Pointing out Mistakes

As an editor, I spot mistakes regularly – in the morning newspaper, on grocery store signs, on websites, and in brochures. Mistakes are everywhere.

Once I’ve spotted a mistake, I have to decide whether or not to point out the mistake. It is tempting to always point out mistakes, but that can make editors annoying friends.

If the mistake can be easily corrected, then I will point it out. Mistakes on websites are quick and easy to fix. When I saw an issue on a brochure that is going to be used for a year or more, I let the responsible person know so that when he reprinted it, he could correct the mistake.


However, when there was a typo on a flier that would only be relevant for a few weeks, I let it go. The organization was not going to reprint the flier, so it wasn’t worth pointing out the error. But the mistake still bothered me – I can’t un-notice errors.

If there is a process improvement that will prevent future mistakes from occurring, then I do usually point out errors. I might even mention that I am available for contract work!

During a beach vacation, I spotted a glaring error in a message scrawled in the sand. I just couldn’t resist, I had to add the missing letter. My husband still teases me about never turning off my editorial brain.

Editing Out Loud

During a dinner table conversation, I read an interesting piece of copy to my husband. It was from an editorial project I’d worked on earlier in the day and I thought he would resonate with the topic. As I was reading the selection out loud, I noticed a typo. What should have been the word “it” was “if” in this first draft. Not a problem, because the article was still in the early stages of the edit and design phase and I could easily make corrections. But the experience reminded me of the value of reading out loud to catch errors.

Brains are amazing in speed and ability. Fluent readers quickly move through text and their brains process content so quickly that many small errors are smoothed over in the process. This is especially true if the reader is already familiar with the content. It is as if  the brain has an autocorrect feature – one that is much better than autocorrect on texts!

So how do we counteract this auto-correcting brain process and catch errors before they get to print?

First of all, having another person who is not familiar with the text perform a round of copyediting is important. Another reader will have fresh eyes and not be lulled into skipping small errors.

However, sometimes fresh eyes are not available for a project. In this case, taking the time to slow down and read the text out loud, pronouncing each word, can reveal lingering errors.

I also find that planning sufficient time for a break in my schedule improves the quality of my work. I try to finish up a project or chunk of work the day before it is due. Then I can give myself some space and let the project (and my brain) rest overnight. In the morning, a fresh round of edits will catch any errors that might not have been obvious at the end of a full day of work.

editing picture

Where to Cut

I relish the challenge of cutting an article down to size. Not that there is anything wrong with 1,000 words, but usually I need to fit an article into a particular spot in a magazine. While writers have a word count with their assignment, they often go over their allotment. Even for online content, where space is theoretically unlimited, judicious trimming results in a tighter, more compelling piece. Good writers will make their own cuts before submitting articles, but it is easier for editors to cut because they are not wed to each word.

Before Cutting

Before I start cutting, I try to understand the big idea of the article. This will help me in the cutting process, as I identify extraneous ideas. If the big idea isn’t clear, then it is hard to determine what to cut, and the article might need a complete re-write to hone the main message prior to cutting.

Next I read through and make edits that add clarity and correct errors. This process might actually make an article longer, but is an important step. For example, if there is an abrupt transition that leaves the reader wondering, adding a few words or sentences can smooth the bump and help the reader follow along.

The Hatchet

If an article is significantly longer than the target, the first cut is with a “hatchet” to chop out entire sections. Perhaps the author gives five supporting examples for the big idea. Each example might be interesting, but the hatchet edit chops the article down to the two or three most important examples. The guiding question for this chop is to consider the reader and whether or not each example illuminates the main point for the reader.

Another area to chop is predictable prose. A great editor keeps the content that is original, but cuts out areas that have been overdone in other platforms. Content should add to the conversation, not just rehash tired thoughts.

In addition, as the editor, I may chop a section that covers content which is present in another article in the magazine. This is an edit that writers cannot make, since they are only aware of their article, not how the whole magazine fits together.

The Knife

I use the knife to cut away unnecessary words that don’t add meaning; words such as really, actually and basically are throwaways.

Watch out for lists that go on and on. While a bulleted list can add clarity for the reader, no one is going to read a list of 15 items. I will focus a list on four or five essentials and trim the rest.

Often I straighten out meandering sentences with multiple clauses. I rewrite such sentences into clear, emphatic prose. Not only will content be shorter, but it will be more compelling.

After the Cut

After chopping and trimming, I set the content aside and come back later with fresh eyes to consider whether any of the edits introduced errors or dead ends.  Then I enjoy the satisfaction of clear writing that hits the target.

Note: This article started at 555 words and I cut it down to 511 words.

Fact Checking

Most days I read my local newspaper and the Wall Street Journal. And most days I find editorial errors in one or both papers. The errors often distract me from my reading. Some are obvious grammatical and spelling errors. But the errors I find most bothersome are factual errors.  These kind of errors cause me to wonder if there are other errors in the paper. Factual errors matter because if people make decisions based on information in the news, then erroneous information can cause poor decisions, especially in the Wall Street Journal.

The potential factual error in the January 13, 2015 Wall Street Journal was in an article about exercise, so no investment decisions were based on the article. But if the location of the park mentioned in the article was incorrect, was the information about U.S. bank earnings in another section correct?

Fact checking is difficult for editors, because it requires specialized knowledge or research into diverse topics. Fact checking takes time. However, the article in question was a feature about an individual, and if this person had carefully read the article draft, he could have corrected the error. Having a source review content is the first and most important step in fact checking.

Specialized knowledge helped me question a fact in the article because I am familiar with one of the two cities mentioned in the article. The person profiled has homes in Fort Worth and Seattle. The article asserted: When in Fort Worth, he walks from 30 to 90 minutes around the steep hills of Lincoln Park four to five days a week. The assertion caused me to pause in my reading. I know for certain that Seattle has a Lincoln Park that is hilly because I have walked around the beautiful park many times. I wondered if Fort Worth also had a hilly Lincoln Park. I did some fact checking on the Fort Worth parks department website (yes, like many cities, they do have a Lincoln Park). Then I looked up the park on Google maps, zooming in to the earth view. Lincoln Park in Fort Worth is a small neighborhood park, two blocks square, with a creek, some trees, but no hills, and probably only 15 minutes of exercise potential. If I was the editor overseeing this article, I would have sent it back to the writer suggesting that she confirm the location of Lincoln Park with the person profiled in the article. It is possible that my knowledge of parks and fact checking is inaccurate and there is a large, hilly Lincoln Park in the Fort Worth area. However, I also checked nearby Dallas for a Lincoln Park and did not find one. This particular fact probably only bothered people familiar with Fort Worth or Seattle.

Fact checking is the part of editorial work that still needs the human brain. At some point in the future, along with spell check and grammar check, there may be an artificial intelligence app that does fact checking. But for now, newspapers and other media platforms need actual editors to perform this essential step in the process. Because accuracy matters to this reader.

Why Does Anyone Need an Editor Anymore?

Why use a professional editor when there are electronic editing tools that highlight spelling and grammar errors? Besides the obvious answer that electronic editing tools do not catch all the errors in any document, an editor brings precision to content.

For example, on a recent editorial project, the writer was talking about children, and he kept using the adjective “small” children. After reading through all the content, I discerned that he was actually talking about the age not the stature of the children, so I changed the modifier to “young” rather than “small.” This minor changed added precision to the word choice. To which some of you might ask, “Who cares?”

The changes that an editor makes to good content might seem insignificant; however, the difference between good content and great content is in the details. Spell check or grammar check will never tell you that there is a better word to use to express meaning. Nor will these tools help you use a colon or semi-colon correctly. Why care about such precision?

Precise language communicates meaning. An editor can take your thoughts and good content and make them great so that the meaning you want to convey comes through to the reader. An editor will take your very, very, very long sentence that is technically correct but confusing to the reader and massage it into a form that allows the reader to understand your meaning. An editor will challenge your word choice to strengthen the meaning you want to convey. An editor will clean up your punctuation so your ideas and thoughts flow smoothly.

I could go on and on, but I am an editor, so my goal is to convey this idea in less than 300 words.

Communicating Data

Data is just a Google-search away – from sources around the world. Content is available in all formats and platforms. In the midst of so much content and data, it takes insight and discernment to provide accurate, clear and relevant information that informs and equips.

Here are a few principles for communicating data:

  • Does the data make sense? All those estimation problems that math teachers force on their students are actually useful, because they help in discerning if a number makes sense. When a number is stated precisely, such as “886,400 people live in the city,” then one might assume that accuracy is guaranteed. However, if the city in question is Mexico City, then it is possible that a digit was lost and the actual number is closer to 8,864,000. As an editor, I may not know the actual population of Mexico City, but I know it is one of world’s largest cities, so the figure of less than a million people doesn’t make sense. If a number doesn’t make sense, I can search different sources to verify the number.
  • Is the data accurately labeled? Population information is available for cities and for metropolitan areas. There is a difference. The population within the city limits may be vastly different from the population in an area that includes suburbs which surround the city. For example, an estimated 21.2 million people live in the metropolitan area which includes Mexico City.
  • Is the data comparable? If I am comparing cities in the Americas, I may want to discuss New York City and Mexico City. If I am sloppy with the data, I could say that New York has 19.6 million people while Mexico City has 8.9 million, leading the reader to believe that New York City is larger than Mexico City. The data cited are not comparable – the New York metropolitan area has 19.6 million people, but New York City has 8.3 million people. On both scales, New York City is smaller than Mexico City.

These are just a few checks to use when presenting data. Accuracy matters!

Please Edit Your Holiday Letters

The post office is still in business, so it’s holiday letter season. Even though we know way too much information about many of our friends from frequent social media updates, some of us still engage in the holiday letter tradition. In the spirit of sharing professional editorial advice, here are a few tips that will take your holiday letter from good to great:

  • Make us laugh – if you have the gift of writing humor. Otherwise, don’t try to write a funny Christmas letter. My years of magazine editing yielded many more rejected “humor” articles than accepted ones. Humor is a gift. If you don’t have it, choose a different genre. We have one family friend who writes the best humor letter ever. Only one.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, and the trend toward photo collages is welcome in holiday letters. However, a few words are helpful for your readers. Since some of us can’t remember the names and ages of your children, it’s OK to put captions on the pictures. Also, we might be curious about the mountain or monument you are standing in front of, so please label it.
  • If you think your letter sounds too sales-oriented, then it definitely is. If you launched a new business this year, you can mention it in one sentence in your letter. However, this is not the place to give special offers or sales pressure. I will mention my website in my Christmas letter. “I launched my freelance website at http://www.FinePrintEdit.com.” Enough said.
  • One page please. A half page is even better. If your holiday letter is two pages (or longer) then no one will read it, except your Aunt Mary. Slash everything but the core message. If you are playing with font size to make it fit on one page, cut more words. Hire an editor if you need one.
  • You children undoubtably had many fine accomplishments this year. You want to share them all. Please share only one. And your friends with average children will appreciate it if you find something other than accomplishments to write about. “Even though Joey sold an app to his third grade classmates, he would rather spend his free time on the couch eating potato chips.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bifocal Editorial Planning

Which issue is most important for an editor to focus on, the current issue or the next 3 issues?

The answer is both! Part of the art of being an effective magazine editor is to have bifocal vision. A great editor has to pay close attention to the details of the current issue of the magazine or newsletter, so that she can step through each stage of a quality editorial process. At the same time, she needs to keep some level of attention focused on the next few future issues in order to maintain consistently high quality in the magazine.

It is easy for an editor to get stuck in the present issue, because there is always some article that needs polishing, some layout that needs review, and some author who needs more attention. But an editor who can keep an eye on the future, while taking care of the present issue, will serve her readers with great output.

Here are some reasons that editors should keep some level of attention on future issues:

  • Some features take more time to develop than the usual editorial cycle. By thinking ahead to the next 2-3 issues of a magazine, the editor can assign research and pay attention to other voices on a topic. This will result in deeper and more thoughtful content.
  • Some articles will fit better in a future issue than the current issue. As an editor is looking through submissions, he can be evaluating whether a particular article is best for the current issue or if it would make a stronger contribution to a future theme. It is always tempting to push a great article into a current gap, but a patient, bifocal editor will consider the overall direction of content in both current and future issues.
  • Strategic editors take their readers on an intentional path over time. By planning out multiple future issues, the editor can offer a progression of topics to cause growth in readers.

It isn’t easy to keep enough focus on future issues during the pressing schedule of producing the current issue of a magazine. But an excellent editor knows how to allocate her time and brain power to cover both aspects of the job.

View a webinar that I taught for Magazine Training International on “Structuring the Editorial Process” that includes more information on bifocal editorial planning.

Filling Unexpected Space

In the editorial planning process, all the space in a magazine or e-newsletter is usually allocated to content, advertisements or in-house promotions. However, sometimes during the process, allocations may change. Perhaps an article that was planned for the issue is rejected during the initial review cycle. The article either wasn’t up to the quality level expected, or when all the content was reviewed together, it was repetitive or didn’t fit with the theme. Now, all of a sudden, there is an extra space in an issue and little time to fill the space.

Here are several options for unexpected space:

  • Keep a file of backup articles that are ready to go.
  • Have go-to writers who can quickly provide content.
  • Create a “resting space” with a quotation and an image.
  • Have a stock of in-house promotions already prepared.
  • Spread out design for an existing article.

Having a contingency plan for how to use extra space in a magazine or e-newsletter can result in higher quality outcomes, since alternatives are thought through in advance, rather than in a last-minute scramble.

Editing Online Content

Online content is simple to post and change, but in many organizations, online content doesn’t undergo the same editorial rigor as print content. Sometimes fast-breaking news leads to inaccuracies in online content; however, some errors are due to poor review processes.

My state is currently experiencing wildfire season, and facts change as quickly as the wind. Is a fire at 500 acres, 600 or more? Some readers are interested in the general news about the fires, but for people who live in the fire zone, the particular facts are very important. Just today I read an online news article that had two different size statistics – the headline said, “Lime Gulch Fire Grows to 498 acres.” In the body of the article, the size was described as “more than 600 acres.” It is likely that a reporter updated the content of the story without updating the headline. This is an understandable mistake, except that even the teaser for the article clearly showed two different numbers. An error that even someone who isn’t an editor should be able to correct. And if a news site isn’t reliable with facts, then they are not actually serving their audience.

These are my suggestions for minimum standards in online content:

  • Spell check all content. This seems obvious but based on what I read online, this step is sometimes skipped.
  • Double-check all numbers, names and addresses.
  • Read content out loud. This step can catch incorrect words that spell check misses.
  • Re-read the headline, content and captions one more time.

These are definitely minimum standards. A better process, that is unfortunately not always planned for or funded, is to have fresh editorial eyes look at the content. A quality online process will include one person entering content and at least one other set of editorial eyes approving content before it goes live online. Sometimes just a few extra minutes can make the difference between errors and quality.

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