These editing tips come from Sara Sarasohn, a former NPR editor and producer who worked at All Things Considered, the Arts Desk and NPR One, where she led the app’s editorial efforts. As you read this, imagine you are speaking to your reporter. Each of these recommendations is a question or line to use during that conversation.
First of all, the BIG stuff
“Sell the story harder in the intro.” Listeners decide to listen or tune out at an intro. Selling the most interesting part of your story in the intro can be the difference between the audience paying attention to your story or tuning out. The reporter thinks the piece is interesting because he or she spent a lot of effort reporting the story, but the audience needs to be convinced.
“Tell me what the stakes are.” What’s on the line? Money? Lives? Cultural continuity? Political power? Being clear about what is at risk makes the story more compelling.
“Billboard your transitions.” When you move from one idea to another, it’s a chance to re-engage an audience that might have drifted off. If the transition is seamless, the audience might not even notice that there is something new. Use a short, sharp sentence (a “signpost”) or a production technique or some other writing cue to let the audience know that something different is coming.
“Punch up the main idea throughout the piece.” The reporter is clear on what the main idea is, but the audience needs to be reminded.
“You need a crackerjack first sentence.” This is part of the “sell” of the idea. It’s also the reporter’s chance to convince the audience that they are interesting and have an interesting story to tell.
“This graf or section needs to happen faster.” Just a nice way of saying, cut it down. It also saves you from having to dictate a bunch of small sentence-level edits. Direct the reporter to make the cuts by him/herself.
“Move the main event up higher.” Why start your piece with a bunch of economists who talk about the economics of drug dealing if you have tape of an actual drug dealer? or social service providers when you have an actual poor person? or education experts when you have an actual teacher or student?
“What were you trying to communicate with this act/track?” This is nicer and more productive than saying, “This doesn’t make sense.” If reporters can tell you what their intention was, you can help them express themselves more clearly.
The small stuff — line edits
“That’s something you would write that you would not say.” This goes both for words and for sentence constructions. Clauses are a big part of this. We rarely insert clauses into the middle of our spoken sentences.
“Are you sure this fact is true?” It never hurts to double-check.
“The interface between the track and the act needs to work better.” Sometimes the reporter’s writing leads into the middle of the actuality, instead of the beginning. Sometimes they are leading into the act with an ID instead of an idea that gives the listener a running start into what the act is saying.
“Make this sentence clearer by taking ideas out of it.” Each sentence should only have one new idea in it. If there are too many ideas, the ear can’t absorb them all and important points won’t be understood.
“Flip this sentence or sequence around to put it in chronological order.” Complicated sentence structure and chronology can get the ear confused.
“This verb can be stronger or more vivid.” Maybe “jogged” or “sprinted” rather than “ran.”
“Streamline this ID.” You don’t need to say the name of the school where they teach and the name of their book and where they graduated from.
A final word of wisdom from Sara
Listen to the work of your colleagues. When I stopped being a producer, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and figured that I had mixed more than a thousand reporter pieces. That is what taught me to be an editor. I actively engaged with such a volume of the work of my colleagues — good and bad — that I developed a lot of ideas about what worked and what didn’t. When I became an editor, I realized that I was mostly just engaging with my own work. I had lost the valuable teaching I got from engaging in — not just listening casually to — others’ work. So I developed a practice of sitting down once a day with my hands folded in my lap and just listening, very carefully, to a piece I had nothing to do with. It gave me new insight into techniques and pitfalls I would never have if I just did my work as an editor. It only took five minutes a day. You don’t have to do that exactly, but you should develop some mechanism for learning from the work of others.