CAMP 2017: How to write clean copy on deadline

Story by Monica Vendituoli, 2017 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

The key to combatting common self-editing issues is tricking the brain into thinking the material is new.

Merrill Perlman, a freelance editor and trainer who spent 25 years at The New York Times and now runs Merrill Perlman Consulting, offered that key piece of wisdom during an hour-long training session “How to Have Cleaner Copy.”

She started off the session by using examples to show how easy it is to overlook misspellings.

“Your brain really doesn’t want to work,” Perlman said.

Reading stories aloud, having a computer read a story aloud, making the font larger and reading a piece backward all help the brain see a story anew.

The same concept applies to audiences. Perlman offered writers tips on how to decrease the amount of work their audiences’ brains have to do through clear writing.

She noted that it is important for writers to build a sentence as quickly as possible in order to give the audience a full picture of what is occurring.

One way writers can do this is by creating the proper image. Perlman contrasted starting a sentence by saying “At the age of 5” versus “When Indira was 5.”

The former allows for readers to imagine a boy or girl, which could confuse them later on in the story. Perlman said to remember that a dangler districts readers, so it’s important writers tell them “who dunnit” early.

Readers also often get lost when a technical term comes up before the writer has explained what it means. Perlman advised writers to avoid this by giving the reader a more familiar image first and then following that with more technical terms.

Explaining first and not later is especially important with quotes. Perlman said it’s important to set up quotes with context and clarity on who is speaking.

She cautioned against using quotes that required brackets for explanation.

“If you have to explain a quote, it’s not a good quote,” Perlman said.

Dashes also have a similar effect on distracting readers from writing.

“Dashes can create whiplash,” Perlman said.

Writers often use dashes for clarity in their own mind, not for the reader. Perlman said writers should keep this in mind when simplifying content for general audiences.

“Don’t think of it as dumbing down,” Perlman said. “Think of it as educating up.”

After focusing on writers, Perlman offered her expertise to editors looking for advice on how to better coach writers.

Perlman said editors will get better results when they explain to writers why certain edits are necessary.

She used the analogy that telling writers what do is like giving someone a fish, whereas telling writers why changes are needed and how to make them is like teaching someone to fish.

Perlman ended the session by recommending the book “Woe is I” by her friend Patricia T. O’Connor, which can be found here: