Editing 101: Don’t Make the Reader Stop and Ask, “Who Is This Person?”

A writer friend asked me to look at a magazine story he’d written—it was a very solid piece but in reading it I got stopped by this:

“Myers said the changes were unexpected and many people. . .”

Who is this Myers person? Why should I care what he or she says?

Well, Michael Myers was identified 600 words earlier but the story had a fair number of names and I had to stop reading the piece and look back to be reminded who he was.

It’s a problem I ran into often at the Washingtonian, where we ran many pieces of 4,000 words or more. Writers went by the style rule: “Use full names and title on first reference. On second reference, use only the last name.”

My editing philosophy was if the first reference was more than 300 words earlier, consider helping the reader with the second reference by providing more than just the last name. If Michael Myers was a Pentagon critic, make the second reference “Pentagon critic Myers said. . .”

The job of the editor is to avoid stop signs in a story. Most readers, facing the who-is-Myers problem, aren’t going to stop reading and look back to find out who he is—they’ll read on, hoping things eventually will be clearer. Or they’ll turn the page.

Can you do too much to make things clear for the reader? I can’t remember a story—in print or online—where I found too much clarity was annoying or unwelcome.


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