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19 Editing Tips From a Senior Editor at MSN.com

These tips for editing magazine articles are from an editor at MSN.com – they include some of the most frequent errors she sees in her freelance writers’ article submissions.

Pay attention, fellow scribes, because even when you think you’ve got writing down to a fine art, there’s always more to learn!

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly,” said C. J. Cherryh. Read on, and you’ll see that this MSN.com editor agrees completely…

Don’t let writer’s block or fear paralyze you. Instead, jot it all down…and edit brilliantly with these editorial tips from an experienced senior editor.

Need an editing Bible? Study a book such as Everyday EditingThe more you learn about editing, the easier it’ll be to tighten up your writing.

Quote Your Sources and Experts Properly

1. Always include your source list when submitting your article. Include references and links to any studies, research, findings, and people that you reference in your article.

2. Avoid using sources that don’t seem 100% reliable/trustworthy (such as authors of some self-help books). Avoid referring books that are old or out of print (unless it’s a classic), and avoid using too many sources in one article.

3. Don’t refer to a source as a book’s author, when he or she is actually a co-author. Be careful when identifying a book’s title. Make sure you get the title 100% correct.

4. Include and list a source’s academic credentials after his or her name (use Andrew Weil, M.D., at first reference, not Dr. Weil). Add Ph.D. to the source’s name if warranted; it may be taken for granted to you if a scientist is being quoted, but this adds an element of trustworthiness for the reader. Refer to dietician sources as “R.D.,” not “nutritionist” (no academic degree or certification is required to call oneself a nutritionist). Seek out registered dieticians over “nutritionists” as sources.

5. Don’t unnecessarily cap the professional title of a source: “Chief Scientist” instead of “chief scientist.”

Are you making money writing? 10 Steps for Writers Who Want to Earn More Than $15 Per Article

 Write Magazine Articles Accurately

6. Avoid making overly speculative comments and over promising results, especially in articles about things like dieting. “You’ll lose 5 pounds in 2 weeks with this plan” is a statement that is dangerous and could result in a lawsuit. Avoid calling a weight-loss study a breakthrough, miracle, etc.

7. Include relevant information that would interest readers, such as where a certain product or procedure is available, when it’ll be available to the public if not yet on the market, etc.

8. Use reliable sources, especially for health information, such as nutrition or diets. Make sure your sources are government-endorsed (National Institute of Health) or widely recognized (Tufts University). There are far too many homemade/sketchy nutrition Web sites.

9. Avoid reliance on a very small study and attributing its results as conclusive/authoritative.

10. Don’t give medical advice that’s unsubstantiated or not evidence-based.

11. Make sure your articles present both sides of a controversial issue. 

Pay Attention to Grammar and Punctuation

12. Avoid the overuse of parenthetical phrases for descriptions or details. Brackets are “speed bumps” to readers, and may cause them to stop reading.

13. Punctuate appositive phrases properly.

  • Bad: Common-sense measures like washing your hands or getting a flu shot, can go a long way toward preventing or greatly decreasing your risk for getting one or more of these viral illnesses.
  • Good: Common-sense measures, such as washing your hands or getting a flu shot, can go a long way toward preventing or greatly decreasing your risk for getting one or more of these viral illnesses.

14. Avoid using the plural instead of singular when referring to body parts.

  • Bad: Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brains.
  • Good: Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brain. (Each person has only one brain!)

15. Watch for sloppy construction. 

  • Bad: The FDA urged the public to only eat peanut butter until further notice.
  • Good: The FDA urged the public to eat peanut butter only from jars until further notice. (Otherwise, it sounds like the public should eat peanut butter to the exclusion of every single other food in the world!)
  • Bad: fatty foods you should eat every day.
  • Good: 6 healthy-fat foods  (Nobody should eat 6 fatty foods every day!)

If your pitches never get accepted, read 6 Tips for Writing Articles That Editors Will Buy and Publish.

