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Listen iconListen to Timothy describe his revising process for writing news articles that grab readers' attentions.
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Timothy Kelley is Senior Editor of The New York Times Upfront, Scholastic's news magazine for teenagers. He works on the magazine's U.S. history department, its letters page, and the opinion page that lets people — including teens — sound off on both sides of a timely issue.

Before coming to Scholastic, Timothy worked as a small-town newspaper reporter, a typesetter, a writer for an association of natural-gas companies, and the editor of a magazine for doctors and HMO executives.

"An editor of mine once told me that good writing raised the hackles on his back," Timothy says. "So I try never to settle for the second-best word or phrase when the one that's exactly right might raise those hackles."

Here are some thoughts by Timothy Kelley on choosing a headline for your article — and then revising your draft so that your final article is the best it can be.

Now it's time to give your article a headline. Few people have time to read all the text of every article in a newspaper, so they often skim the headlines to see if they might want to read more. Your headline is your chance — with a few well-chosen words in large type — to catch their eye.

A few rules: Use the present tense. Always use short, active verbs. There's no room to say "Faculty Members Engage in Discussions" when you can say "Teachers Talk." Don't write exactly the same thing as in your news lead; that's wasting a chance to draw readers in.

If yours is a news article, your headline should summarize straightforwardly what is most newsy about it. Don't write "Student Council Holds Meeting" when everyone knew they were going to meet; write something specific like "Council OKs Dance Theme."

With a feature article, there's more of a place for humor or cleverness — but you still want to convey the main point of your story. You might play off a well-known phrase. For a headline on a story about a couple who made and sold miniature doll accessories, I once drew on the lyrics of an old song: "Anything You Can Do/They Can Do Smaller."

"Get me rewrite!" newspaper reporters barked into the telephone in the old black-and-white movies, calling for the editors who would rework their prose until it shone. But you don't have that luxury. These days, you are "rewrite."

It's not a sign of failure to revise your work — that is, to go over it again and change parts that need improvement. It's a sign of high standards. The best writers do it — and even the simplest writing needs it.

When you have finished writing your news or feature article, follow these guidelines for effective revision:

  1. Take a break. Put your article aside for a few minutes and do something else: walk the dog, play a game, have a snack. When you return and take a fresh look at what you've written, you'll probably see things you missed before.

  2. Read your article out loud. Sometimes the ear can tell you things the eye doesn't see. If there's a part of your article that your tongue repeatedly stumbles over, that's a clue that there may be awkward writing that needs to be reworked.

  3. Is the sequence of ideas clear? If it's a news story, does it give the reader the information needed to understand new concepts by the time they're introduced? If it's a feature article, does it start out with enough to snag the reader's interest, yet save something as a payoff for reading on? When you've completed a draft, you hate to think of changing something as basic as the order in which your points are covered. It feels like throwing away work. But take the chance and at least consider it. You may find that a different sequence works better, and that the "cutting and pasting" you need to do — on a computer screen, or on paper — really isn't so bad.

  4. Put yourself in the reader's shoes. Could your words be misunderstood? Think of the poor guy who wrote the headline about a planned change in Scout uniforms: "BOY SCOUTS TO DROP SHORT PANTS." He knew what he meant. But he forgot to think about what his words might call to mind for others.

  5. Does the article you have written seem to you to contain any words that aren't fully necessary to your purpose? Does your article contain unnecessary words? Look at the two questions you've just read. The first one needed pruning; the second is the same question after the pruning has been done. Now do a similar pruning job on your article. Tight writing is usually best.

  6. Check your paragraphing. In journalism, short paragraphs of one to two sentences are common. If you find you have changed the subject in mid-paragraph, that's probably a place for a paragraph break.

  7. Use spell-checkers and other programs to check your spelling, grammar, and punctuation — but don't rely on them alone. Remember: The best computer for perfecting your writing is the one between your ears!

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