How to Keep it Tight

Edit This!
In the July ’01 issue of Writer’s Digest and an earlier issue of the Tips and Updates newsletter, we asked you to pare down a 268-word item about an editor complaining about the length of submissions she received. “Edit This!” we challenged you, and did you ever. We received 620 entries, ranging from rewrites that were longer than the original to several that were two words long: “Write tight.” The winner, selected by the WD magazine staff, is Glenn Craven, whose entry was 90 words long. Glenn, 35, is the editor of The Daily Dispatch, a 10,000-circulation newspaper in Henderson, N.C. He also is about 55,000 words into his first novel. As the winner, Glenn receives a Writer’s Digest book. You’ll find his winning entry and the original unedited version below:

“The original” by Michael J. Bugeja

Jane Doe slumps down in her chair until midnight amid the slush and stale pizza in front of piles of unsolicited manuscripts threatening to avalanche on her half-empty bottle of cola onto the grimy tile floor of the newsroom at Magazine X.

There are many reasons why Doe, who is editor, rejects submissions, and length of articles is one of them, because of availability of space in the magazine.

Editors dislike wordiness. Why shouldn’t they? Less is really more (depending on which section of the book a writer is targeting, of course).

“Too many writers and reporters tend to be wordy. True, freelance writing should be conversational or at least pronounceable. It shouldn’t ramble. We just don’t have the space. Good prose&#151good magazine prose, at least&#151plants an image or idea in the mind of the reader, phrase after phrase,” Doe says.

According to Doe’s internal audit on unsolicited manuscripts, approximately 1 filler submission out of 269 per month is accepted, along with 1 out of 143 articles and 1 out of 357 features, requiring 14 hours evaluation of snail submissions and 12 hours of e-mail submissions per staff person per week during the magazine period ending January 1, 2000.

Before taking a sip of her soda pop, Doe rejects another query after reading her umpteenth submission and noting the perils of publishing today.

Consequently, it is tougher than you might think to publish a padded manuscript. However, a freelancer’s chances of success will improve by using copyediting techniques. Otherwise, you will waste time and money and give up on the dream of being a published writer.

“The edit” by Glenn Craven

Jane Doe slumps in her chair at Magazine X, amid teetering piles of unsolicited manuscripts and stale pizza.

Doe, the editor, rejects submissions for many reasons, including length.

“Freelance writing should be conversational (but) shouldn’t ramble,” Doe says. “We just don’t have the space.”

At Magazine X, each staffer spends about 26 hours per week evaluating manuscripts. They accept one of 269 fillers submitted each month, one of 143 articles, and one of 257 features.

Doe rejects another query between sips of her soda. Her advice for freelancers: Write tight.

Glenn has 11 years of newspaper experience and shares these editing tips:

  • Make stories detailed and informative without using language that exceeds the average reader’s vocabulary.
  • Get to the point. Most readers are put off by lengthy stories.
  • Two short sentences are usually better than one long sentence.
  • Kill extraneous words. ‘That’ is the most frequent offender. In nearly every instance, a sentence is just as strong without ‘that.’ Read it aloud and you’ll see.
  • Rephrase wordy passages. Two items are ‘similar,’ for instance, rather than ‘very much alike.’
  • Spell check, keeping an eye out for correctly spelled words, oft-misused, like then/than or its/it’s.

Michael J. Bugeja is a professor of journalism and a special assistant to the president at Ohio University. His latest book is Millennium’s End (Archer Books), the royalties of which will go toward building an elementary school in Vietnam.

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