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Write it down, make it better: Editing tips

By Steve Goldberg, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: This report is part of a CNN.com series about storytelling and reporting skills called iReport Boot Camp. In this edition, Steve Goldberg, CNN.com senior producer for enterprise, shares his tips on writing and editing. Read up, then give his advice a try in this week's iReport Boot Camp challenge.

(CNN) -- So you've got your idea, found your sources, conducted the interviews and shot the images -- now it's time to put it all together and write a 500- to 800-word story to go with your photo gallery or video. All set?

"Wait! What's that blank page doing staring at me from the screen?" you might ask.

It's OK. Every great story -- and every great writer -- starts with that same white space. The trick is not to let it do a number on your head, because the truth is this: You've already got a great story inside you, it's just waiting to be told.

Here are some tips to get you started and keep you going, even when the worst case of writer's block hits:

Ask yourself the key questions

For last year's boot camp, Jan Winburn, CNN.com's senior editor for enterprise, discussed five questions all writers should ask themselves as they approach each story: Through whose eyes are you telling the story? Who has something at stake? What's going to happen next? What's the story really about? Where should the story begin?

If you haven't read her essay, do it now -- it's chock full of great advice. A key item to note is the difference between reporting and storytelling. A basic news story reports the facts -- who, what, when, where, why (the so-called "5 W's") and how. A great story gives readers an experience, puts them in the middle of the action, with a character, timeline, scene, motive -- all the elements of any great work. Before you start, know what kind of story you're planning to tell.

Talk it over with a friend or colleague

"Everybody needs an editor -- even the best editors need an editor," says CNN.com's Steve Goldberg.
"Everybody needs an editor -- even the best editors need an editor," says CNN.com's Steve Goldberg.

One of the best words of advice I ever heard about this process came from my first editor: Good editors don't edit stories, they edit writers. By that, he meant don't wait to start editing until writers turn in their copy. Instead, develop relationships with writers and talk to them frequently:

• At the story development phase, when the ideas are starting to take shape

• Before and after interviews, to give writers a chance to discuss what they learned and get advice on what's missing

• Before they start writing, to help them develop an outline

• And then, once the writing is done, to see where it works and where it doesn't.

No one can write in a vacuum. Everybody needs an editor -- even the best editors need an editor. In this case, you're working freelance -- you're not in a newsroom where you'd have access to editors. Instead, find someone you trust who you can use as a sounding board each step of the way. You may be doing it already over coffee or a beer with friends -- it's just instinctive.

Organize your thoughts

Jot down what's on your mind about the story. Don't worry about how it sounds, just make notes. Sentence fragments are OK at this point. Make a bullet point list of what you've learned or want to convey. Think of it as the beginning of an outline. Maybe there's a great turn of phrase you want to use, or a great quote in your notepad -- put it in writing.

In fact, before you begin, go through your notes and highlight the best quotes, the key facts, the scenes you've got to include. Include these in your outline -- a few words about each will suffice, just enough to jog your memory. Once you're done outlining, you can review, delete and reorder your thoughts -- it'll be the starting place for your story.

Write a letter

After you've got your outline, write a letter to Mom (or Dad, Sis, your best friend -- whomever). Seriously -- open a blank page and start with "Dear Mom," and go from there. Tell your story like you're telling it in a letter, and just keep going.

"What's a letter?" you ask. Sorry, I'm dating myself here ... think of it as an e-mail or even a longish Facebook post (no tweeting -- that was your outline). The point is, when you're done, delete the "Dear Mom" and "Love, Son" bits and you'll have your story -- or a very good first draft.

Your first draft is your friend

Know before you begin that your first draft is not going to be perfect. Resist the urge to edit yourself as you write. Don't read over what you've written after every sentence or phrase, wondering if you've gotten it just right. There'll be plenty of time for that later. At this point, just get the story out of your head, through your fingers and onto the page. To do that, write and keep writing, referring to your outline and notes as you go.

Do you hate typing? Try longhand. Or get a friend to take dictation, typing as you talk. Or ask your friend to listen as you tell them all about the great story you've found -- and record your conversation. Then listen to the tape and transcribe your words. Whatever method works, the result is your first draft.

At this point, don't worry about length -- at least not too much. For this assignment, you'll want to end up with a 500- to 800-word piece -- which isn't that long. Write as much as you like, within reason -- in the next step, you'll have the chance to whittle it down to a manageable length. But know that if you're shooting for 500 words and you write 5,000, the whittling job will be extremely painful -- think chain saw.

Edit for style and substance

Once you have your first draft in hand, now is the time to switch hats from "writer" to "editor." In truth, you've been playing both roles all along, as any good writer does -- wondering if you have the best angles and sources and whether you're asking the right questions. Now you need to take a critical look at what you've produced.

But first, let your draft rest. It's a bit like making bread -- after kneading the flour, water and yeast into a smooth ball of dough, you let it rise before punching it down and kneading it again. Your first draft is that initial dough ball -- if you've ever punched your fist into one and heard the air rush out, you know how good it feels. That's what you're going to do with your story -- only this time, with a printout and colored pen or pencil. (Try to avoid punching your fist through anything, please -- it's supposed to be fun!)

Step back and read what you wrote as if you were looking at it for the first time. Read it out loud. How does it sound? Does it make sense? Do you want to keep reading all the way till the end? Mark up the rough spots -- scratch out words and sentences, insert phrases, indicate whole sections that need to be moved around. Editing yourself can be extremely painful -- every quote, every turn of phrase seems like it's crucial to your story. So be gentle on yourself, but hard on your writing -- remember, it's just black marks on white paper. The letters and words are tools in your hands -- make them work for you.

Have someone else read your story and give you feedback -- especially someone whose writing or opinion you respect. (Don't watch while they read, it can make you sick to your stomach!)

When you're done making edits and gathering feedback, go back to the screen and make your changes -- being careful to save the second draft as a new file. (Keeping your old drafts can help in case you change your mind about something, want to remind yourself what you first wrote or need to put back a deleted section.)

After you're done with draft No. 2, repeat the process -- it won't take long before you have a finished product you're proud of!

 
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