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Profiting from Good Advice

Posted on Friday, April 28, 2017 at 10:00 PM

Editors share the best advice they've ever received.

By William Dunkerley

Steve Jobs once advised, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do."

The chief engagement officer at GateHouse Media, Ken Browall, considers that the best piece of business advice he's ever received. He told Editor & Publisher that for him "the intensity to ... deliver engaging journalism has been a labor of love."

We asked a group of Editors Only readers, "What's the best editorial advice you've ever received?" None quoted Jobs. But you can see from their responses that a passion for doing good work is a motivating force.

Looking over the advice the editors passed on, I see their comments as falling into six categories: simplify, inspire, scrutinize and check, prepare, strategize, and care about the reader.

Simplify

The drive to simplify copy drew the most responses. Here's what editors reported:

"Best advice: Keep it short and get right to the point." --Sara Martin, editor, Monitor on Psychology

"When I was an investigative reporter for a newspaper, my editor, the late Robert E.L. Baker, told me to 'write with a scalpel, not a meat axe.'" --Rick Pullen, editor-in-chief, Leader's Edge magazine

"The best editorial advice I ever got was to KISS it, i.e., 'keep it simple, stupid.'" --Kathleen Flores, director of student publications, University of Texas at El Paso

"Eliminate these two words from everything you edit and your writing will be more concise and more precise: 'there' and 'use' in all variations." --Margaret Hunt, editor, ASM International

"Cut as many words as you can without losing meaning. Then go back and do it again." --Patrick G. Marshall, author

Inspire

"As an editor of magazine stories, what I always want a story to do is move me in some way. There are other parts of the day where I can actually learn something. But when I'm editing a magazine story I'm thinking about what I want the reader to get from it. I want it to be an experience, and what I want most from that experience is to be moved." --David Rowell, deputy editor, The Washington Post Magazine

Scrutinize and Check

"I was told early on that one of the best traits that a journalist could possess or develop is a 'healthy dose of skepticism.' Not cynicism, but skepticism. And note the important qualifier -- healthy. Don't take information at face value, and always check, check, check it out." --Paul McGrath, assistant news editor, Houston Chronicle

"A piece of advice I received early on, one that I've always kept in mind, is to not assume I automatically know how to spell someone's name because it seems so basic. Always ask. Over the years, I've had countless examples like Smythe, Smith, Smyth, and Joanne, Joann, Joe-anne." --Linda Longo, editorial director, enLIGHTenment

Prepare

"Way back when I was a student working on my college newspaper, I had someone I was interviewing tell me there was only one difference he saw between student reporters and professional reporters. It is not the quality of their writing, but their preparedness. That always stuck with me, and I've always tried to be as prepared as possible for an interview." --Mary Ruth Johnsen, editor, Welding Journal

Inspection Trends

Strategize

"I learned how to write direct marketing copy from the circulation manager at Lakewood Publishing. Her teaching approach was brilliant. She said she would only teach me if I wrote one direct mail letter and she wrote one on the same topic. Then we met at her house, sat at the kitchen table, and she went through the two letters word by word. I later used that letter to successfully promote magazine subscriptions of my own. Every editor should learn how to write direct mail copy. Every word has a purpose." --Lee Knight, editor-in-chief, Exhibitor Media Group

Care about the Reader

"James J. Kilpatrick came to speak at Ohio University, where I was attending back in the late 80s.

"He used an analogy I think of often: Pretend in your writing that you're taking someone around a place you're familiar with. They know nothing about it, and it's up to you to describe it for them.

"Can you put yourself in that reader's place? Will they know where they are by the words you use? What they're doing? Whom they are meeting?

"Editing is just the same. Will the reader understand if I do this? Or that? Or nothing?

"It's all an empathy game.

"Bottom line is: Do you care about that reader? Do you know that reader? Are you sure? And in the end, when you're done, have you taken them somewhere?

"These are the questions to ask." --Peggy Jordan, associate editor, Family Motor Coaching magazine

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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