10 Mistakes Writers Make

Posted: August 16, 2010 in Articles, For Writers

When writing an article for a magazine or newspaper, keep in mind the reader — and thus the editor it must go through first. An editor’s primary responsibility is to manage the tone of the publication and make sure its readers are engaged. Handling that duty often entails cutting numerous words out of an article, changing the flow substantially or calling the writer to understand what he or she intended. Keep your editor happy — and therefore the assignments coming — by thinking about your article through the editor’s eyes.

Below are the Top 10 problems I most often see with the articles writers submit, and they are simple fixes you can make before you hit “send”:

  1. Too long. If an editor assigns a word count, do your best to hit it. Just because the interview with your main source lasted 25 minutes doesn’t mean you need to include 25 minutes’ worth of quotes. Your job is to pare it down to what the reader wants to read.
  2. A buried lead. Make sure the most important part of your story — particularly if it’s a news item — is in the first sentence or two. Never make the reader slosh through extraneous information to find out what your point is.
  3. Misspelled names.Ideally, you won’t misspell any words, but you must triple-check your source’s names because the editor doesn’t have the luxury of a personal relationship with the source like you do. And spellcheck doesn’t fix names. Check every name — even John Smith — because it could be spelled Jon Smythe.
  4. Overuse of personal pronouns. He pushed the legislation through despite her protests and his lack of time. It’s easy to become a little too casual in your language when writing because you can see the players in your head. Don’t let your reader lose who is doing the action.
  5. Passive voice. Look at the verb in every sentence. It is almost always better to have the subject doing the action rather than the action being performed upon something. It makes it more exciting and it clarifies for the reader who did it. Consider the following two sentences: The petition was filed by the group in district court. or The group filed the petition in district court. The second sentence is stronger because it has more impact in fewer words.
  6. A single source. Even if it seems like your source has the whole story, you may be amazed at how differently someone else perceives it. Call or visit at least one other person, every single time. Quote the secondary source(s) if appropriate. If nothing else, it adds credibility to your story from the reader.
  7. Overemphasis. Your words should convey the message without the addition of exclamation marks, Italics, capital letters and ellipses. Unless you’re writing advertising/marketing copy, your article shouldn’t be trying to sell the reader something, so avoid salesman-type language and childlike excitement.
  8. The wrong angle. Understanding what the editor wants for the article is critical. If you don’t understand the assignment, call and ask for a refresher or a more in-depth explanation. If you call the primary source and learn that the story might take an unanticipated turn or could be bigger than previously thought, call the editor and discuss it.
  9. Too complex. Respect the reader’s time and expect that his or her attention span won’t hold out for an overdone story. Instead, wrap up the meat of the story quickly and then go on to give detail. Or try another approach: Create sidebar material or chart/illustration content to give the reader a quick visual or summation so he or she can accurately gauge the interest level for the rest of the story.
  10. Too flowery. Focus on telling the story at hand. If it’s a prose format in which you must describe the setting, give the reader a good idea of what the surroundings look like. But most magazine stories don’t need that and should really dwell on getting the meat of the story out.

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