I’m a freelance writer and blogger, but I’m also an editor. The kind of editor that pays people for quality travel stories they write, for a publication that wins awards year after year, plus another online magazine and two group blogs. So I see things from both sides of the desk more than most. That includes seeing common mechanical mistakes that most writers make. These problems are not just about the initial idea, but in the actual execution.
Here are a few problems I have been running into since I first officially became an editor in 2006. I know my colleagues deal with the same ones on a regular basis. Before you send something off to an editor who cares enough about quality to pay for it, check your article against this list for matches. Then get rid of them.
If you’re a travel blogger with no editor, then compare this list to some of your recent posts to see areas for improvement.
1) Your sentences are way too long
Magazine readers like short sentences. Web readers like them even more. I once edited a submission where three sentences were more than 40 words, one coming in at 62. (It was a whole 5-line paragraph on its own.) In some cases, long sentences are fine, necessary even. If you’re writing a book, go to it when that makes sense. Book readers have a different type of attention span. The occasional one in a narrative travel article that’s a “long read” is fine.
In most cases, however, find a place to stick in a period. Or two.
Gut check hint: If you have trouble reading any sentence out loud without taking a breath, it’s twice as long as it should be.
2) There are too many parenthetical asides
I also edited an article once where in around 1,100 words, there were 33 parenthetical phrases. Half of those were in actual parentheses, the other half set off by dashes (see #5 below). This creates a lot of work for the reader to follow and sounds both schizo and wishy-washy. Expressions like this are fine in moderation, but using them too much just makes you sound spastic. Focus your thoughts and make a point without all the side notes.
Gut check hint: If you’re doing this more than once every two or three paragraphs (and can’t resist sticking in a side note to half your points), then you’re doing it too much.
3) There’s no variation in tempo
Fiction writers and script writers talk a lot about tempo in their writing, but travel writers almost never do. Except the great ones, that is.
You need to vary the length of your sentences, speed up sometimes, slow down sometimes. Alternate between exposition and dialogue, scene-setting by you, and scenes that play out without commentary.
The best way to get good at this? Read good books regularly. Then emulate what makes them good. Read good long-form feature articles in magazines that win awards. Then analyze why they worked so well.
Gut check hint: Read your article out loud and imagine someone sitting there listening to it. Does it sound flat, monotonous, or gray? Or is there enough variation to keep the listener intrigued?
4) You’re repeating the same words in the same paragraph
I have my wife read almost everything I write for magazines or Perceptive Travel because she was an English major in college and is good at catching the mechanical mistakes I miss. It turns out that I miss a lot. We all do. There’s a well-documented problem that writers have trouble seeing their own mistakes.
Spell check and grammar check in Word helps, as does Grammarly in your browser, but most tools have trouble catching the fact that you used the same word four times in one paragraph. When you do catch the duplications, find synonyms or rewrite those sentences to avoid redundancy.
Gut check hint: If you don’t have a human checker to call on, read what you wrote out loud. Also/and use an online text-to-speech program that will read the document through your computer speakers. The free ones sometimes sound like a robot, but a robot’s better than nothing for catching word duplication (or awkward phrasing).
5) Too many dashes
Some writers seem to love dashes as much as they love their pet or their smartphone. I once edited a 2,000-word story that had 42 of them in the original draft. I don’t know what the golden ratio is, but it’s a small fraction of that I’m sure. Unless there’s extensive dialogue in your article where you’re really quoting speech patterns word for word, an overuse of dashes is clumsy and annoying. This relates somewhat to problem #2 above, but many other times it is just bad writing.
Sometimes the sentences need a rewrite, other times you just need to mix up the punctuation. A colon, semi-colon, comma, or period might do the trick instead.
Gut check hint: Print out your article and circle the dashes, or highlight them on your computer screen. If you’re seeing more than four dashes on a page, you probably need to dial it back. Find a way to say what you need to say with more clarity.
