January 11th, 2011 14:55 EST
Editing Means Listening as well as Reading: How to Be a Good Editor
(This is a transcript of the Hot Copy #44 Podcast for the Student Operated Press )
There is nothing like reading something you have written aloud for finding and correcting its infelicities. An article, maybe just a headline, may be perfectly grammatical and yet awkward. If it sounds smooth it will read well. But what is just as important, the danger of double meaning or misleading statement will have been addressed, because the ear picks up problems the eye can`t see. More...
I`m not arguing for a more conversational style of writing. I`m not suggesting that semicolons and dashes should be banned in the interest of an easy read. What I`m saying is that even the most complex and demanding writing can benefit from the sound test.
I used to apply this technique as an editor, particularly when I was writing headlines. But many poets and prose writers use it too. I wouldn`t suggest casting the idea in cement, however, because some poetry, and sometimes even prose, requires a visual context. But a headline or a story should read well so that the eye and the ear are cooperating rather than transliterating. This is important. The ear should not have to transliterate what the eye has taken in.
The poet William Butler Yeats, whom many scholars and poets regard as the father of modern poetry, always subjected his poems to this test. As a poet, I too read my work to myself, sometimes phrase by phrase, or line by line. If I don`t like the way a word or a phrase sounds, no matter how well it conveys my meaning, I don`t use it. On the other hand, if I like a turn of words but see that it doesn`t convey my meaning, I might abandon it, however reluctantly. Yeats had a country accent. He was from Sligo and his speech reflected his origins. It`s important to know this. I have been reading Yeats aloud most of my life, but knowing how he himself sounded is revealing. It`s the difference, say, between a Vermont Yankee and a Tidewater North Carolinian reading the same thing. The Yankee`s voice will be clipped. You will hear flat a`s. The Tar Heel, on the other hand, will have a drawl, and his delivery will sound more sing-song, as indeed Yeats` delivery sounded.
This is particularly true in journalism where the driving idea is to convey information as easily and quickly as possible. To achieve this, punctuation is held to a minimum.
Once when I was a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, a newspaper with a reputation for literacy and accuracy, the copy chief handed me a late-breaking Pentagon budget story. He had a mischievous grin on his face. I soon learned why. The lead of the story, the first paragraph, had nine semicolons in it. It was perfectly grammatical. It had been written by the dean of Defense Department correspondents. I understood the story at a first reading, but I also knew that it would daunt readers in two ways. First, the semicolons are eye-stoppers. They visually impede the reader, sending the reader backwards instead of forwards. Second, the thoughts being expressed are too dense to be readily understood. I would have to comb through that two-inch lead and write something much easier to grasp. The copy chief, John Plunkett, the best I ever knew, later would joke about combing the cooties out of the story.
This wouldn`t be easy, because the writer understood the nation`s defense budget better than most of the politicians who voted on it, and I didn`t. I could easily pick the wrong thing to lead off the story. Or I could summarize what was being said inaccurately. The problem was not bad writing. The reporter had dictated the story from his notes. Anyone who can accurately employ semicolons in a story being composed from raw notes is pretty impressive. He had employed the semicolons as a way of showing that there were several crucial aspects to the defense budget. He didn`t imagine a copy editor would let this lead get into print without rewriting it, without untangling it. He assumed that the story would be handed to a copy editor as good at his job as the reporter was at his.
I can`t remember exactly what I did with that story. But the reporter sent me a thank-you note by teletype the next day. The Sun, like most broadsheet newspapers, did not do as much rewriting as tabloids. Tabloids thrive on fast-breaking, sensational news, and so a good rewrite bank is essential. I was used to rewriting stories because I had been a bureau chief and a city editor before coming to The Sun. But The Sun`s attitude, typical of all great broadsheets, was that a reporter`s story should be left intact as much as possible. My own feeling has always been that the editor is there to help the reporter, not upstage him. This view was entirely consonant with
that of The Sun and The Providence Journal, where I started my newspaper career.
It was not uncommon to see copy editors and reporters quietly whispering their stories to themselves. They sometimes seemed to be davening like Jewish worshippers at prayer. Copy editors often read a headline they had just written aloud. If it sounded passable, no one said anything. But if a way to improve it occurred to anyone, he would usually speak up.
