Structure Editing

It starts “wide,” like the top of an upside-down triangle. The reader should know the Who, What, When, and Where, within the first minute of reading. You can fully explain these and introduce the How and Why in the rest of the article.

The pointy end of the pyramid represents the parts of the story you leave for later. They may be thrilling, funny, or important, but they’re not essential to understanding the big picture. The reader should know the thesis and outline of the article, at the very latest, a quarter of the way through it; your focus may narrow after that.

Let’s explore exactly how to apply the Inverted Pyramid and get readers engaged. Note: “graf” is a journalism term for “paragraph.” Stick with me here.

Structure

Some tips specific to our site:

  • Stay between to five and nine words.

  • Use them to describe your content, but not to explain it; a slightly mysterious or surprising headline will get more clicks.

  • Submit your piece with sub-headlines for each section if it’s long, and a few good suggestions for an overall headline. Just know this is likely the first thing the editor will tweak as he prepares it for publication.

Next is the lede, another journalism term for the first explanatory sentence in your story. There’s an art to writing great ones, but a simple science to writing good ones: tell the reader who, what, when, and where, and do it in 32 words or less. Why 32 words? Look at some front page newspaper articles and you’ll soon find that any less information or any more words will bore the reader.

The attention grabber is what makes the reader decide to read into the second, third, and fourth grafs. This could be an outstanding or quirky quote from your interviews, or a fascinating scientific detail.

Perhaps your lede in a story about a bear attack is “just the facts.” If the next sentence is a quotation from the victim saying “When that beast come around the corner and started eyeing the peanut butter in my hand, I knew I was in for a long afternoon,” your reader will probably keep going!

Or you could write a lede in a cancer story that fits the content (four Ws) and size (32 words or less) rules, but you add some life to it: “Researchers at Stanford University Hospital discovered last week a gene therapy method that could give hope and months of life to chemo patients suffering from bone-marrow cancers once thought incurable.”

The nutgraf (last journalism term for today) is the third, fourth, or fifth graf in your story that ends the “intro” portion of your articles and prepares the reader for the facts and analysis to follow. Think of it like the abstract to a scientific paper.

If your attention grabber and lede were funny and catchy rather than newsy, the nutgraf lets you get back on track, flesh out the 4 Ws you’ve already mentioned, and introduce the “How” and “Why” of the story. If you’re about to dive into the science of “Five Reasons Cancer Loves Sugar” or “Is Skinny Really Healthy?” this is your chance to declare your thesis and make the conclusion the rest of the article will prove. Aim for a nutgraf of six to ten sentences.

Think You’re Ready to Edit? Think Again.

Before moving on to editing, read through your first draft one last time. When you started writing, you settled on the one idea that you were prepared to shout into a crowd of busy people and grab their attention.

Does every word you’ve written support that idea?

Your content may have molded and shifted with new sources or evidence, but the conviction that what you have to say is important must remain. The relevance of your ideas cannot deteriorate, even as you reach the second page or the thousandth word.

And if an idea isn’t relevant or important? Delete it.

Once you’ve done this you might find yourself needing to add another source or two who will inject wit, humor, or a good anecdote you can build into a paragraph. Never be afraid to spend a little extra time on the first draft.

The Editing Process

The harried journalist, the stressing copy editor, the all-powerful editor-in-chief. I’m going to explain these roles here just in case you’re not familiar, and because a thorough understanding of everyone’s responsibilities will allow us to get our articles out faster.

  1. After the editor tasks you with an article, you conduct research and interviews. Feel free to email Kevin at any time during the pre-writing process, as it’s better to understand what he needs early than to write a long article and have it kicked back to you. As you write further articles and understand better what he wants, you’ll be able to spend less time talking to him after the initial assignment. For now plan to discuss the assignment when you receive it and before you start writing, at least.

  2. The copy editor enters the picture when you finish the article. He’s there to provide a second pair of eyes, catch grammar mistakes, and check dubious facts. Since Kevin can’t communicate with 10 different writers about every detail of each piece, the copy editor takes a load off his shoulders by catching the small stuff. You submit your first draft to the copy editor, who may push it back to you two or three times as he clarifies your meaning and tightens your style.

    • While the copy editor is an essential help to writers, he’s not a crutch. You can expect him to edit and omit some of your sentences, or ask you to return the draft after fixing some errors and word choices. But if he finds more than two periods missing, or misspelled words, you need to tighten up your writing.
  3. Once he’s satisfied, the copy editor will send your article to Kevin for a final review. He may or may not get in touch with you during this process.  It’s the editor’s prerogative to move paragraphs, change introductions, and shape conclusions. So turn in your best work, but don’t be offended if it’s massaged to fit the intent and readership of the site.

Let’s talk about self-editing.

In the process above, it’s better for everyone’s time and sanity if you, the writer, fix as many small mistakes as humanly possible, and strive to improve as a stylist.

Obvious but important tip: name your document Draft 1, save it and proofread it. When you’re done, save it as Draft 2, and repeat, so you’re not fixing mistakes more than once or missing errors you thought you caught.

Here are some specific tactics.

  • Take a two to twenty-four hour break after writing each so you can edit it with fresh eyes.

  • Print out the article so you’re forced to read slowly.

  • Read pages out of order or backward to avoid skimming over errors.

  • Edit once to correct omissions and inconsistencies, and then a second time to fix punctuation and spelling.

  • Note your errors over a month so you can get a grammar book and fix them instead of committing them over and over.

  • Get familiar with proofreading marks used at newspapers everywhere in order to streamline your process.

As you get better at writing you’ll develop a more comfortable style, but that’s no reason to let your grammar standards slip. Avoid these common mistakes often made by good writers:

Delete all unnecessary adjectives and all adverbs. This doesn’t mean you need to write like Hemingway, using spare sentences with no describing words. Instead of telling your reader that a hike up Pike’s Peak was beautiful and life-changing, meaningful and hard, tell clear stories about your trip and let the reader draw her own conclusions. If she doesn’t take the meaning you intend then you need to improve your writing ability, not cover your deficiencies with flowery words. Compare the following sentences:

  • “His first few years in the fishing business were hard, as he had to get up early and stay out in the cold for a long time, wet with icy seawater and covered in oozing fish guts.”
  • “His first four years in the fishing business required him to wake at six and stay out on the water working until 5p.m., sprayed by seawater and ignoring the fish guts on his hands.”

Notice how the second sentence has zero unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, but conveys the same meaning with more detail than the first. Describing words are not evil, but using them sparingly makes your writing clearer, and often shorter.

Check for any graf over four sentences and make sure it can’t be reworded. Long grafs have their place but on the internet they usually need to be short. Look at how this article’s written to get an idea – when I have to explain a big concept I use a long graf, but I can keep some fairly dry topics interesting by breaking up my thoughts into bite-sized chunks of two, three, or four sentences.

Check for filler words. Why would you ever write the word “utilize” when you can just write “use”? “Irregardless” is just a misused version of “regardless” – don’t utilize it. Beware also of “orient,” “hopefully,” and using “so” to mean “very.”

Don’t misuse words. Do you know the difference between “accept” and “except”? “Than” and “then”? “Emigrate” and “immigrate”? “Affect” and “Effect”? “Principal” and “principle”?  Spell check won’t catch such mistakes – keep that dictionary close.

Know your punctuation. Periods and commas are easy, but many proficient writers misuse more complicated marks. Semi colons separate two independent clauses – no exceptions. Emdashes have a space before and a space after (according to Associate Press style). An ellipsis is three dots with one space on each side, not as many periods as you feel like. And while you may use a dependent clause for emphasis or in conversation, a sentence needs a subject or a predicate. If I keep going I’ll write a whole grammar book. Realize that punctuation should be used precisely, and if it isn’t your writing will be imprecise … and boring … and confusing.

If you’re listing something, use lists. Don’t write out 10 reasons to eat kale in a paragraph. Instead, break them out with dots or dashes as you see above. It’s easier for your reader to follow along.

Ensure the first sentence of every graf stands alone. It should consist of one or more independent clauses, and should be a clear indicator of the tone and topic of the sentence. While writing longer or more creative work you can place the graf’s topic sentence in varying locations, but since online articles must be clear and often catch to keep your reader’s attentive put it at the start like you would a lede.

Resources

The best short style and grammar book is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a more entertaining and nearly as useful guide. Or, check out grammar blogs at the New York Times or Copyblogger to help you get better.

Read our next writing article, Interviewing Sources and Using Quotes, or head back to the Contribute page.

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