Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:
“As a writer, I often turn in first drafts of articles that are over the assigned word count by around 20 to 30 percent. I do so knowing that the story will need to be trimmed but wanting the editor’s feedback on what should take priority, and I specifically ask for that feedback about where to cut back. Often, though, the editor sends edits without making any significant trims and asks me to cut things on round two. I wish I understood why: Is it because they have a hard time judging/prioritizing when they haven’t done the reporting themselves? Is it that they hate to cut another person’s precious words out of a story? (Doubt it’s that!) Or is it just too time-consuming for them and they decide to wing it back my way? Am I wrong to expect that editors will help with this aspect of shaping a story?”
Torie Bosch, editor of Future Tense, Slate
When it comes to word counts, it sometimes seems like there are two types of writers: those who apologize profusely for sending me 1,217 words instead of 1,200, and those who send 2,000 words instead of 1,200 and magnanimously tell me it’s so I can make choices.
Of course, 20 to 30 percent extra isn’t nearly as bad as 75 percent extra—but I prefer for the writer to make those decisions and send me the version of the piece that she is happiest with, a version that is pretty close to the word count we discussed. Truthfully, I do hate to cut someone else’s precious words from a story, and it is time consuming. Most editors deal with a pretty high volume of content, and deciding where to trim a few hundred words can be difficult. After all, you know the story better than I do—what do you think is most important here? I’m paying you for your judgment!
I think that, as is so often the case, asking ahead of time is key. I often get notes from freelancers asking me whether it’s OK to send in 1,500 words instead of 1,200 and explaining why: They couldn’t bear to delete this brief detour; the last person they interviewed was fascinating and added a new dimension to the narrative; this part gets really complicated and we need to hold the reader’s hand through it. Getting a heads-up, and finding out why the writer thinks the story needs to be longer than discussed, helps a lot. I also like it when a writer sends me a piece that is pretty close to the word count we discussed, but includes a brief (very brief!) memo in the filing email explaining some of the material they deleted. I can keep that in mind as I read.
Sometimes writers will send me a first draft with a page or two of cut material at the end, in case I want to sub it in. This can be helpful: As I’m doing the first edit of the piece, I may find myself thinking, I would really love an anecdote or example of this thing. If I find that at the end of the piece, fantastic. However, I know some editors find that a little irritating. Other times, writers will also add comments to the draft: Here, I originally had an example in which XXX … But that can get a little bit distracting when you’re editing: I want to read the piece the way a reader might.
If you really, really want to send an extra 20 to 30 percent, and if you give me a bit of a heads-up (and maybe sound a little sheepish?), that’s fine. I’m not going to blackball a writer over something like that. But you should ask yourself whether you really are trying to give the editor choices, or whether you are just avoiding doing the cutting. As we so often say, it can be much harder to write short than long.
Adrienne Mason, managing editor, Hakai Magazine:
The writer is not wrong to think that an editor will help shape the story, but here are a few thoughts regarding the question. We try to give very clear assignment notes to help provide a story’s framework from the get-go. This may also include a phone call and a few emails back and forth. Conversations during the writing process may also be helpful. Perhaps a writer has found some new info, a new source to interview, or something went sideways, and a quick back-and-forth with the editor may help determine whether following that lead is worth his/her time. I don’t mind if a story comes in 10 percent over, or perhaps even 20 percent. I can certainly understand why a writer would want a second opinion as to what should be cut—but I might get a bit cranky when it’s significantly more, especially if it feels as if the writer is being lazy and wants you to do the heavy lifting.
If a story is in decent shape, even if it’s long, I’ll do a fairly substantive edit the first time through with suggestions for reordering, cutting, etc., knowing that the writer generally gets it. Sometimes it means just lopping off entire sections, “cutting the darlings” so to speak. Writers often intuitively know where things should be cut, but it helps to have an editor who’s not afraid to use the scissors, virtual or otherwise (I have been known to print out stories and actually get the scissors out)!
