The five-minute copy test

Evaluate a piece of commissioned writing in the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

Minute one: check that facts
Facts and figures that form the story’s premise should appear in the first few paragraphs. Although there are exceptions, writers should generally set the scene, explain the article’s premises and leave themselves enough room to move on to the finer details. Any facts and figures should be backed up with sources and references for you to verify.

Minute two: keep it brief
Scan the text for overly long sentences. If the article progresses on to technical, complex arguments, then the reader may well become lost when trying to take in sentences of more than 30 words. Long sentences can usually be broken up with ease; check with the writer if there is anything you’re unsure about.

Minute two and a half: comprehension test
If there is a long sentence, don’t worry if it is a list. Just make sure it is correctly broken up with the right syntax. On that point, make sure you understand every sentence and be wary of words like actually (rarely needed) and literally (ie. ‘John was literally tongue-tied’. Ouch).

Minute three: signpost or restructure?
Check the flow. If it seems like too many paragraphs don’t follow from the previous one, chances are the article is confusing. You can remedy this a few times with a well-deployed crosshead – but if you find yourself putting in too many, best go back to the writer.

Minute three and a half: check for insight
Do many sentences start with ‘obviously’ or ‘of course’? If so, they may contain obvious information, which will bore the reader and insult their intelligence in equal droves. If the writer is using these words to make a caveat then OK, but they run the risk of teaching their granny to suck eggs.

Minute four: a neat ending
There is more to be said about endings than could fit in one blog post. Caveat alert: of course, endings should round things up, but often they have the form and style of a white-knuckle conclusion with none of the content. So, go back to…

Minute five: has it done its job?
…the brief and check whether the story fits the bill. A weak conclusion is often the symptom of a writer who hasn’t fully engaged with the issues at hand – get back to them for an edit. If the article is otherwise a good piece of journalism, tweaking the conclusion should be a straightforward task.

Editor's pick

Most popular