Editing guide

“The work of a good editor, like the work of a good teacher, does not reveal itself directly.  It is reflected in the accomplishments of others.”
– The New Yorker

How to Edit a Story

Excerpted from an article by Don Murray in “How I wrote the Story”

Before you read it: Ask the reporter what it’s about. If she can’t tell you in one or two sentences, the story isn’t focused enough.

Then read the story three times:

1. For content

  • Are all of the reader’s questions answered?
  • Is new information needed?
  • Is the piece built on undocumented assumptions?
  • Are there any tangents that can be cut loose from the piece?
  • Is there any section that should be a separate story?
  • Is each point supported by convincing evidence?
  • Is the piece long enough to satisfy the reader?
  • Is the piece short enough to keep the reader involved?
  • Can the dominant meaning of the piece be stated in one sentence?

2. For structure

  • Does the lead catch the reader in three seconds or less?
  • Does the lead deliver on its contract with the reader?
  • Does the writer get out of the reader’s way?
  • Is each point made in logical sequence?
  • Does the end echo the lead and fulfill its promise?

3. For language

  • Can the piece be read aloud? Does it sound as if one person is talking
    to one person?
  • Are the important pieces of information at the ends and the beginnings
    of key sentences, paragraphs and the entire piece?
  • Does each paragraph make one point?
  • Do the paragraphs vary in length according to significance: the shorter
    the grafs, the more important their information?
  • Are the paragraphs in order (are the reader’s questions answered where
    they will be asked?) so that formal transitions are not needed?
  • Does the reader leave each sentence with more information than when
    she entered it?
  • Are most sentences subject-verb-object?
  • Are the sentences shorter at the points of emphasis or clarification?
  • Are the verbs active and strong enough to drive the meaning forward?
  • Are there sentences that announce what you are going to say or sum
    up what you have said and, therefore, can be cut?
  • Does the meaning depend on verbs and nouns, not adverbs and adjectives?
  • Is there sexist or racist language?
  • Can any sentence or paragraph be interpreted more than one way?
  • Can the writing be made more specific?
  • Is every fact checked? Every name and title correct? Every word spelled

Editing for Content

Pay attention to …

  • Lead – clear, concise, accurate. Doesn’t oversell or undersell
  • Sources – aerial view, ground view / experts, people living it
  • Attribution – no statement of opinion goes unattributed
  • Storytelling  – Does the story put you “on the ground”
  • Audience – who’s going to read this and why should they care?
  • Voice – is it written the way normal people talk?
  • Quotes – are they strong, or just filler?
  • Fairness –word choice, source choice/order should not favor one point of view over another

How to Write Headlines

Adapted from “The Art of Editing,” by Floyd Baskette, Jack Sissors and Brian Brooks

Functions of a headline

1. Attract the reader’s attention
2. Summarize the story
3. Help the reader index the contents of a page
4. Depict the mood of a story
5. Help set the tone of the publication

Rules of good headline writing

1. Draw the headline from information near the top of the story
2. Build your headline around key words from the story
3. Include a subject and a strong verb (unless it’s a label headline)
4. Remain neutral. Don’t editorialize
5. Eliminate most adjectives and adverbs
6. Don’t abbreviate unless the abbreviation is obvious to any reader
7. Use short, simple words
8. Never exaggerate
9. Don’t sensationalize
10. Don’t just fill a line. Say something. Don’t pad with unnecessary words
11. Don’t use last names that aren’t easily recognized
12. Use single quotation marks, ‘like this’
13. Don’t write a question headline unless a subhead at least alludes to the answer in the story
14. Use present tense in almost all cases
15. Use a semicolon to separate two complete thoughts; think of them as two sentences
16. Always capitalize the word after a colon, even if it isn’t a complete thought (unlike the rule for text)
17. Don’t repeat words, unless done for effect. Don’t repeat words in the subhead that appear in the main headline
18. Don’t commit libel. Don’t pronounce someone guilty unless they have been convicted in court
19. Don’t parrot the lead – readers don’t need to read the same thing twice
20. Don’t miss the point: Read the story at least twice – and understand it – before writing a headline
21. Don’t state the obvious
22. Don’t rehash old news
23. Don’t use “headlinese”
24. Don’t write bad puns
25. Don’t write bad puns using people’s last names
26. Avoid bad taste
27. Avoid double meanings

Multi-deck headlines

Each line should be a unit unto itself. Eliminate bad breaks that can cloud meaning.

 weak  better
 Expanded Illinois doctors’ malpractice strike threatened  Doctors’ malpractice strike in Illinois may expand

Back to top


15 Tips for Better Headlines

1. Be sure you understand the story’s point. In a news story, that information usually is found either in the lead or the nut graph. If the point is hard to find, the story might need some work.

2. Don’t steal the writer’s lead

3. Get to the point: What is the news?

Weak: Baker addresses stamp club
Better: Buy more stamps, Peters tells club

4. Make every word count; don’t pad

5. Know what’s familiar to readers and what isn’t

6. Be sure there’s a subject and a strong verb

7. Avoid implied “is” verbs and -ing verbs (passive voice).

Mayor on campus today
Rodman suspended again
Director feeling better

Mayor visits campus today
NBA benches Rodman again
Director feels better

8. Use present tense

9. Use short words

10. Don’t use headlinese

Smith decries fiscal shortfall, eyes presidency

11. Label headlines always need a secondary headline to explain the story’s point

12. Attribute opinions unless the story is on the editorial page.

Wrong: Earth will explode in 23 years
Right: Astronomer: Earth will explode in 23 years
or … Earth has 23 years left, astronomer says

13. Use a semicolon to separate two complete thoughts

Huskies win overtime thriller; freshman scores 42

14. Know the difference between clever and annoying

Weak: Craven’s latest movie is a ‘Screeeeeeeam!’

15. Watch for double meaning

Marijuana issue sent to joint committee
Dad wants 3 charged for sex with daughter
Disney keeps touching kids
Local woman spends summer in missionary position

Writing Cutlines (from the Photo section)

  • Think of yourself as not just a photographer, but a photojournalist.
    Use good reporting techniques to get information for cutlines. Double-check spellings of names, dates, times, places, etc. Get this information when you take the picture — not later.
  • Cutlines complete the information begun by the story and the photo. They should not repeat what’s obvious by looking at the photo. Avoid words such as smiling, shaking hands, holding the championship trophy, looks on, so-and-so is all smiles.
  • Never inject opinion into a cutline.
  • Write in the present tense: Sammy Sosa slides into second base.
  • For a stand-alone photo (one that doesn’t run with a story), be especially careful that the cutline contains all pertinent information. It is the story as well as the explanation of the picture.
  • Identify every significant person in the photo. And, find out how the final version will be cropped, so you don’t name someone who ends up being cropped out of the picture.
  • If the cutline refers to a story on another page, double check that the page number is correct (this responsibility likely will fall to page designers).
  • Use these styles when referring to people in a photo:
    Abe Lincoln (left) shouts insults at men’s glee club members (left to right) Wally Cleaver, Bing Crosby and Evel Knievel.  Sophomore English major Leo Tolstoy explains the art of  hula-hooping to students Tuesday in the Campus Life Building.
  • Read the cutline aloud to be sure it makes sense and sounds the way people talk.
  • Use spell check.
  • Include a credit line. Our style for a single photo is: DAWID KLIMEK
    For multiple photos on the same page, it’s: DAWID KLIMEK PHOTOS