How to Edit a Train Wreck



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Notes from “How to Edit a Train Wreck,” given by Teresa Scalzo, Director of Publications and Editor of the Carleton Voice, Carleton College


I. Avoid this Mess in the First Place.

A. Discuss the story on the phone with the writer (try to avoid using e-mail for this initial conversation). With e-mail, tone is lost, and you don’t get a sense of whether they’re understanding. On the phone, they can ask you questions.

Make the assignment far enough in advance, usually 4-6 weeks before the due date, to give the writer a chance to contact you if things aren’t going as planned.

B. Follow up with a detailed assignment letter.

Take the time to provide sources, including a couple of sentences on what each source should be able to speak to. Also include supporting info/background, statistical info. Have student workers do web searches for articles on the subject in mainstream media.

C. Ask the writer to check in after the interviews and research are completed to make sure the story is still progressing as you intended or to discuss it further if it has evolved into something else.

This encourages the writer to jump in and not procrastinate. This is a critical step. They probably won’t make this effort if you don’t insist. Writers appreciate this: It might save them from rewrites down the road.

*Don’t assume this doesn’t apply to staff.

You can’t always know exactly what the (eventual) story will be. As the writer does research, something may come up that you weren’t aware of. This is the time to re-evaluate before the story goes too far. And this way you won’t be surprised when you get it.

2. Best Efforts Thwarted: Sending a Story Back for a Rewrite.

A. Be very specific with the writer about what is not working in the story. Is it the focus? The overall structure? The tone? Where do you need more information? Which source can provide it?

Do it on the phone: Say something like, “We’re not there yet.” This can be awkward, but if you’ve done the other steps you’re on really solid ground.

B. Avoid general statements, such as: “I don’t like it. Take another pass.” Be very specific, very precise about what’s gone awry.

C. Consider using the tracking feature in Microsoft Word to insert questions into the text and to show the writer specifically where the problems occur.

This gives you the ability to point out specifics. It’s helpful to writers to see exactly how you’re reacting to what they’re writing at each point.


III. Fixing It Yourself.

A. Make sure you have a signed contract that allows for a kill fee.

Again, prior steps make good evidence for paying the kill fee. Some places pay kill fees if the story doesn’t run, even if the writer has done exactly what was asked of them. Teresa pays in full as long as the problem is not the writer’s fault (for example, if the writer covers a new program but that program doesn’t launch on time). This helps keep good relations with good freelancers/ avoids having them not want to work for you in the future.

Also, when the program does launch, it costs less to have the same writer go back and revise/ bring the story up to date.

B. Don’t give the writer a byline if you rewrite substantially.

This looks out for fellow editors, who are going to judge that writer by those clips. One suggestion: a credit line at the end that says “John Doe contributed to this story.” That lets other editors know the work wasn’t all the freelancer’s.



IV. Beyond the Words

A. Avoid thinking too narrowly. Editing means more than just fixing the punctuation.

B. Punch up a dull feature with sidebars, charts, graphs, creative photography or illustration.

C. Think visually – from conception through production.


Case Study 1: Aging in America

Knew we had a really big topic; wanted to do a whole series on the different aspects of aging.

The assigning editor didn’t follow the initial steps. She hired two writers she knew well and trusted, so she didn’t send the detailed letters or check in.

Sent the stories for rewrite, but still didn’t feel like the editorial was solid.

Tricks that saved us:

As soon as you have a final editorial plan, meet with your designer to talk about how to illustrate the story.

In this case, we didn’t want to show Carleton alums, wanted something more general, more atmospheric. We hired a new photographer, gave her the basic concepts and told her we wanted abstract representations.

The strong photos helped set the mood, made up for some of the lack of strength in the editorial.

Also, we decided early on to use sidebars – a good way to grip the reader at the counter, the person flipping through.

At the same time, a friend – a ’52 grad – met with a group of women that all turned out to be widows. She sent blue books to everyone in that group and they wrote essays on what it’s like to be a widow.

We read the essays and matched them to our various pieces.

The combination made a strong package, even though the writing was never strong.

We had wanted hard-hitting info, wanted to educate readers.

But the reader might not know that what runs is not what you originally intended.


Case Study 2: Gnome Sweet Gnome

Story about an alum who invented a funny video game.

It was supposed to be a funny story. But it turned out the guy was unemployed and living in a basement: It just wasn’t very funny.

This is where the illustration helped: We took a photo of him, then had an artist turn it into a light illustration.



Question: Are you finding with some writers now that they’re skimming on hard-hitting information?

TS: I don’t pay what consumer magazines pay. I feel like, when I’m paying $1,000 they look at that as 10 hours work, and at 9 ½ hours, they say, “I’ve got to wrap this up.”

That’s why I try to do as much legwork as possible for them. Ideally, I’ve laid out the expectations at the beginning.



Q: Do you treat student writers differently?

TS: I don’t use student writers: I use the students in our office as fact checkers.

Audience member: Student writers often come to me. I pay the same rate as other freelancers. I coach them some, but then I let them know that I’m going to do what I need to do (i.e. editing) and then I go over with them what I’ve done to make it better.

Q: How do you find freelancers.

TS: I read a lot, pay attention to bylines. Also freelancers will recommend their friends. Ask them if they know other writers: For instance, if you call your usual freelancer but they’re too busy to take your story, they might recommend someone else who can do it.

Always ask for writing samples.

Read alternative weeklies, local pubs, that’s a good place to find local freelancers.


Audience member: Always say in that initial conversation that changes might be necessary: That’s good advice for dealing with faculty writers.

Q: I sometimes have to use a writer from another department and sometimes they don’t know how to write. How should I work with that person, guide them?

TS: Get your boss on your side. Say, “Magazines go to a general readership; sometimes faculty and staff aren’t the best choices to communicate with a general audience.”

Audience: I’ve used the line: “I’ll save you time by hiring someone to write it for you.”

Audience: Sometimes they would just never do it. I ghostwrite it and then give them the byline.

It’s easier for them to tell me (the information for the story) and have me write it.



Audience: Give them the option of having it ghostwritten.

Q: How do you finesse doing a rewrite with the writer?

TS: Let them know ahead of time.

By this point they should know I’m not happy.

I say, “I’m sorry but we never got there.” Don’t give them another chance to look at it?

Q: How do you keep flexibility with a specific assignment?

TS: Don’t ever tell them they can’t include new info, I just want them to tell me about it. I want to be involved in those decisions.

Q: What do you do if the piece is strong but the lead is weak.

TS: A lot of people bury the lead. If it’s easy to fix, I fix it myself.

If it’s just not there, I call the writer and make suggestions. Ask questions: “Give me something descriptive.”


Q: How do you describe a substantial rewrite?

TS: If I have to reinterview sources, rewrite it from scratch…

Q: If you’re the writer AND the editor, how do you police yourself?

TS: Draw someone else into the process. Even if you can’t pay someone to edit you, you can have others read and make suggestions.

Q: What do you say to the source if you have to reinterview them?

TS: “I need to ask you some follow-up questions.” Sometimes the source will know the writer wasn’t getting it, and then it’s a relief to them.

Q: What if the problem is a staff member?

TS: Be aware of how you’re talking to them. “We’re in this together, let’s make it as good as we can…”

Keep it professional, not a personal attack.



Q: How do you decide when it’s time to cut a freelancer loose?

TS: Part of being an editor is making those decisions.

Audience: Just don’t call them any more. Don’t return their calls.

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