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Home > Publications > Quill > For a better story, trim before you file


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Monday, April 2, 2007
For a better story, trim before you file

By Tom Hallman Jr.

I’d plowed my way through a couple of rough drafts and had a story that in past years I would have considered ready to publish.

But the real work was just beginning. First, I measured the story: 86 inches — long even for a two-part, narrative series.

I wanted to be the person who did the cutting because I knew the story better than the editor. So, I approached the story looking only for things to cut.

When I finished, the story was 65 inches.

This type of reporter-driven editing is all about choices, weighing the worth of a paragraph, sentence and even a word. Does it make the story stronger? Then it stays. Is it unnecessary, even though well-written? Then it goes.

Below are some examples of the before and after.

This was the story: A 38-year-old Portland, Ore., attorney from a small firm was going to the U.S. Supreme Court. He’d never given an argument before the high court and would be up against a lawyer considered one of the best in the country.

I originally opened the story the morning he waited to see whether the Supreme Court would hear the appeal.


Scott Shorr couldn’t sleep that Tuesday morning. The previous night he and his wife had stayed up later than usual while Shorr, as he had throughout the summer, rehashed the case that had consumed his professional life.

He’d analyzed the issues and tried anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court. But now, Shorr lay in bed, alert, knowing the justices were ready to rend a decision.


Here is the opening of the story that ran in the paper:

In some ways, it was out of character. Scott Shorr doesn’t have the typical street-smart edge of the New Yorker he was, the bluster that comes from life in the city. Shorr is all Portland — low-key, a man colleagues describe as earnest. But he stepped off the office elevator and decided to do something bold.


I changed the opening because the first version went on too long before the reader senses that something is at stake. That revised version ends on a strong word: “bold.” It lets readers know that what this man is going to do is out of character.


Here is a section where I did major cutting:

As Shorr walked to his modest office, he decided to go ahead with a plan he’d mulled over on the drive to the office. He wanted to bounce it off Steve Larson, the attorney who’d handled the case from the outset, and stepped into Larson’s office.

He began pacing, a trait that Larson, an experienced trial attorney, had learned was a tell: a poker player’s term when an opponent’s actions inadvertently reveal emotion.

Shorr was excited. The younger attorney got to the point — he wanted to handle the oral argument for the firm.

The firm now faced a serious choice. All the partners would have to weigh in and vote. And quickly. The partners juggled daily work, while trying to hash out a Cert strategy that had to be bullet proof and as good as anything the firm had ever produced.

Hiring a high-priced specialist seemed to be the sensible choice. They’d look to D.C. and find someone who’d appeared before the Supreme Court many times and withstood an oral argument, which attorneys like to call the Super Bowl in law.

A specialist brought two important qualities. The nerves, no matter what anyone claimed, were part of the mix in an oral argument. A veteran wouldn’t have trembling hands.


Here is what ran:

Shorr went looking for Steve Larson, the attorney who handled the case at trial in 2001. Larson lost. Then the firm appealed one of the trial judge’s legal interpretations. Shorr won that round. Then the defendants appealed.

Shorr paced in Larson’s office. Larson — a seasoned trial attorney — interpreted that to mean Shorr was excited. Shorr made his pitch. Larson, though, was noncommittal. In the oral argument, an attorney for each side would get 30 minutes to stand before the justices to sell and defend, under intense questioning, the merits of his argument. Shorr had never faced that kind of pressure. Could he handle it?

The stakes were too high for Larson to make the decision alone.

He took it to the partners. The logical decision would be to hire a specialist, someone who’d withstood many Supreme Court grillings.

From their seats, the justices would see a familiar face at the lectern. And a veteran wouldn’t have trembling hands.

The second version isn’t just shorter, it’s better. And that should always be our goal.

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Quill
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Annual FOI Reports

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