February 25th, 2008 06:53 EST
Editing is Not About You
(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 39, Del Marbrook`s podcasts for The Student Operated Press)
There isn`t a lot of editing in journalism today, and what there is often bad. The book industry has suffered a similar fate. And it shows. And as for television, those quasi-literate crawls are enough to give you the creeps, provided of course you notice.
I remember the joy of reading the late lamented New York Herald Tribune when I was in high school. It was superbly written and edited. Today I can say the same of The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal, but I wouldn`t say they`re as well edited as they were twenty years ago.
The proliferation of web sites on the Internet, many of them poorly edited if at all, isn`t encouraging. There are spell checkers and even grammar checkers, but they`re primitive and often wrongheaded.
Still, I can foresee a time when web sites will be better edited. To that end, let me speak to anyone who might by choice or chance become an editor. Your first aim should be to clearly understand that it`s not about you. It`s not about the writer, either. And it`s not about the process. It`s about the reader. If you find yourself trying to show off what you know or show up the writer, then you`re not temperamentally suited to editing. Editing is about making the writer look good, helping the writer become a better writer. If you find yourself in adversarial relationships with writers, you need to check your compass. Editing is not an adversarial business. It`s not about playing gotcha. It`s not about you looking good. It`s about the writing being good, and when it`s not good it`s not about you gloating, it`s about improving it. You are not an ombudsman, you are a concerned, thoughtful, reliable colleague to the writer. If you can`t relate to these criteria, do the English language a favor and don`t become an editor.
You must resist the fatal urge to mess with the writer`s work. Your job is to improve it, not change it, not imprint your persona on it, not bend it to your will or way. Never mind any hifalutin lecturing about the writer`s responsibility to the publisher. That`s all hype. Your job is to make sure the writing is clear, straightforward, honest, factual and balanced. If there are inconsistencies, you must collaborate with the writer to redress them. If there are omissions, you must point this out and try to help the writer address them.
This is far from easy, and there are many temptations to use your position as an editor to advance your career, sometimes at the writer`s expense. It`s true that editing often leads to executive positions, but a managerial position doesn`t mean managing people, it means leading them to do better than they are doing, better than they are asking themselves to do. It means inspiring them, supporting them. It does not mean using them as chess pieces in your own career game. It`s extremely difficult for a writer to do a good job when he or she regards an editor as a problem rather than a solution, an obstacle rather than a cherished colleague. In legal terms, the editor is not a prosecutor, he is a friend of the court.
Editors must not grandstand. Writers shouldn`t either. But a grandstanding writer is more to be forgiven than a grandstanding editor.
The writer`s byline is also a blame line. It`s your job to make sure, insofar as you can, that there is nothing to blame the writer for. You want the writer to succeed, to shine, to win prizes, to earn a readership. You should exert no more ego than the cleaning lady does. The writer should look forward to your edit, relying on you to catch infelicities in language, obscurity, imbalance, holes in the factual account, failure to provide context or background. The writer should be glad his or her story is in your hands. If the writer dreads a story being in your hands, that`s bad for everyone.
When I was a young reporter I covered a train accident in Rhode Island. I took some good pictures in the rain, never an easy thing to do, especially with a big Speed Graphic camera "and I was calling in my notes to a rewrite man on The Providence Journal. I thought I had the facts down pretty well. Toward the end of my verbal report, as I thumbed through my notepad in a cold, damp telephone booth, I said to the rewrite man, Oh yeah, and the engineer was eating a sandwich just before the crash. I thought that little detail would impress this much-admired rewrite man. I heard him typing furiously and then there was a brief silence. What was in the sandwich? " he asked. Jesus Christ, " I said. He laughed. But it was a good question and I called him back in a few minutes to tell him it was a ham and cheese sandwich. Then I waited for him to ask what kind of cheese. We both laughed when he failed to do so.
He wasn`t the editor. But he worked closely with editors and he knew what they would ask. So he asked it for them. He knew how the editors would prefer that a certain story be written. But that didn`t mean that he imposed his own preconceptions on the story. For example, that story followed my notes. I had pointed out that the weather was bad and there was a soupy ground fog. I pointed out that there had been accidents at that crossing before. And that`s how the story took shape in the rewrite man`s hands. He could have shaped it differently. But he felt a certain obligation to the reporter at the scene, to the reporter`s experiences at the scene, his perceptions. On the other hand, he knew I was young and inexperienced. He knew it was a cold night and my fingers were probably numb. He knew I was worried that I would look bad. He also knew that it was in the interest of The Providence Journal to help this young reporter get the story. He could have lorded it over me, intimidated me, made me look incompetent. Instead he made me look good. He made the city editor nod with approval. He taught me a thing or two about detail, about keeping cool.
This interaction could easily have been adversarial. The rewrite man could have been a snot lording it over the young, inexperienced reporter. But instead he was an unpretentious colleague who wanted both of us to do a good job. I trusted him and he came in time to trust me. He came in time to rest assured that Marbrook would find out what was in that sandwich.
The minute journalism becomes an ego trip "think of the Sunday talk shows as I say this "something has gone seriously wrong. It is not about the reporters or editors, it is about the readers and listeners and viewers.
In the 1960s when I applied for a job as a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun they gave me a test, and one of the questions involved a 13th Century French tapestry. I smiled broadly when I saw that question because I happened to know the answer. I doubt very much newspapers give such tests nowadays. The Sun wanted to make sure it had broadly educated copy editors, not just people who knew how to use Webster`s Dictionary, the industry standard. It would have been unthinkable in those days before computers to sit at that big horseshoe-shaped copy desk and not get up at least once an hour and walk over to the Webster`s Dictionary on a reading stand in the newsroom. The copy chief, who actually wore green eyeshades and sleeve garters, knew where each of us shined. For example, he tended to hand Middle East stories to me, because he knew I was something of an amateur Arabist. He also tended to hand anything about poetry to me, but that didn`t happen very often. We all took pride in our knowledge of the language. We didn`t rely wholly on Webster`s. We were quite familiar with the Oxford Dictionary. Those days are gone. Newsrooms have been reduced to a pale shadow of their former selves, and that kind of broadly educated editing staff is no longer prized. Corporations are no longer willing to pay for that kind of editing.
But this is the dawn of the Internet age, and there is no reason that a high degree of literacy and education should not come to characterize Internet journalism. All is not lost. Just as copy editors would not have thought themselves copy processors, so today`s content managers must not think of themselves as content shovelers. If the Internet is to supplant paper and ink we must not allow it to become a justification of semi-literacy and bad taste. This will be difficult to do, because the reason the Internet is overtaking the paper-and-ink media is that it`s cheaper, so there is no good reason to think that Internet news organizations are going to reverse the trend toward downsizing newsrooms and refusing to pay for superior editing. On the other hand, we haven`t yet begun to explore all the ways the new medium can generate money streams, so it`s possible that enlightened ownership may eventually decide that fine editing is a practical necessity, not a costly frill. I`m not betting on it, but I`m praying for it. I never thought I would see the day newspapers would dumb-down, but I`ve seen it. They argue they must do so to survive. I would humbly suggest they took the easy way out, instead of taking the time to rethink their role in society and create new revenue streams to reflect it. But what do I know? I just edited them, I didn`t own them.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.