It’s every writer’s bane: you think your article is golden, and your editor sends it back red. Step Up Magazine interviewed two veteran editors to learn the most common mistakes they catch and what you can do to save your editor (and your eyes) some red ink.
Photo: Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Do your homework.
Nothing’s sadder than a tone-deaf article that doesn’t deliver. Patty Gaul, a senior editor and writer at the Association for Talent Development (ATD), urges writers to research their topic and learn what’s already been published on it. “Readers want to learn,” she counsels. Don’t bore them with what they’ve already read or can learn elsewhere. “Give them something new.”
Customize to your audience.
Before you start writing, consider who your audience is, and why you’re writing for them. There’s a chance your audience is as knowledgeable as you, but, if you’ve done your homework, it’s safe to say they’re probably reading to learn. While Gaul concedes “it can be a challenge to intuit what the audience understands about a topic,” she has a rule of thumb: “When in doubt, explain.”
Ryann Ellis, an editor at ATD with 20 years of writing and editing experience, concurs. Novice authors often “fail to pinpoint their intended audience and focus their content to speak to those readers.” Write with your audience in mind and take pains to ensure they have the background information they need to comprehend.
Once you’ve discovered your target audience, stay focused. “Sometimes writers go off on tangents,” Gaul laments. Just like paragraphs can have misfit sentences, articles can be irrelevant to their audience or publication.
Ellis has straightforward advice to errant writers: “Identify the purpose of your piece” and stick with it. Before they start writing, Ellis advises authors to decide whether their article’s goal is to “entertain, inform, or call to action.” For example, best practices to manage student loans is probably immaterial in a column for Bitcoin investors.
Get to the point.
Giving your readers relevant background information is important, but you don’t want to go overboard either. Keep your article moving so your readers remain engaged. Ellis explains: “If you're writing about using virtual reality (VR) for learning, I don't need a history of the entire VR market.” Be thorough, but succinct.
Channel your inner Hemingway.
There’s a reason Hemingway inspired a generation of writers. He knew the art of minimalism with words.
Gaul cautions writers against being “too clever or cute.” Be simple and your writing will be better for it. Cluttering your article with clichés and heavy-handed themes just detracts from your message.
If you “try to be too witty”, Ellis warns, your article will likely be riddled with errors like “ineffective sub heads, titles that don’t match the rest of the content,” and, most irksome of all, mixed metaphors. (Have you ever tried to thread a needle in a haystack?) In the best-case scenario, your readers will find your gaudy, jumbled style laughable. In the worst-case scenario, you will come off as condescending and “turn your readers off altogether.” Either way, you’ll do best to avoid this mistake.
This doesn’t mean your vocabulary can’t sparkle, however. Ellis urges new writers to break out a thesaurus to avoid repetitive or redundant vocabulary choices. The adverbs really and very are frequent offenders. “If something is ‘very good,’” Ellis explains, “write ‘superb.’ If someone is ‘really worried,’ say they’re ‘anxious.’”
Double check yourself.
Misspelled words, missing punctuation, superfluous content, and grammar snafus are easy to overlook in your own writing. “A fresh eye does wonders!” Gaul reflects. Don’t rush to submit your article the minute you’ve finished it. Instead, manage your deadlines so you have time to review your writing for loose ends.
Learn from the greats.
No matter how thoroughly you understand the principles of good writing, you’ll never learn without practice. If you want to improve, take Gaul’s advice: “Read and write!” Read books, newspapers, and blogs to experience the mechanics of good writing in action. Then practice them. “There are endless opportunities,” says Gaul, who believes journaling has helped her grow as a writer. In addition to journaling, writers can contribute to blogs or submit articles to publications to develop their skills.
Ellis suggests that fledgling writers “ask an experienced editor or writer they like reading to review their work.” To gain the most from your writing mentor’s advice, don’t just read your final article with their changes incorporated. Back in Ellis’ editorial assistant days, she would input the changes editors had marked up in red pen. She credits this experience with most improving her writing skills. “Take the time to review their edits,” Ellis says. For her, “reading edits was as helpful as reading the final, clean version of the article.” Chances are it will be for you too.
Olivia Amici is a hustler who has been writing short stories for fun since high school and editing scientific papers since moving to Concepcion, Chile, for a gap year. Before then, she paid her way through community college while working as an event coordinator and a dental assistant. Once she returns to the States, she is excited to complete her degree in biology at University of Florida. In ten years, she would like to be working as a medical research editor and own an African Gray Parrot and a house in San Diego.