How To Be A Crackerjack Editor

By Dick Weiss

For starters:

1. Perform triage. Make a quick calculation regarding the amount of time you can spend with this story. Assess its promise, importance and anticipated prominence in the paper against every other story that will hit your desk before deadline.

2. Read the story from start to finish without changing anything. You may want to make notes in the copy for future reference.

  Tip: One editor reads the story, then handles other copy. He says his subconscious is at work on that story while he works another.

3. Make sure you understand the story's essence. What does the story accomplish? Who does it serve? Could you sum it up in eight to 10 words?

4. Consider the voices and the key elements. Has the reporter presented the facts and points of view necessary to provide a complete picture?

5. Evaluate or reevaluate the length. You and the reporter may have already reached a consensus. But now that you've read the story, does its importance still merit that amount of space?

6. Consider whether the reporter has the time or the wherewithal to make the necessary changes on his or her own.

For Accuracy:

1. Does it make sense?

  Tip: When there's time, read previous stories on the same subject.

2  Does it ring true?

  Tip: You can make your own calls to verify or include a fact.

3. Is the story potentially libelous?

4. Do the numbers add up?

5. Have names and addresses been double-checked?

6. Is terminology -- such as legal or religious terms --  used correctly and appropriately?

7. Have you run the spell-checker?

For Clarity and Grace:

1. Find the nut graf. Some stories may not require one, but most do. Does it clearly summarize the story's meaning and what the reader can expect to learn by reading further? Does it appear before the jump?

2. Consider sentence length. Do they vary and establish a rhythm? Does each sentence contain just one idea? If not, can you eliminate any of the following:

-- introductory clauses;

-- clauses that begin with who or which;

-- prepositional phrases;

-- "there are'' constructions;

-- Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs?

Tip: Read the story aloud for rhythm and conversational quality.

3. Identify sentences written in the passive voice. If possible, change them to the active voice.

4. Consider every verb. Powerful or wimpy? Avoid bastardized verbs, such as impact.

5. Look for context. Does the story provide enough history or background for the reader to grasp its meaning?

6. Consider attributions. Eliminate when possible. Or question their absence. Ask frequently: "How do we know this?''

7. Consider quotes. Do they restate the obvious? Can they be paraphrased more powerfully? Can they be shorter?

  Tip: Use quotes to document controversial assertions, evoke emotion, provide insight into character and background, present a provocative reflection of life as your subject knows and feels it.

For Power:

1. Is the writer showing or telling?

2. Does the story have a comprehensible structure? For instance, the story may be organized by topic, as a narrative, or in the inverted pyramid form. Has the writer used that form consistently and to its best advantage?

3. Does the story make the reader want to know what happens next?

4. Does the story contain characters or talking heads? Can we describe appearances, mannerisms, characteristics?

5. Is the story written with authority? Has the reporter marshaled the facts and presented them in such a way that it makes the subject more comprehensible? Are we finding meaning in this story or just getting more information?

6. Does the story provide a satisfying ending?

For your sake and the reporter's:

1. Evaluate whether the changes you've made to the story will change it substantially. If so, give the reporter a chance to read it or at least provide a heads up.

  Tip: If you've changed the lede, make sure to run it by the reporter.

2. Reread the story after you've finished editing it.

3. After you've "fixed'' a story, consider what you might want to say to a reporter so that less "fixing'' will be necessary the next time.