Media Helping Media's self-editing tips for journalists

by David Brewer
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

Most journalists need a second pair of eyes to check through their copy in order to spot any factual, grammatical or spelling mistakes.

As more journalists blog and self-publish, it's easy to overlook glaring mistakes. Here are a few tips from journalists on how to reduce embarrassing errors. Many were submitted in this LinkedIn discussion thread, but three stood out:

  1. Try to fool the brain - change text size and color, font and background
  2. Don’t get caught up in the narrative - read from bottom to top so you are forced to think
  3. Print and read out loud - to be able to hear silly mistakes in sentence construction.

Fool your brain

Terry O’Connor, a former print and online journalist and now a freelance journalist and trainer, suggested that it’s all a matter of tricking the brain. Terry wrote:

"Since we journalists cannot (normally) put our work aside for a time and then re-read it, we miss the 'stranger's eye' that's essential for picking up mistakes. Our eyes might see the mistakes but our brain interprets what the eye sees as whatever we intended to write.

"So it's time to fool the brain by presenting the material in an unfamiliar way, thereby forcing it to see it as a stranger would -- a bit, anyway. If you have time, print the article and re-read it. If you don't have time or paper, change the screen resolution, page width, text color, background color or all of these."

Read your material out of context

Phil Harding, journalist, media consultant and former director of news at the BBC World Service said he doesn’t know of a foolproof method, but goes along similar lines to O’Connor in trying to force the brain to look at the content differently.

"Leave it overnight.....print it out of course, if you can....changing the font.....reading the paragraphs in reverse order (part of the trick is not to get caught up in the narrative).... and often best of all read it out loud slowly."

Read out loud

Nick Raistrick, the director of training at the Media Training Station Community Interest Company agrees with Phil Harding’s point about reading the material out loud, but he also turns to colleagues to check his copy.

"I read my copy out loud in a massive font with everything else closed on my desktop .... and still miss stuff. I can't sub my own work at all, which is embarrassing as I'm so anal with other people's copy," Raistrick said. "I've developed an informal network of subs who I sometimes send things to... as long as it's reciprocal! Not always practical as deadlines loom though..."

Look out for sentences that don't make sense

Bob Doran, former senior BBC journalist and now media consultant and trainer agrees with both the reading aloud and fooling the brain approach.

"I always recommend reading your story aloud. Sometimes, a piece can look fine on the screen; it's only when you read it aloud that you spot the absurdities.

I remember listening to a radio news story which began: A man has died after being shot outside a concert by Madonna (or some other star). The writer meant to say that Madonna was giving the concert. When it was read out loud, it sounded like she'd pulled the trigger.

Read it aloud yourself and you'll see. This approach is particularly useful for radio and television scripts. If they (sentences) are hard to read because they're too long or too wordy, you'll know they won't work on air."

To read the full article, click here.

This story first appeared on the site of IJNet’s partner, Media Helping Media (MHM), a training information site that provides free media resources for journalists working in transition states, post-conflict countries and areas where freedom of expression and media freedom is under threat. The complete article is translated in full into IJNet’s six other languages with permission from Media Helping Media.