Guest post by Zachary Petit (@zacharypetit)
Sure, writing is less high-stakes than safely transporting the Johnston family from Cleveland to Orlando. But if you take your craft seriously and want to excel at it—and do so in the quickest and most efficient way possible (looking at you, WNFIN participants)—then you need to make sure you’re covering all your bases before you send any article to an editor.
As a writer, this is what I run through before I turn in a piece. As an editor, this is what’s going to make me strongly question your ascent, cruising altitude and landing while you’ve got me on board.
It’s easy to overlook the simple things, especially when you’re moving fast. So before you turn any piece in, run through the following for the sake of your editors, fact checkers, and most importantly, your readers.
- Reread your original query, the assignment, the contract, and/or any correspondence you may have had with your editor. Is everything in the piece that should be? Consider this your in-flight GPS. (And make sure you wind up at the right place.)
- Format your story in the publication/website’s style. (Publications follow a hierarchy when it comes to style—generally, their house style first, and then AP Style for anything not covered in there.) When somebody writes an article for me in AP Style, it says a lot about their experience and writing savvy, and those writers inevitably tend to be the best writers. (Don’t know AP Style? Check it out.)
- Make sure all your proper nouns are correct—source names, organizations, products, places, etc. Get this wrong (and you’d be amazed at how many people do), and your editor will break out in a cold sweat and make sure they’re near an exit row.
- Fact check your piece. And I mean really go through it, top to bottom. Question everything. Verify everything. You don’t want your editor to break down in tears because that great story that’s nearly at press turns out to be ¼ true.For Bonus Miles: Cite links/books confirming the facts in your story in the Track Changes function of Microsoft Word. Some publications I write for require this, and while it’s time-consuming, it’s worth it. Not only does it make an editor’s life easier and maybe win you future assignments, but it also gives you a layer of confidence that the work you’re producing is truly solid.
- Include a source list at the end of your story. Simple enough: Just a list of the names of everyone quoted, their titles, and their email addresses or phone numbers.
- Double check the quotes featured in the story. You don’t ever want anyone accusing you of misquoting them, so quickly check your recording and/or notes to make sure you’re spot-on.For Bonus Miles: Include a transcript of the interviews you conducted. Nothing polished and print-ready, just a resource for the editor to verify quotes, understand context or pull additional material if needed for something like a Q&A. When people do this for me, it’s the equivalent of the free wine you get on transatlantic flights: Delightful.
- Read your final draft as an outsider. By now you’ve probably lost objectivity for the piece. So disconnect for an afternoon, and then go back through the article with a faux-fresh eye. Ask yourself: If you were a reader, what questions would you be asking? What’s missing in the narrative? What doesn’t make sense or requires further explanation? These are the questions your editor will be asking—and they may require time-consuming edits if you don’t tackle them now. Some writers I know read their work aloud because they feel it helps them come at it fresh. Don’t hesitate to call in a trusted eye, either.
- Make sure that if you were asked to provide art or photos, they’re attached and properly credited.
- Include an updated bio. An editor will likely be asking for it, anyway, so get the jump on them and pop it in there up front.
In my humble, nonexpert opinion, the essence of being a good pilot is doing your job well enough that your passengers aren’t staring up at the ceiling, wondering if the oxygen masks are about to deploy. So go through this checklist so that your editor isn’t scrambling around the cabin in search of a parachute.
All systems go?
|Nonfiction Writers’ University|
About the Author
Zachary Petit [http://zacharypetit.com] is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Print, a 75-year-old National Magazine Award–winning publication focused on the intersection of design and culture. Previously, he was the senior managing editor of Writer’s Digest. This article is a preview to his forthcoming nonfiction title for Writer’s Digest Books, due out in fall 2015.
Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles | Freedigitalphotos.net