Story drafts with verbs and adjectives highlighted

An example of Literary Forensics. Verbs are highlighted in one draft of a story; adjectives are highlighted separately in the same story.

Here is a self-editing origin story:

I was back from my first truly big reporting assignment, which was to cover the 1984-85 famine in the sub-Sahara. I was exhausted, emotional about what I had seen, and insecure about my ability to put it into words. I had four weeks from homecoming to publication. That’s an eternity for someone used to filing two stories a day plus a weekender, and probably didn’t work in my favor. Time is not always the writer’s friend.

Just a few days before deadline, I handed a draft to the top editor, Deborah Howell. It weighed in at 20,000 words. She had me cut it into pieces (thank the structure gods that I wrote in scenes and sections) and pin them on the corkboard strip in the conference room. Then I watched as she, um, edited. She changed the order of some pieces. She pinned some on top of others. And some she simply let drift to the floor, where they were impaled on her spiky heels.

When she was done, she turned to me: “Now do it again. And bring it down a few thousand words.”

I was on the verge of tears. But I stood my ground and demanded to know what, specifically, I had done wrong. She shrugged: “You overwrite.”

Frustrated, I pressed her for details: Too many sources? Loose sentence structure? Overly long anecdotes?

Her response: “You put too much f**king tinsel on your f**cking tree.”

My stunned reaction: “What the f**k does that mean?” (We talked like that in the newsroom – or at least in her newsroom – back in the day.)

Her answers came, fast and specific: Multiple scenes that made the same point. Adjectives that decorated rather than described. An over-indulgence in lists of three. Descriptions as dense as flourless chocolate cake. (She did say she liked my metaphors.)

I was shaken. And more than a little pissed. But I took my draft home that night, poured a generous glass of wine, grabbed a highlighter and went hunting. It didn’t take long to see the clutter, and then to see it start forming into the patterns she had named. I also saw good things: Strong verbs. Sensory details. Varied pacing. And yes, metaphors.

I redid the story. It ran at maybe 16,000 words, and was named a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in international reporting. Even so, if I had it back, I’d try to get it down another 2,500 words, maybe more. Because since that no-BS edit, my highlighter has identified more of my habitual writing weaknesses: Overly long quotes. Too many lead-in dependent clauses. Unnecessary transitions.

That Africa assignment changed the trajectory of my reporting career. I let go of aspirations to climb the traditional ladder of political reporting, and chose instead to explore human interest and social issues stories. As important, the editing process changed how I understood writing — as a writer, then editor and finally a teacher/coach.

Low-tech tools and constructive language

I came to call it Literary Forensics. I was big into the “CSI” series at the time, and loved the idea of solving a crime by working backwards from clues in a murder victim’s body to their origins. Over the years, I realized that many editors and teachers use symptomatic language when they address writing challenges (“You overwrite.”) rather than identifying the root causes (“You decorate rather than describe.” Or “You need to compress the backstory.”). Symptomatic language doesn’t help a writer see what’s not working, so sometimes, on a rewrite, they fix the wrong things.

This is not all there is to good rewriting or editing. It doesn’t address conceptual issues, like theme, or even big structural challenges. It focuses on the granular.

But seeing writing from the inside out can help writers recognize their habits — good and not so good. It can give editors constructive coaching language and an efficient editing tool. It can help tighten copy without sacrificing information or voice. And with that clutter cleaned away, it can leave room and time for those bigger writing challenges.

I’ve used a highlighter on my own work for 30 years now. I still write like me. But I can squeegee my words down by 15-20 percent because I know how to seek out the primary patterns that trip me up. I have used this as a coach and teacher to identify where it is most important for a writer to improve. And I have used it as an editor, with some of the top veterans in the business. Many grumble at first because it seems remedial. But again and again, I have watched them get fascinated with the exploration, then gain even greater mastery over masterful work.

This was reinforced recently when I sent a copy of my Literary Forensics exercise to Karen Thomas, a college journalism prof at Southern Methodist University. She was looking for ways to help students be better self-editors. Here’s what she wrote back:

I passed out the Literary Forensics assignment last week and asked my students to apply it to a feature story they just turned in. I had individual meetings with them today and each brought their color-coded stories. Most absolutely loved this. They told me they were able to see that they weren’t using strong verbs, avoided adjectives or relied too heavily on “to be” verbs. A very talented sports writer looked at his use of numbers and stats as well as sports terms that an average reader not understand and vowed to improve his stories by making them more accessible to others. A lot of their self-revelations coincided with my grading of the same story. One student told me she intended to use this on all her writing assignments, not just journalism — she’s also majoring in English. It was such a fruitful tool that then allowed us to have a much deeper conversation about how to revise that particular story and to work on their writing overall.

What could be better than something that opens the door to a “deeper conversation” about writing and revision? I felt the same way when a journalist sent a note two years after the workshop; his newsroom was still doing “Literary Forensics Lunches” every month. They chipped in for pizza, picked one component of language, brought their printouts and hardcopies to a conference room (or now, I suppose, Zoom) and talked story craft.

We all need back-up

There are other approaches to this kind of squint-eyed editing, of course. Check out “The Art of X-Ray Reading,” by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. Journalists of a certain age will remember “the hunt for widows and orphans.” They aren’t as obvious on a screen, when every device brings up a different width of a story, but it’s still useful to look for paragraphs where two or three words hang out on a last line, alone and lonely. Look backwards from there, into the paragraph, and excise a few loose words. In print, it means you just saved yourself an entire line of space. Even online, it means you’ve made your writing more lean.

And relax! You don’t have to be a grammar-nerd. I have a decent grounding from grade school, but no better than decent. I always need back-up. Top of the list is common sense: I try to read slowly and out loud, and hear what’s not working. With my own writing, I pay attention to my default habits: One is a tendency to put clauses in the wrong place in sentences. Whether writing or editing, I keep a few practical grammar books at hand. Among my faves: “Woe is I,” by former New York Times Book Review Editor Patricia T. O’Conner; “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” by Kitty Burns Florey; some spot-on chapters in “Word Craft,” by Jack Hart; and again, Roy Peter Clark with “The Glamour of Grammar.” (If I’m on the road, I hunt around online for validation from a few trusted sites.)

That’s it. Highlighters. Printouts. Coffee or wine if you want. A bit of patience.

Pro tips:

  •  This works best on hard copy. It helps you slow down, and it helps you see the writing in ways you skim by on the computer screen. If you decide to use it on your own writing on the computer, then at least change the font size and type.
  • Journalists aren’t known for patience, but try to start with one part of speech at a time. Study — don’t judge! — the patterns for what they tell you. (What is problematic in one story could be exactly the right approach in another.) Let that simmer for a month, then take on another part of speech. Along the way, you will internalize things so they become part of your new muscle memory. In 12 months, you’ll have have transformed how you see copy.
  • Aren’t sure where to start or insecure about your grasp of grammar? You are far from alone. The Literary Forensics tip sheet includes a good list to get you started. (Here it is again, for your convenience. Feel free to print it out or share. All I ask is credit, the occasional note about whether and how you made it work and, ideally, royalties.)
  • When you read other things, pay attention to what you stumble over. What slows you down or confuses you? Then take a moment to study the sentence and figure out what could have eased those speed bumps.
  • Use concrete, constructive language when editing or coaching other writers. Make it about the specifics of the craft, not the strengths or weakness of the writer.

Further Reading