I asked a colleague in PR what she would like to see in our editing class if I were to start it over from scratch and try to incorporate the needs of all our sequences into it. It took her no time to answer:
“Teach them how to self-edit,” she said. “They need to look at their copy and realize what’s wrong with it.”
Much of that would be covered with grammar and style, but here’s a key thing that often gets left twisting in the wind: Story holes.
Here’s a throwback post that explains holes, outlines why they happen and explains how to fill them. This can benefit your readers in a lot of ways.
Tips for Self-Editing: Find the Hole, Fill the Hole
As the finishing touches take place on the next book in the “Dynamics” series (Dynamics of Media Editing), I thought it would be a good to give you a peek at a key area of writing and editing that often goes overlooked: Holes.
The idea of a hole is simple: It is the absence of something that should be there to make an item complete. A hole in a shirt, a hole in the yard or a hole in your story all fit that same basic premise. The goal of good writers is to fill in the holes that exist to keep your readers fully engaged and fully informed.
Or as we might say elsewhere, “Don’t leave me hanging, bro…”
Here’s a clip from the editing book so you can get a better sense of how this all works and how to fix it:
A hole in copy is when a writer raises an issue that interests a reader but doesn’t provide enough information to satisfy that interest. Editors develop an intuitive sense over time as to where holes exist and what is required to fill them. Here are some simple examples of holes and how to fill them:
A question with no answer: Writers often spend enough time working in a specific area of interest that they start to understand things that go beyond what readers will intuitively know. It can be jargon, historical references or “inside baseball” issues, and in most cases, the writer will assume that others know these items as well. A hole can develop in a story when a gap emerges between what the writer knows and what the readers do. Here’s an example:
Francisco Smart took over as San Antonio’s mayor six months ago, completing the end of his predecessor’s term.
This situation raises several questions including:
- Who was the predecessor?
- Why was he/she unable to complete the term?
You can easily fill in the hole with a simple edit:
Francisco Smart, who is completing Carol Jafkey’s term as San Antonio’s mayor, took on his current role six months ago when Jafkey moved to Arizona.
This might raise additional questions, such as “Why did Jafkey move to Arizona?” That said, you have plugged the bigger holes and you can address the additional questions later.
Any time you see a statement that has you asking a question that the writer hasn’t answered later in the story, you need to acknowledge the presence of a hole and find way to fill it.
An accusation with no response: News traditionally requires balance, but that’s not just an ideal associated with newspapers. Unless you want people to see you as a slanted source of information, you need to look for fairness when you are editing. In some cases, a source will fire a shot across the bow and accuse someone else of something nefarious. The first question you should ask is if that accusation needs to be in your piece in the first place or if it’s just a cheap shot that lacks value. If it merits inclusion, see what truth there is to that accusation or afford the accused an opportunity to respond so you don’t end up with a hole like this:
Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement.
The accusation is pretty serious, so make sure you don’t just let it linger:
Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. In each of those cases, the court has dismissed the case as being without merit.
Paul Lazlo has filed suit six times against Rich Wood, accusing his neighbor of running an illegal gambling ring in his basement. Wood testified in court each time that this was nothing more than a friendly poker game that Lazlo detested because he was not invited to participate.
The goal is to make sure that you don’t leave the door open on an accusation when you can easily close it and give your readers a more complete version of the truth.
An “oddity” with no context: Oddity is an interest element that writers often emphasize in their work to give readers a sense of how special an outcome or issue is. However, when a writer fails to provide context for that information, the readers often feel lost or don’t have a full appreciation of this rarity. Here’s an example:
Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds pitched an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time in major league history that a pitcher accomplished this feat.
A couple questions are left unanswered here:
- Who did it first?
- When did he do it?
Mel Purvis of the Cincinnati Reds threw an opening day no-hitter, marking only the second time since 1940 that a pitcher accomplished that feat.
Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis joined Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians as the only pitchers to throw opening-day no-hitters in major league history.
However, to plug both holes, you need to reconsider the approach a bit:
Cincinnati’s Mel Purvis became the second player in the last 78 years to throw an opening-day no-hitter, joining Cleveland’s Bob Feller who first accomplished the feat in 1940.
That plugs both holes and helps the readers understand the rarity of the feat.
Any time you have an oddity, you run the risk of having a hole in the story. Make sure you edit to provide context and meaning to help your readers more fully understand the magnitude of what you want them to know.