a foundation or frames or beams, a story collapses without a proper structure.
Your piece should have a strong and logical underpinning.
Unsure if it does? Reverse-engineer the process and go through each paragraph of your piece and note in a few words what you are trying to say. Read through your outline at the end. Does it follow a logical progression?
If so, you’re good; if not, figure out the missing pieces and try again.
Not all buildings look like rectangular boxes and not all stories have to be linear or chronological, but there has to be a solid internal structure.
Once I’ve made sure that the piece has good structure and organization, I look at the details, the transitions, the anecdotes, and examples.
This is where a writer’s voice can really sing and soar (or sadly, fail to connect).
The reader’s experience should be effortless, carried along by the writer from one point to the next. As the reader’s avatar, I look critically at every bump in the road and try to smooth the way.
If I don’t get an obscure reference, the reader may not as well. Is there a gap in the logic? We may need to fill in critical information. Is a quote wordy and redundant? Let’s tighten it so the reader doesn’t get bogged down and get lost in extraneous information.
I don’t generally like to put words in a writer’s mouth, so I may query you or ask you to clarify a sentence or paragraph.
Whether print or online, publications write to a particular persona or audience.
The personas of outlets such as the Robb Report and Nat Geo Traveler and AARP The Magazine and Vogue are very different, though they may all publish stories about the same destination, for instance.
Before you commit one word to paper, you should know the audience of the publication you are writing for because that affects your choice of words, examples, quotes, and overall tone.
Editors are typically happy to give you information on their readers, so you can channel this audience while you are writing.
A word about word count: Going over your word count is fine, but as a rule of thumb, don’t go much over 5 to 10 percent without checking with your editor. The reason is that your story has probably been slated for a particular section of the publication with a specific format and length. Giving the editor a little extra to work with is helpful, but too much becomes a burden.
Every word of a story is important, but there are two parts that you really want to get right, especially in a longer narrative: the opening and the closing (aka the “lede” and the “kicker,” in journo parlance).
The first lines of a story need to hook and immediately reel the reader into the story.
Many inexperienced writers make the mistake of thinking they have to start from the beginning, thus the ubiquitous and tired flying-into-a-destination opener. Stories don’t have to be chronological (though they do need to flow logically, see above).
The way you end a piece is important too. You want to connect it in some way to the intro. In a recent story I wrote about Banff, Alberta, I started the piece in the middle of my trip, at a moment that served as a good launching point. I circled back to it later, pulling out a different aspect of the event to serve as an ender. But be careful.
Enders can have a tendency to be trite or contrived. If your kicker is predictable or obvious, hit delete and keep trying.
If it’s a narrative, does it take me out of my office and transport me? If it’s a reported piece, do I learn something new? If it’s a service story, do I come away with some actionable items?
A piece of writing has to fulfill a purpose, whether stated or not. If it doesn’t, it will fail to satisfy and the reader will feel cheated.
My job as an editor is to ensure that the piece ultimately delivers on its purpose and to work with the writer to get it there.
Extra points if you provide a headline and subhead. Every story ever published has a headline and many have a subhead (sometimes called a deck), yet 90 percent of writers don’t provide either.
The editor may end up coming up with a different headline, but I always appreciate the writer providing suggestions to get me started.
Otherwise, I’ll need to brew another pot of coffee.
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