Miscellaneous Editing Tips

16. Avoid referring to readers in unflattering or unpleasant ways (eg, “chubby” or “dim-witted”).

17. For expert Q & A articles, focus on the reader’s question. Don’t supplement the piece with related topics until you have answered the reader’s question.

18. Include your proposed title and subtitle (dek) with your article submission or query pitch. Deks could be sentence case (not capitalized).

19. Do not submit your text in any color other than black.

For more magazine writing tips, read How Do You Get Paid for an Article After the Editor Leaves?

If you have any thoughts on these tips from a senior editor, please comment below…

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13 thoughts on “19 Editing Tips From a Senior Editor at MSN.com”

  1. Good: Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brain. (Each person has only one brain!)

    “Everyone” is a singular pronoun. Therefore as an antecedent to another pronoun, it has to take the singular form. “Their” is plural.

    Right: Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of his or her brain.

    Awkward? Yes!
    Suggestion: All of us need to be concerned about the health of our brains.

  2. Hello Marney,

    The deck is a subhead or subtitle. In this example, “19 Editing Tips From a Senior Editor at MSN.com: How to Think Like an Editor”, the “How to Think Like an Editor” is the deck.

    Sorry it took so long to respond – something tells me you probably figured out what a deck is by now 🙂

    All good things,

  3. Hi Laurie,
    I am editing and proofreading a couple of articles for a magazine and have been asked to “come up with a headline and deck”. What is a deck?


  4. Laurie, I’ve been trying to locate your email address to send you MANY props. I don’t bookmark often. However, you are now my FAVORITE blogger/mentor (at minimum). Absolutely amazing, inspiring, and beyond helpful! Thank you so much for your time, efforts, and plethora of resources. All the best! I aspire to be like you one day!

  5. I pointed this out because “Their” seems to have some acceptance, depending on the style (formal or informal)of the publication. Since this came from an editor that seems to indicate an informal style for “their” 😉 publication. Perhaps in another post you could discuss this?

  6. Actually, these editorial tips came directly from the editor — with minimal editing on my part! So, I left the “their” in that sentence, even though it stuck in my craw. I did debate tweaking it, but decided to let it rest.

    I don’t like using “one” — I agree that it sounds pretentious. Like Fraser Crane! lol

    My first choice is to use the word “you”, because it’s easier and more personal. But in this case, saying “You need to be concerned about the health of your brain,” is a little too direct. Too targeted, somehow.

    I use plurals whenever I can. If I edited the sentence you pointed out, I would’ve written, “Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brains.”

    Thanks for pointing it out, Norm! I think I love grammar 🙂 not a bad trait for a writer.

  7. Laurie,

    Good stuff.

    About the sentence, “Everyone needs to be concerned about the health of their brain.” It seems that you are in the “it’s okay to use ‘their’ in place of ‘his'” camp. I like it, but some grammar mavens may frown on its use. I continue to substitute one’s though it does sound slightly pretentious.

    Any good work-arounds for the his/her conundrum?

  8. Laurie,

    Rut-ro. As I perused this list, I’m afraid I may be guilty of some. Afraid I’ll have to take the 5th on which ones though 😉

    I’ve got this bookmarked for future reference (as I do so many of your posts)


  9. And Ann — thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found Quips and Tips helpful, and would love to see you around the site 🙂

  10. Thanks for your thoughts, Maija! I’m guilty of relying on experts more than PubMed — your comment is a great reminder to get back into the research findings….and even verify an expert’s words with current studies.

  11. As a medical writer I firmly believe that everyone writing about medical and health topics should primarily get their information from PubMed (and sometimes experts). Way too many people call themselves “health writers” and they pretty much pull all their information fron WebMD and Wikipedia. If you can’t use PubMed, you have no place in writing about anything that has to do with medicine.

  12. Laurie,

    I came to your blog by way of Twitter and I just subscribed to your feed. So many writing blogs leave me unimpressed, but yours is on my list of blogs to visit on my daily rounds.