Canadian Magazine Industry News
13 March 2008,     CALGARY
Notes from the Alberta Magazines Conference: Five substantive editing tips from Charlene Rooke

Substantive editing is an essential skill for anyone looking to move up the editorial ranks in this business. “To be a senior editor or an editor-in-chief, you’ve got to be moving text around,” Western Living EIC Charlene Rooke told a roomful of editors at the Alberta Magazines Conference last week. To help you get that editing dream position, we’ve distilled five lessons from Rooke’s outstanding session.

Western Living editor Charlene Rooke prints every story before editing.
  1. The piece belongs to the writer, not the editor. “If a writer feels like it’s no longer their work,” Rooke said, “ you’ve probably harmed it.” Make suggestions for changes instead of writing them in yourself. If you do make changes, make sure you can justify them. “You’ll get a better story if you sandwich the negative stuff in a positive sandwich,” Rooke added.
  2. Always send an assignment letter. “To not put an assignment in writing is foolish,” Rooke said. She uses the standard assignment letter (available on the Professional Writers Association of Canada website, linked below) as a starting point. Not only does an assignment letter cover copyright, it gives both the editor and writer a foundation to build the piece on.
  3. Start big… Do a first read as if you were a reader. Does the story answer the “why?” and “why now?” questions quickly enough? Can you trace the thread/arc of the narrative? Is it a journey story (where the reader knows what will happen and comes along for the ride) or a destination story (where the story is slowly unveiled)?
  4. …then work down to the small stuff. Is the story balanced or one-sided? Is the information neatly organized or running wild? “Be a zookeeper,” Rooke suggested. “Keep the monkeys with the monkeys and the lions with lions.” Observe voice and tone. Has the writer gotten so deep into his subject that he’s writing like an insider?
  5. Salvage a disconnected feature by deconstructing. Baggage material that feels out of place in the narrative can often be used in a sidebar. Ask: is some of the information better presented through graphs or charts? If the transitions seem forced, use section breaks instead.


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