Becoming Your Own Editor

become-your-own-editorWriters speculate a lot about what editors really do. Some firmly believe that editors are the final barricade between writers’ excellent manuscripts and publication. Others seem to believe that the job of an editor is to clean up after writers and tell them what to do next.

To a certain extent, the latter is true. When a manuscript comes along that is so magnificent that no amount of typos can detract from its impact, many editors will clean it up, and gladly. Usually, though, they must weigh whether such “clean up” time will be justified by the final product. More often than not, the answer is no.

You can avoid this answer, however. If you follow these four easy steps, your editor will be able to judge your work using the criteria that really count: Its content and style. Better yet, you’ll never have to wonder again about what an editor does, because you’ll be doing it yourself!

Step 1: Get to the Point.

The first thing an editor wants to learn from your manuscript is its purpose. What is the story you are going to tell, and why? Why is it important? Don’t shroud your purpose in three or four cleverly written but pointless opening paragraphs.

If you’re writing a story about Old Sam, a three-legged border collie who was the most unforgettable dog you’ve ever met, don’t start your article with this kind of opener:

“When I got out of college with a few courses of animal science under my belt, I had little idea how bleak the job outlook would be. I wandered from clinic to clinic, but no work was to be had. Then my old buddy Joe, who owned a sheep ranch out on South Fork Road, offered me a job as a stablehand…”

This sort of opener may ramble on just like buddy Joe’s ranch before the author finally gets to the point: “And that’s where I met Old Sam.” All of this information may be important, but it isn’t the point of your story. Old Sam is.

If, on the other hand, your opening sentence is “Old Sam was the most unforgettable dog I ever met,” your editor might not think you have the world’s best knack for opening lines, but he will know what you plan to talk about up front, and be more inclined to read on. If that background information is really necessary, find another way to work it in.

Part of getting to the point is explaining to the editor, and the reader, why he or she should spend time reading what you have to say. Why are you writing this particular article? Why are you writing it now? The answer may lie in your credentials, your personal experience, or simply in your ability to express important ideas to the editor’s readers.

Let’s say that you want to write an article about a new virus in cats. Why should the reader hear about this from you? The answer could be that you’re a veterinarian who has handled several cases of the virus and can enlighten cat owners about it; or you might be a cat owner who learned about this disease, and you want to share the information you’ve gathered. Or, as a writer with a “nose” for a good story, you might choose to interview both veterinarians and cat owners about the disease and its effects, providing an article that combines human appeal with expert information.

The approach you choose will depend upon your market and your audience, but you should make two things clear from the beginning: Why this topic is important, and why the editor should accept you as the best person to write about it. Then let your story tell itself.

Step 2: Get Organized.

While I was editor of a pet magazine, one of my associates told me of a trick she had learned to help her organize her thoughts while writing: “Think in subheads.” Just about every magazine or newspaper story of any length is broken into smaller chunks, each set off with a subhead. Those subheads make the page look better visually, and lead the reader through an organized series of ideas.

If you look at your article carefully, you’ll probably find that it breaks down into three or four major component ideas. Thinking of subheads for these ideas gives you a chance to organize your thoughts into the appropriate categories, almost like creating an outline for the article after it has been written. You may find during this process that you need to flesh out one of your ideas in greater detail, cut back on another, or add yet a third. Your subheads don’t have to be cute or catchy; their primary purpose is to help you organize your material (and to demonstrate that organization to the editor).

Step 3: Get rid of the clutter.

When you break your article into subheads, you may find that you have some ideas that don’t belong under any of the categories you’ve roughed out. This may mean one of two things: You need another subhead, or you don’t need that material at all. The information might serve as a basis for another manuscript, but will only clutter this one.

It can be painful to look at a stack of notes and realize that, even though it took you hours to get that information, you can’t use it all in your article. But part of your job is precisely that: Deciding what is most important about the information you’ve amassed, and presenting that–and only that–to your readers. If you leave it to an editor to pluck the gems from the clutter, he may simply pluck a rejection slip from the drawer instead.

So read through your work again. Once you’ve organized it, you’ll find it easier to spot ideas that are only tangential to the main subject, or identify background material that is interesting but doesn’t contribute a great deal to the basic idea. Try pulling some of this material out of the main text and presenting it as a sidebar.

Suppose, for example, that you are writing about cancer treatments at a particular clinic, and you’ve found some interesting information about another clinic or another method that seems promising. If that information doesn’t belong in the main body of your piece, write it up as a complementary sidebar. If the editor likes your sidebar and has room for it, you may even get paid extra for it. But if not, you won’t have jeopardized the success of your main article by cluttering it with extra information.

Step 4: Keep it “clean.”

Whenever an editor receives an all-but-illegible manuscript, filled with typos, the first reaction is that the writer doesn’t care enough about the magazine or its audience to present the best article he can. The editor will be prejudiced against such an article from the beginning, and the writer will have to work twice as hard to prove that the content of the article outweighs the sloppy presentation.

Unfair? Maybe. But if a writer doesn’t check for the typos and grammatical errors–the easy stuff–an editor is bound to wonder whether that writer was any more careful where it counts. When a manuscript is littered with misspellings, what assurance does the editor have that the writer has checked facts, verified every phone number, and doubled-checked figures and the spellings of names?

Editors also get irritated by the idiosyncracies of computer printouts. While computers have come a long way, remember that if you are asked to submit an electronic copy of your article (particularly in text format), your editor may have to deal with weird characters that creep in where you’ve specified formatting commands (such as underlining or italics). Editors also don’t care to deal with the weird spacing that results when you justify the right margin. Leave that sort of formatting to the magazine; when submitting your manuscript, do as little formatting as possible.

Be careful, also, of errors that creep in when you make corrections or changes. It’s easy to miss duplicate sentences, or half-sentences, or bizarre formatting problems that result from careless corrections. Don’t just hope the editor can figure out what you meant to do; do it right the first time.

Finally, editors like to know that you know they exist, and that you know what is going on with their publications. When an editor receives a manuscript addressed to his predecessor’s predecessor (it’s happened to me!), he can’t help but wonder how recently the author has examined a copy of the magazine.

The penultimate sin, of course, is to leave out your self-addressed, stamped envelope. Make sure that you’ve put enough postage on your SASE; I’ve known writers to slap a single first-class stamp on a 9×12 manila envelope that would require additional postage to mail even if it were empty. (The ultimate sin, of course, is to allow your manuscript to arrive with postage due.)

So take another look at that manuscript you’re about to put in the mail. Did you read it through with an editor’s eyes–the eyes of someone who has never seen it before and doesn’t know in advance what you’re trying to say? Is your print clean and dark? Is there enough postage on both envelopes? If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these questions, congratulations! You’ve begun to think like an editor–and removed another barrier between you and success.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.