And other words of wisdom from John McIntyre’s The Old Editor Says.
Deadlines. Pressure. Expectations. ROI. You’ve been tasked with writing an article for your organization’s newsletter or website with high expectations that it will yield strong results. But how can you be sure readers will be drawn to your masterpiece? After all, readers are under no obligation to read your article.
Just in time, an old veteran editor comes to the rescue. John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun‘s night content production manager, has published a book called The Old Editor Says, filled with maxims for writers and editors. As I was glancing through the tips, I stumbled upon several nuggets of wisdom.
- McIntyre leads off with a reminder about the value of being concise: “‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ 10-word lede. What’ve you got that needs more?” As McIntyre points out, even an event of cosmic proportions does not need several paragraphs of throat clearing or a long anecdote to set up the story.
- Next, McIntyre offers a related maxim: “The crowd doesn’t care about the windup. The crowd wants to see the pitch.” In his blog, McIntyre explains: “But there are writers who don’t want to throw the ball until they have touched their caps, licked their fingers, shrugged a couple of times, touched their caps again, looked off into the distance, and finally decided to throw the damn ball.”
- A writer who uses the “wait for it” approach should remember that once your reader tackles the first word of your article, the clock starts ticking and you have only a few sentences to grab the readers’ attention and propel it to the finish line. McIntyre suggests that an article can be trimmed by not only killing the throat-clearing intro, but also by deleting the detailed anecdote and other padding and ornaments that have been included. And he argues that over-the-top adjectives should be eliminated—the writer should “just tell the reader what’s going on.”
- And sometimes the old editor asks: “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’”? McIntyre explains some sources of frustration for editors and readers: “The writer who circles around the same point repeatedly. The wordy writer. The intoxicated-with-my-own-burnished-prose writer. … Readers who discover that they bear that tattoo have one quick expedient, and they are not shy about resorting to it. They stop reading.”
Long Story Short
McIntyre also puts his own sage advice into context near the end of his book: “Be suspicious of all one-sentence injunctions about writing and editing. One-sentence exhortations, the ones in this little book included, are not adequate for the complexity of experience.”
So take these maxims with a grain of salt. But you might be able to grow your readership and ROI by incorporating McIntyre’s pearls of wisdom into your writing and structuring your article to reflect the minimalist motto favored by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: less is more.
And if you’re reading this final sentence, then I guess I successfully employed McIntyre’s maxims.
Do you have more maxims on your mind? Share with us below in the comments field.
The Old Editor Says is by John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland.
Phil Malkinson is a managing editor at GLC.