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Paul Cipywnyk

Zoom, Zoom: Rev Up Your Editing

SpeedEditingArticle-pexelsHow quickly can you edit and still do a good job? In another life I was an editor for a financial and business news service, and I was amazed at how quickly reporters and editors could churn out thousands of words, yet maintain high standards.

I believe you can learn to write and edit rapidly; it just takes practice, like any other learned skill. While editors usually slowly and carefully peruse copy, learning to polish prose quickly can add firepower to their editing arsenal.

Of course, journalism has certain patterns that make it easier, or at least more structured, for getting words on screen. We’ve all heard about the inverted pyramid, where the most important information comes first, and the 5WH — the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How questions that every story must answer.

Yet I think we can learn to edit almost anything quickly. I’m not advocating that we edit everything machine-gun style, but exercising this ability flexes our editing muscles and gets us thinking in new ways.

How can you learn to smoke the keyboard? Two methods are timed writing and editing, and what I like to call slash-and-burn editing.

In timed writing, you set a goal to write flat out for a certain period. Choose a topic and just go, without stopping to correct or self-edit along the way. I know this is not editing, but it will give you some fresh material to work with when you do get to the speed-editing stage.

If you’re shy about writing, just go online to any newspaper and copy a mid-length (say about 800 to 1,000 words) article and paste it into a Word document that you can practise editing on. But I encourage you to write, because fast editing often means the most effective way to get to your target word count is to rewrite material.

You’ve now got 600 or 800 or however many words in front of you. It’s time to slash and burn! Set that timer to 10 minutes and cut the article in half, without losing any key information. In half! Yes, that’s all the space you have, and you have 10 minutes to deadline to make it work.

Freaking out yet?

Journalists do this many times a day, day in and day out. You can do it, too.

Here are a few tips. Learn to scan for what’s important. It’ll be scary cutting chunks of text or even sentences, so when you cut them, paste them in another open, blank document, so you still have them to go back to if you end up needing them. Why another document? Because that will keep your primary document word count accurate. You are keeping an eye on the count, right?

To get comfortable with fast editing, keep practising. Oh, and if you’re curious, from concept, to blank page, to writing, to a quick edit, this article took me about 30 minutes. Your turn!


Previous post from Paul Cipywnyk: Basic Tools for Productive Editing.

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5 Comments on “Zoom, Zoom: Rev Up Your Editing”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Thank you for this article, Paul! I did a lot of work like this – not for newspapers but for government offices that produced time-sensitive material that was not going to have a long shelf life. In other words, although I was proud of my product, delivering on time was more important than any other concerns. I used to say that at my job in a deputy minister’s office, everything had a red Urgent tag on it.

    I described myself as quick and dirty. I was too modest to add “good” to list of descriptors, but I certainly think our work was “good enough.” And I sometimes suspect that spending many more hours on a document does not necessarily ensure an improved product.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Good suggestions, Paul – the ability to write, rewrite, and edit quickly are useful skills for all editors. But you also have to know your client and understand the nature of the assignment: many authors would resent having editors who rewrote their texts. They would feel they had become mere research assistants for the editor, who is now the writer.

    Even when I’m reducing a text by 50 percent, as I often do, I try as much as possible to use words and phrases that the writer has used. That way I generally retain the author’s voice and allow the writer to keep a sense of ownership over the published text. Psychologically it works wonders.

    • Anita Jenkins


      Rosemary, that’s because you were lucky enough to work with and for “writers,” people who HAD a voice. I called many of the staffers who drafted government documents “authors” as opposed to “writers.” Something like the term “content providers” that the Internet people so insultingly use to refer to writers. And the source was often not just one person who was not much of a writer, but several people, that is, a committee. Terrible stuff was churned out.

    • Paul Cipywnyk


      Good points, thanks. Even in journalism, editors do not have free rein. For example, columnists were/are treated differently than reporters. Columnists have developed a certain voice and style over decades, have loyal followers (and critics : – ), and may be treated with kid gloves by editors.

  • Paul Cipywnyk


    There are also cultural differences to respect.

    I remember for years editing English translations of a well-known, elder-statesman-type Japanese columnist. Thesis, development, conclusion? Forget it. Try a seasonal reference for the lead, circular, meandering pondering, eventually a point slowly developing and somewhat coalescing, and a final trailing off into nothingness. Lots of wabi-sabi, but not enough wasabi for my taste : -).

    But I got good at making him sound good in English, so I became the go-to editor for his columns for a few years.

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