Seems like my office should be knee-deep in words.
You see, I’ve been editing articles for the August issue of the New Tribes Mission magazine, NTM@work. (It’s free, by the way, and donors get it automatically. No, that’s not a hint. If I said, here’s a link to give, that would be a hint. But I’m not going to do that. Nope. Instead, here’s a link to sign up.)
Editing has been crucial for the last several issues. Most of the articles have been written by missionaries outside our department, folks out there in the tribes and in foreign lands. That’s a great thing; they’ve got great stories to tell. They just need help telling them.
And that’s part of my job. I’m responsible for the words in everything our department puts out, which is the vast majority of what NTM “says.” So over the last few days, I’ve whittled seven stories down from a collective 11,363 words to 6,508 words. As I said, seems like my office should be knee-deep in words. Four thousand, eight hundred and fifty-five of them, to be precise.
I didn’t cut the stories because shorter stories are easier to read. Have you ever started to read a short article that was so bad you gave up? I have. And if you’ve read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy multiple times (yes, I’ve done that too), you know a long story is easy to read if it holds your interest. We’d fill an entire issue with one story and few pictures if it was the right story. At times we have.
I cut the stories for the same reason our missionaries spend years studying the culture, and then present the Gospel by working through the Bible chronologically. I cut the stories because I have a goal in mind, and in order to meet that goal I need to communicate effectively in this culture.
The goal for our magazine as a whole – and for each article – is the same as the goal for everything we do in Communications: to help people like you get involved in the work God is doing among tribal people.
Since I know you’re all in a hurry – or at least you often feel rushed or pressed for time – I know I have to do something at the very beginning to make you want to read the story. I often start off with something I hope is intriguing, such as, “Seems like my office should be knee-deep in words.” If you’ve gotten this far, it worked.
Once I’ve got your attention, I can digress a little. But I really need to tell you a story. So in these articles, I needed to find something intriguing or interesting or right to the point, and then peel away a lot of background information and stuff the missionaries wanted to say, in order to get to the story.
We don’t need to tell you how to understand the story, and we sure don’t want to act like you’re not smart enough to understand the story. If we tell the story well, you’ll get it.
And once the major cutting is done, I can go back and clean up individual paragraphs and sentences and phrases. I need to ensure that the story is communicated effectively. In most cases, that means shortening the way things are said. In some cases, it means expanding a bit so the story is clear.
“He had been helping David Ogg with the revision of the chronological Bible lessons and he would bring them home and read them aloud to his wife in the evenings.”
“As he helped David revise Bible lessons, he took them home and read them aloud to his wife.”
The point that sentence needed communicate in the story – he read Bible lessons to his wife – was originally lost behind a long inactive phrase. Shortening the first phrase and making it active makes the point clear.
This step requires me to think through paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, phrase after phrase. I’m asking myself, what is the purpose of this in the story, and can it be said more effectively?
At the same time, if I do my work well, the missionary who wrote the article will see his or her work, only better. It needs to sound like they wrote it, and the best way to do that is by preserving everything that doesn’t get in the reader’s way.
That can be a difficult balance to strike.
But having a purpose in mind, and knowing the culture we’re trying to reach, makes it a lot easier.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to sweep up some words.
Macon Hare says
This is like the very best article that I have ever read by Ian and why I like working with him in our Communications Department.
I like this article.