Small revisions, big improvements

As I sort through my recent work to choose my best clips for journalism job applications, I am frequently surprised by how much better my writing is now than it was even just two or three years ago. I would not say any of my old writing is bad, but I now see so many little ways I could have said things more concisely or organized information more cohesively.

Take, for example, this freelance feature I wrote for the U-T in 2009:

Copy of 2009 U-T article by Jeremy Ogul

Here’s what I wrote then:

Two years ago, Javier Quiroz was shot to death at Colina Park Golf Course, less than two blocks from his City Heights home. Quiroz, 14, was preparing to start his freshman year at Patrick Henry High School and had no history of gang activity.

His brother, Agustin Pena, mourned with his family, but Agustin also saw an opportunity to fight back. Working with PowerMentor, a local nonprofit organization, Pena helped start a series of family movie nights in San Diego and Chula Vista parks in 2008.

Here’s how I would write the same thing today:

Javier Quiroz, 14, was preparing to begin his freshman year at Patrick Henry High School two years ago when he was shot dead at Colina Park Golf Course, less than two blocks from his City Heights home. Police determined Quiroz, who had no history of gang activity, was the victim of random gang violence.

For Quiroz’s brother, Agustin Pena, the killing was a catalyst: It was time to take back the neighborhood from the gang members who were terrorizing innocent people. He began working with a local nonprofit, PowerMentor, to start a series of family movie nights in the city’s most dangerous parks in 2008.

Here’s my reasoning for the changes I made:

  • Revising the first sentence to include Quiroz’s age makes it more immediately clear that a child, not an adult, was shot and killed. It adds to the shock value of the lead.
  • The original second paragraph did not make it clear enough how these new family movie nights were related to Quiroz’s death. The revised second paragraph removes ambiguity by explaining that these movie nights were a way of wresting power back from the gangs that killed Quiroz.
  • The revised third sentence omits the statement that Agustin mourned, a fact which is so obvious it does not really need to be stated.

People who don’t write for newspapers may not see these edits as anything more than marginal tinkering with word order. An experienced writer or editor, however, will understand how these revisions strengthen the first two paragraphs. Journalism requires the writer to convey dramatic impact in as few words as possible. You can’t count on the reader to take the time to figure out what you really mean. You have to get directly to the point, making the point as strong, clear and immediately comprehensible as possible.

Of course, I could probably look at any article I wrote in the past couple months and find ways to improve it. You don’t have an infinite amount of time to get everything perfect when you’re on deadline. There is always room for improvement, but I do feel there is more room for improvement in my 2009 writing than in my 2013 writing. That’s a good sign.