If the piece comes in long and needs a lot of work—including significant trimming—however, I may just fire it back to the writer with notes on the broader strokes that need significant attention. Often I ask them to pare right back to the story’s framework. Once that is clear, they can start layering the pertinent details and cutting all the flab. They need to do the work. And if they don’t, be prepared for a story to be killed or have an editor dig in hard.
Heather Smith, news editor, Sierra:
I don’t mind cutting stories down to a required word count. To me, it’s satisfying in a puzzle-solving kind of way. But one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with had the habit of reading stories very quickly right after they were turned in, and then writing back a short note like “Everything looks fine here, nothing to worry about, will get to this tomorrow,” or “You need a new ending,” or “Move up that nut graf,” or “You need to cut 200 words from this, then we can talk.” I always interpreted these messages as a vote of confidence in my ability to edit my own work, but it’s also true that this editor was extremely busy and turned out quality work at a phenomenal speed that I still aspire to.
A lot of what makes people fast, I’ve found, is the ability to delegate. So that’s one interpretation of the experience you describe: Your editor read the article, nothing stands out as being in dire and obvious need of cutting, so they’re sending it back to you and trusting you to do the rest.
It is true that, as the person who’s done all the reporting, you’ll have a better immediate sense of what’s indispensable. It’s also possible that this person came of age in the print era, when turning in articles that were at the exact word count was basically a social norm—and only divas went over—and is trying to socially engineer you to do the same.
The other interpretation is that they are just doing the bare minimum, editorially, and have zero energy or initiative to try to make your writing better. I once wrote an essay that got picked up by a literary website and thrown up on the front page with absolutely no editing whatsoever, which is not the way I like to do things. That experience was still way better than the times that I’ve worked with truly bad, overly involved editors, but I also am not likely to write anything for that publication again. Ultimately, being the writer means … being the writer. When your writing is good, you get the accolades and prizes. When it’s bad, you’re the one who gets blamed. If you’re proud of the articles you’re publishing with this editor, keep up the good work. If, after publication, you’re finding embarrassing mistakes and awkward phrasing that you wish you’d caught earlier, it’s time to pitch other editors.
Kate Schimel, deputy editor–digital, High Country News
As with so much in the journalism world, there is no hard-and-fast rule on who should do the cutting when a piece is over word count. And it’s all contingent on your time, the editor’s workload, and the complexity of the story. The first place to start with this is a conversation with your editor at the time of assignment about their expectations on filing and trimming. What’s the focus of the story, so you know how to prioritize? Do they prefer to trim or do they prefer you do it? And at what stage of the editing? I think a lot of the pain of journalism can be taken out by clear conversations between writers and editors before first drafts are ever filed; get on the same page about how you are going to work together.
I would also urge you to change your practices somewhat. Filing over word count, especially more than 10 percent, should really be closer to an exception than a rule. It adds quite a bit of time to the editing process to receive unexpectedly long drafts, from reading and processing the piece to figuring out how to bring it down to word count. And many editors have a raft of demands on their time. I usually plan out chunks of the day to read copy—more for features, less for news. If pieces are longer than expected, it can throw off my tenuously stitched-together schedule. There is some variation on this: I’ve never received a feature draft that was at word count, nor have I filed one at word count (oops!), but again, try and stay within 10 percent. On shorter stories, especially ones on a quick turnaround, I will shoot a piece that’s substantially longer than assigned straight back to the writer for cuts—before I start editing. That’s not to say length can’t be flexible: If you feel you need more words, send your editor a note along with the draft explaining why. And many editors will ask questions in the editing process that add words, so starting shorter makes it easier down the line.
Finally, many of us do in fact hate cutting your precious words! They’re precious to us too. And many of us would prefer the final product reflect your writing and reporting as much as possible and that you own the piece. The fun of editing is helping the writer bring the piece to reality. Trimming, especially up to 30 percent of the piece, can substantially reshape it, and 9 times out of 10 I’d prefer that you at least take a stab at it before I start slicing.