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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: On writing better

by Brenda Looper | April 19, 2023 at 3:33 a.m.
Brenda Looper

Everyone needs an editor.

I can assure you that for every story of a writer done wrong by an editor, there are at least three editors over in the corner raging and cursing a long list of writers who don't spell-check or fact-check, don't know versus and verses (and other homonym sets) mean different things and, worse yet, don't take kindly to being edited.

Over the years I've dealt with just about every type of writer one could imagine. Back when I was on the night copy desk editing news stories, I was usually the one who dealt with a certain reporter because others didn't want to; the writer rechecking his story after it had been line-edited annoyed those who just wanted to move copy. I didn't mind, though, because the reporter just wanted to make sure that nothing that had been changed made the story incorrect. A particular turn of phrase wasn't the worry; whether readers understood the story and got accurate information was. Very rarely did that reporter have to have a correction run.

Another writer, on the other hand, was hostile to editing. That person had to run more corrections than most.

Professional writers have the benefit of professional editors; it's unwise to waste that resource. A good editor does more than just check grammar and spelling, but will push the writer to do better. On the news side, it's important to make sure the writer didn't bury the lede, has checked all facts, and has kept his or her opinion out of the story. On the opinion side, there's more leeway, but it should still be clear when the writer is expressing opinion, especially if they write reported opinion, as John Brummett does. Fact-checking is no less important here.

We don't do these jobs for our amusement (though it happens; we're a weird lot sometimes), but to serve readers and cast the writer in the best possible light. In that vein, some tips for writing from an editor:

Be open to editing. No one's work is perfect, so if you send something to a newspaper with the directive not to edit it (or not to edit it without approval of every edit, which with short staffs is unlikely to happen), odds are it won't be printed. I can't think of any submission over the nearly 12 years I've been on the opinion side of things that didn't improve with editing, even something as simple as a comma in the right place. (Remember, commas save lives: Let's eat Grandma! OR Let's eat, Grandma!)

Read what you wrote, put it away, then don't look at it again for a minimum of six hours. If you don't have an editor friend and you're not on deadline, this trick helps you see what you wrote with an at-least-somewhat fresh set of eyes, which means you're likely to catch something that needs correcting. I typically write my column on Monday afternoon, then don't look at it again till after I've edited Rex Nelson's column the next day. I've been able to find some significant errors that way, as well as fine-tune some of the writing. Plus, at least one if not two other editors read through it as well. Sure, we'll still miss things occasionally, but that's life.

Brush up on your grammar and word use. Editors don't expect a perfect piece to come to them, but something riddled with spelling errors (spellchecked or not; spellcheck typically doesn't catch correctly spelled words that are incorrect in usage), grammar errors such as wrong punctuation or misplaced modifiers (a misplaced modifier causes more trouble than a dangling participle) and odd spacing (spaces before punctuation, line breaks where they shouldn't be, etc.) tells the editor you don't really care. Clean up those issues before you submit something to give yourself a better chance of being published.

Kill your darlings. We all have them and should be willing to sacrifice them for the greater good. I'm a little too enamored of parentheticals (duh, but c'mon, they're fun and useful). But there are times when the reader gets to one of those darlings and says, "Oh, lord, not this again." Literary devices are very useful, but when writers lean on them too much, it makes it a slog to get through whatever they've written, and it all starts to sound the same. For example, use alliteration sparingly; I've been guilty of that, but it tends to be mostly in two- to three-word headlines. Whole paragraphs of it ... ugh, painful ... might remind the reader of Peter Piper and his peck of pickled peppers. Moderation goes a long way.

Read your writing out loud. This would be the "sounds right" rule, and it's one I learned when I was studying broadcast news. If it sounds natural and flows smoothly as you're reading it, that's good; if something makes you stumble, it might need a rewrite.

Sort of like my life sometimes.

I'd love to hear from you on what food or kitchen/eating habit lets you know someone isn't from around here. Do they put sugar in cornbread or (gasp) put cast-iron skillets in the dishwasher? Do they grimace at the mention of red-eye gravy or wilted lettuce? Let me know at the email address below or by commenting on my blog, and I may quote you in a future column.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at Read her blog at

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