6) Poor article structure
The article structure problem is especially rampant in narrative writing drafts I receive, about half of which need to be reworked. For the web especially, if you don’t grab people in the first two paragraphs and then lead them by the hand through your story, they’re gone. There’s something else shiny and fun to click on and they’ve got a back button and multiple tabs at their disposal.
In magazines and newspapers too though, the lead matters more than anything. Start with the drama, then get to the back story. Do that in reverse and you’re dead.
Spud Hilton, former travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, teaches writing classes that focus a lot on structure. He once gave a talk at TBEX on good writing. I liked his analogy so I’m paraphrasing it here. “Think of how a James Bond movie works. First you’ve got some kind of exciting chase, a fight, explosions. You’re hooked. You can’t wait to see what happens next! Then you find about about the problem, what the evil villain is up to. Then James goes and saves the day, having some fun interludes and action sequences along the way. There’s a climax, then a nice wrap-up that ties it all up before the credits roll.”
It’s a tale as old as time, and it works. It doesn’t just work—we expect it. Nearly every great movie you can think of starts with something exciting, intriguing, or wondrous. Something pulls you in. If it doesn’t, the film is probably going to fail. The same goes for your narrative article. Give us a reason to keep reading or we’re gone.
Gut check hint: Have a brutally honest friend read the first two paragraphs of your story and then ask that person, “How badly do you want to hear the rest of this?” Their body language will probably tell you the answer before they even open their mouth.
7) It doesn’t pass the “Who cares?” test
A good idea is nice, but if it lacks focus then it’s really just a seed of an idea. I’ve often had to employ the e-mail version of biting my tongue to avoid hurting the fragile egos of inexperienced writers. I can tell a good writer, “There’s no story here” or “This is just a meandering mess right now” and they’ll take that as a challenge to improve and come back with something great. Others with thinner skin will call me mean and get huffy, telling me they didn’t want to write for such an insensitive jerk and they are now withdrawing their query. (The freelancer’s version of “You can’t fire me–I quit!”) It never gets published anywhere else either though, because it’s a bad pitch or a bad article.
An editor is a customer, not your therapist or coach. You want their honest feedback because it’s going to help you sell what you’re pitching more often in the future. Treat that feedback as a gift because it’s rare to get more than a curt “Not for us” or “No thanks.” Feed off of it to get better at your craft.
We are all drinking from a firehose when it comes to what we choose to read. You see stats all the time about how we’re reading more words in half a day now than an 18th-century person did in a year. Any article in any medium is competing with a nearly infinite supply of others. Limit it to just “travel” and there are still billions of articles to choose from. Narrow it down to “travel articles about New York” and you’ve still probably got tens of millions you could read. How is yours going to stand out? Why will anyone care enough to spend their precious attention on it?
A place is not a story and even a listicle has a point. Just like those essay papers you had to write in high school English class, your article should have a theme, even if it’s a service piece. There’s an angle, a narrative, or a point of view that guides what goes on the page and what does not. The essential elements that support that theme stay, the ones that are just pointless detours do not. Sure, it’s the job of a good editor to make that clear in what’s chopped and what remains in the final version, but if you don’t know what that theme or angle is when you write it, the editor can’t work miracles. Also, it’s not really her job to define the angle because you didn’t think it through.
If you’re a blogger, you don’t have an editor, so it’s all on you to put out content that people care enough about to read. And share. And comment on. You only need keyword phrases for the Google bots to like you, but you need to have a point if you want to attract readers who care.
Gut check hint: Summarize the theme of your article in a couple of sentences, then write out an outline. Go through and explain how each major heading of the outline supports the over-arching theme. Then explain who will want to read this article–what type of person it serves or entertains. If you’re struggling to do this basic writing exercise, then it’s probably not going to pass the “Who cares?” test. Figure out what’s broken and fix it.
How about you? What mistakes most writers make have you seen in your own work or as an editor?