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Storytelling tips and best practices

6 tips for catching your writing mistakes (and protecting your credibility)

When you don’t have access to a copy editor, a few self-editing tips will save you from typos, inaccuracies and other mistakes. (Bria Granville/NPR)

You, reporter/blogger, have been working on a story all day, and it’s deadline time. You hope your story’s free of typos and grammatical mistakes. But at this point, you’ve read it so many times, you fear you’ve missed something. No one is available to read behind you and it’s nearly time to hit “publish.”

What do you do?

Call on the copy editor within. In this post, we’ll go over six tips for self-editing that will save you from typos, inaccuracies and other mistakes.

But first, an exercise. Here’s a paragraph from a story that I’ve littered with all sorts of common errors.

See how many issues you can spot, then click “publish” to see the edited version.

Before he was Ivan Drago, Hee-Man or an “Expendable”, Dolf Lundgren was just another six-foot-five Norwegian male model with a black-belt in Karate and a degreee in chemical engineering. [Publish]

How’d it go? (For more practice, try this copy editing quiz, or these.)

These types of mistakes — grammar, spelling, missing/incorrect context, style — make readers doubt the professionalism of your work. A Wayne State/ACES study that measured people’s impressions of edited news stories versus those that went unedited found that readers perceived the edited articles as having higher quality and more value. It’s something journalists have known for many years. Yet in many newsrooms, the layers of editing that stories used to go through are disappearing.

Taking a few extra minutes to clean up your story is critical to maintaining your credibility with readers.

Here are six easy ways to get started:

1. Reread it

Read your story one last time, all the way through — just like a reader would. Don’t stop to look something up or change anything. Make a mark if something bothers you and go back to it when you’re done.

If you do go back and make a change, be extra careful not to insert a new error. The American Copy Editors’ Society says that is one of the most common causes of typos. You’re also likely to catch duplicate words during this type of rereading. We tend to repeat words like “a,” “the,” “and” and “but” as we type.

As ACES also notes, errors often travel in pairs. So if you find one, look nearby for others. If you caught a misspelled last name, for example, check the first name, title and even the company name while you’re at it.

2. Change the format

If you’re feeling too familiar with your story, change how you’re reading it. Print it out if you’ve been working on a screen. Change the font or the font size. Make the text or background a different color. Read it aloud — to yourself or to someone else — or have someone else read it to you.

Merrill Perlman, Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner blogger, has said, “Every time you read it the same way, you read less of it and recite more of it from memory. This is how you miss errors.”

So change it up. NPR’s chief copy editor, Susan Vavrick, likes to read the story from bottom to top, instead of top to bottom.

3. Step away

Go for a walk, watch a short video, make a phone call or read something on a totally unrelated topic. Give your brain a break. When you come back to your story, change things up using some of the suggestions above.

4. Spellcheck and grammar check are your friends

Use technology! Spellcheck and grammar-check tools are a good first line of defense. If you don’t work in a program that enables them, consider changing your workflow.

It’s easy, however, to get used to those little red and green squiggles and just read over them. Consider doing one read-through where you’re focusing only on the underscored words and phrases. Click on each one and see what the program suggests you could do differently.

5. Use a checklist

I keep the NPR Accuracy Checklist taped to my computer monitor. It’s a list, from NPR Standards and Practices Editor Mark Memmott, of 13 things that “must be double- or triple-checked” because journalists often get them wrong.

Keep an accuracy checklist, like this one from NPR, in a visible spot. Everyone needs a reminder once in a while. (Serri Graslie/NPR)

“Personal names” are on that list because misspelled names are one of our top mistakes at NPR (you can see all of the things we’ve had to correct at NPR Corrections).

I heard a story once about a professor who would give an assignment an F if a student misspelled even one name. That may seem extreme, but I like the idea of thinking of names that way: If I spell one wrong, my story fails. Yes, it’s that important — to your readers, to the sources you’re naming and for your credibility.

A checklist can be helpful anytime during your writing process, but at the very least, glance at it before you hit “publish.” It will help you make some great saves.

6. Recheck the most important stuff

The first paragraph and the last paragraph are where a lot of mistakes hide. It’s easy to read right over them after a while because you’ve practically memorized them.

Check the headline, graphics, captions and other similar text. These may be all the readers see if they encounter your story on social media, in search results or on your home page. If there’s a mistake in that small snapshot, will readers even bother to click and read more? Often the answer is “no.” Your headline should be specific, straightforward, spirited — and typo-free! (More NPR Training tips on how to write great headlines here.)

As you incorporate some of these steps to channel your inner copy editor, think about being an advocate for that reader who is just discovering your story. As The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre has said: “The reader doesn’t care how hard you worked, what pressure you are under, or how good your intentions are. The reader sees the product, online or in print; if the product looks sloppy and substandard, the reader will form, and likely express, a low opinion of it.”

You can help make sure that doesn’t happen, whether your work will go through several edits or no edits before it’s published, by passing it on in the best shape possible.


Quiz answers

Errors marked in red:

Before he was Ivan Drago, Hee-Man or an “Expendable“, Dolf Lundgren was just another six-foot-five Norwegian male model with a blackbelt in Karate and a degreee in chemical engineering.

Corrected version:

Before he was Ivan Drago, He-Man or an “Expendable,” Dolph Lundgren was just another 6-foot-5 Swedish male model with a black belt in karate and a degree in chemical engineering.

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Amy Morgan is a digital engagement editor and former copy editor at NPR. Her grammar pet peeve is misplaced modifiers like “Covered in hot cheese, we ate the pizza.”