Introduction | Step 1: Planning | Step 2: Research | Step 3: Writing | Step 4: Editing
Step 4: Editing
When you’ve finished your day’s writing, read it out loud (even better, record it and play it back to yourself). Your ‘voice’ is literally that – your voice. You’ll be able to hear immediately where the prose is strained, unnatural or sloppy. Make your revisions and listen again.
Let Every Word Tell
Is that word really necessary? Does that adjective define the noun or is it just decoration? Telling the reader a sunset was amazing doesn’t tell the reader anything. Why was it amazing? Some writers make the mistake of thinking the reader was standing next to them as the sun set. Your job as a travel writer is to make the reader feel like they are standing there as they read about it.
Reading Gelhorn or Hemmingway is about finding the word on which a sentence hangs. They would pare back a sentence until anything unnecessary had been striped away and they were left only with “the truest sentence you know”. Adverbs are a good place to start. “I am currently writing a guide to travel writing”. Currently? I’m either writing it or I’m not. Do I need to say that I am writing it now? As Harold Evans points out “It’s absurd when a word is an absolute. An incident is either unique or it’s not. It cannot be ‘rather’ unique. It is like being rather pregnant.” (Harold Evans’ Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers was first published in 1972 and it is still the bible for journalists. Read Chapter 3. Do it now.)
Letting every word tell is about making sure that every word belongs in the story, and moves the story forward. Think of it as musical notes on sheet music. You wouldn't add a random chord or trumpet blast where it's not needed. Words are the same; if that word doesn't belong, delete it.
Be your own sub-editor
In pure 'hard news' journalism a subeditor (by far the scariest person in a newspaper office) will tell you that 'If you have written a sentence that you are really pleased with - delete it!' In the section of this guide entitled ‘You don’t have to write what you know’ I wrote:
Most guides to travel writing tell you to keep your eyes open. This is as obvious as telling a Formula One driver to keep his eyes on the road, or telling a guitarist not to get her hands chopped off.
The F1 clause makes the point, but the imagery of the guitarist’s hands made me chuckle. If I’d had my sub-editor’s hat on, I’d have deleted the guitarist. Decide whether a sentence or idea is essential to the story, or if you just like the way it looks. If it doesn’t help the story, or if it’s repeating a point that has already been adequately made (what subeditors call ‘redundancy’), remove it and stick it in that document where you save all those nice ideas for a rainy day (but be careful when using them later. It’s very easy to see when a writer is trying to shoehorn a favourite phrase into a paragraph).
Find a critic
If you know someone who reads – or better, writes – get them to have a look and give you honest feedback. Your readers will be doing that eventually, so start early.
And get someone to proofread it for you. There’s no excuse for spelling mistakes or typing the the same word twice.
Be tough on yourself. Does every sentence drive the story forward? Once you’ve trimmed the fat, apply the same to words. Which ones are earning their keep, and which ones aren’t?
When editing, look at your copy as if you are the reader not the writer. Is it coherent? What’s the takeaway?
Now look at it through the sub-editor’s eyes.
What a sub-editor does/looks for:
Reads for clarity, coherence, and meaning.
Requests background facts if missing.
Identifies implied questions.
Checks grammar, errors of fact, potential legal issues.
Checks for taste and house style.
Background facts If readers are not familiar with a person, place or institution, explain it for them.
Implied questions Does a statement leave the reader asking a question?
From the BBC:
An online petition calling for Donald Trump to be blocked from entry to the UK has broken the parliamentary website record and is approaching half a million signatures. It currently has more than 470,000 names, beating the previous high of 446,482.
The reader will rightly wonder what the topic of that previous petition was. The BBC didn’t tell us, which is frustrating.
Repetition The simple repeating of a fact, word or structure the reader has already been given.
Redundancy Statements which are superfluous, unnecessary or excessively wordy.
In addition, the government also intends to… Don’t tell the reader twice.
The equivalent of junk food for the writer is redundancy, and the job of the editor is to count calories and impose diets. – Bruce O. Boston
Strong active verbs Try to get a strong active verb in the first sentence. You want to make an impact and keep people reading.
Strong final words Don’t let your sentences wither and die. Strong final words are a satisfying conclusion to a sentence.
Vary sentence length Sentence length controls the pace of the story. Long sentences can create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding. But they can also slam on the brakes. Think of the first bar of Beethoven’s 5th: Da da da daaaaaaaah!
Cliché It’s a cliché to advise writers to avoid clichés. Every time you have a story about a child being left unattended you can reach for the phrase home alone; every time two motorists exchange angry words it’s obviously a case of road rage; escapes from prison are always daring and inquiries always in depth.The regular use of these predictable words and phrases is numbing and indicates a lack of thought and effort.
“Using cliché is a substitute for thinking.” – George Orwell.
“Avoid cliché like the plague.” – Clive James
50 Writing Tools – Roy Peter Clark
A Sense of Style – Steven Pinker
Essential English – Harold Evans
The Glamour of Grammar – Roy Peter Clark
For Whom the Bell Tolls – David Marsh
Most newspapers produce their own Style Guides. These are journalists’ guides for how they should use the langauge in that particular publication. Does The Guardian say Burma or Myanmar? Does the New York Times say African American or black? That publication’s Style Guide will tell you. Most Style Guides also have a good guide to grammar and punctuation in their introductions.
Chicago Manual of Style
The Guardian & Observer Style Guide
National Geographic Style Manual
ABC Radio Australia
The BBC News Style Guide (PDF with an excellent guide to grammar)
The Economist Simply the finest journalism out there. I have never found a spelling mistake in The Economist. Ever. And on those occassions when you think they might have made a grammatical mistake, you reread the sentence and find it’s just really clever.
Garbl’s Style Manual
Bill Bryson has also written a guide to Troublesome Words (Seriously. Where does he find the time?).
Travel Writers & Travel Writing
The following list of books was taken from an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper and features the favourite travel books by some of today’s best-selling authors writing today. If you’d like to find out how the best writers do it, pick a few of them up (and it would be worth finding some of the books by the writers who were doing the choosing).
Ionia: a Quest by Freya Stark (Chosen by Colin Thubron)
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (William Dalrymple)
A Winter in Arabia by Freya Stark (Sara Wheeler)
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (Paul Theroux)
The Global Soul by Pico Iyer (Kapka Kassabova)
The Works of Patrick Leigh Fermor (William Blacker)
Great Plains by Ian Frazier (Richard Grant)
Destinations by Jan Morris (Pico Iyer)
The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller (Jason Webster)
Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy (Robert Penn)
Journey Without Maps by Graham Greene (Tim Butcher)
A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford (Isabella Tree)
Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger (Tahir Shah)
Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist (Michael Jacobs)
The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier (Rory MacLean)
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (Karl Herbert)
Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie (Jaspar Winn)
Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby (John Gimlette)