Discover more from The Writer's Guide
Writers Need Four Eyes, Minimum
At least two of them must be not yours
A second set of eyes on your story can make all the difference. And I’m talking big picture here, not copy editing (also tremendously important, but a topic for another day).
Example: I sent a health story back to a writer the other day for some serious reorganization. All the elements were in place—it was a good story—but the flow was whacked. It bounced around quite a bit, from subtopic A to B to C then back to A then a dash of C, and so on. It was happening within sections, and across sections. And then the final section was, to my eyes, superfluous—didn’t seem to fit anywhere. All that made the draft hard to follow, and it felt longer than it needed to be.
“I think you’ve packed about 1,500 words of information into an 1,800-word draft,” I told the writer.
I enjoy offering specific advice on fixes, and often that’s a key aspect to helpful editing, but in this case, I felt the writer needed to figure out what was needed, so here’s what I said:
“I lost track of the main elements of the story, which should form your outline and flow (meaning I, as a reader, got confused). So you’ll need to figure out what the outline is, but I’m guessing it’s something like: intro/overview, what it is, why it’s harmful and what damage it can do (not sure if that’s one section or two, but the paragraphs at least should be grouped), why it’s so popular, treatment. You need to significantly move things around to group these elements (and then re-edit as necessary for flow and transitions).”
Annoying feedback from an editor, right? I mean, a total rewrite seems required!
By tidying up the outline (writing clear subheads that created partitions between the key aspects of the story), and moving everything into the section it belonged in, and reordering a few paragraphs, and nixing what didn’t support a section or the headline, then just a little smoothing of transitions, the story became shorter and a waaaaaay better read. And the writer did it quickly. It was apparently not that hard.
I have a lot more to say, in future posts, about how to outline a story. Creating a logical outline is the easiest way to avoid writing muddled-mess stories.
But the point of this post was to help you realize that no matter how great of a writer you are, and even when you do create an excellent outline, one annoying, cold, hard fact will dog your eyes for as long as words are still written by humans:
We writers often struggle to see the structural flaws in what we’ve written, because it’s already there and we put it there, so our brain figures it must be hunky-dory. The challenge is, you know, down-in-the-weeds and forests-for-trees stuff.
That’s why the publishing gods made editors. You need an extra set of eyes on every story. Four total, minimum, per story. If you don’t have an editor, find a curmudgeonly friend or relative. Ask them: “Does everything in this story seem necessary and interesting, and is it all in the right place? Be critical, please.”
Then strap on your thick skin and prepare to take some lumps and reorganize that article that had seemed so damn perfect to the person who wrote it.
This week’s quick tip: Shorten that lede
When you write the lede of your story—often that first sentence or two but sometimes a bit lower down if you’re backing artfully into it—be pithy as hell, as if you're telling the upshot of the story to a friend who is walking out the door, late for a Taylor Swift concert, looking at their watch. Twenty words or less is smart, 30 is pushing it.
“Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”
—Hunter S. Thompson