Tabloid newsrooms traditionally were more frenetic than broadsheet
newsrooms because the rewrite bank was continually engaged in conversation with reporters in the field. Out of this noise, this penchant for thinking out loud and for reading passages back to a reporter to make sure the rewrite man had gotten it right came an easy-to-read, conversational style that in many ways more closely resembled poetry as compared to broadsheet journalism which more resembled essay.
These different traditions are now being transliterated into Internet news models. It would be wrong to suppose that Internet news will more closely resembled tabloid journalism simply because television and radio journalism do. I say this because a web site doesn`t have the constrictions that the traditional news hole of a print journal has or the even tighter news window of a television operation. At least not yet. The Internet news model is evolving rapidly, so anything I or anyone else says about it is merely food for thought, not an algorithm.
Late in my life it has occurred to me that my copy-editing and headline-writing experience has stood me in good stead as a poet. The need for economy of language and accurate quotation is not unfamiliar to poetry. The thrust and spareness of a headline is akin to poetry, especially modernist poetry.
Each brain registers the written word differently. The cadences, the pauses, the intonations are different from person to person. But the purpose is always to communicate, so journalistic writing must appeal to as many brains as possible, and that means the writer and editor are always looking for common denominators. Not clichés, but efficient ways to convey complex information as easily as possible. The copy editor or, in today`s parlance, the content manager, is accustomed to reading a great many stories from a great many writers, and after a while he or she forms ideas of what impedes a story`s flow and what quickens it. In this way one good writer helps another through the good offices of the editor. This means that in any good news organization there is a kind of synergy in which the best habits of the best writers influence all the other writers through the intermediacy of the editors.
When I was a rookie on The Providence Journal we all looked to Ben Bagdikian or C. Elliott Stocker as writers who could show us how to handle difficult, nuanced issues with grace and clarity. We looked to a writer named Phil Gunion to show us how to handle humor. We looked to each other. We read each other`s stories and asked ourselves how we would have handled similar facts and comments. A newsroom, in this sense, was a kind of tradesman`s shop filled with master craftsmen and apprentices. It encouraged personal interaction. The Internet is different. Writers are at once more isolated and more connected. There is no physical gathering place, but there is e-mail, and there is the astonishing ability to keep on editing and revising a story long after it is initially submitted. Once the presses started rolling at a newspaper there was always a mixed feeling of satisfaction, exhilaration and anxiety, the anxiety stemming from the fact that nothing further could be done to improve the story. This is not true of the Internet.
Moreover, the Internet empowers not only intimate connectivity with fellow journalists but with the public, and the public is not always a mere provider of commentary and reaction, it is often a provider of further information and insight. Furthermore, a psychological barrier has been removed. It was one thing to pick up the phone and call a reporter. It`s another thing to e-mail him. E-mailing him is less daunting, and so the level of communication between news organizations and their readers has been considerably heightened.
In the 1960s the idea of an all-day newspaper, a newspaper that would just keep on publishing one edition after another, instead of a morning or evening edition, was fresh and intriguing. The Internet has made it old-hat. The Internet is a 24/7 news provider. Nobody is ever going to wrap fish or garbage in it. As time goes on, this is bound to revolutionize the news business. Right now, with quarterly earnings lower than they have ever been, newspapers want to consolidate even more than they have and to reduce their news operations, but it`s not inconceivable that the opposite will be true once good business models for Internet news organizations have evolved.
In this new environment the challenge is to vet Internet news. The glory of the traditional newspaper, a glory that consolidation has considerably dimmed, was its peer review process. Stories had to pass muster with experienced editors, often men and women who knew a great deal about the writer`s subject. The reader was the beneficiary of this review process. But today with one blog post being picked up by other blogs and web sites, with little or no review process, that traditional strength has all but vanished, and so Internet news organizations must reinvent the review process, learning what they can from the traditional newspaper but also putting innovations in place that will serve them better. In the short run this has meant little or no editing, but in the long run I believe it will mean even better editing. The technology, for now, has run out ahead of the available business models, but we must remember that the traditional print newspaper took a very long time to evolve into the model which corporate media are dismantling in order to stay solvent and satisfy shareholders or owners.
Watch this process evolve. Become a student of the new Internet environment. Don`t just consider it another venue for your work. Understand it thoroughly, the way a good newspaper editor had to understand his stereotypers, his linotype operators, his presses, circulation and advertising departments. Understand the medium you`re writing for. Read what your colleagues write. Study the way they parse their sentences, the way they connect their thoughts. Study the voice of the story. Its sound. Read aloud not only your own stories but the stories of the writers you and your editors admire. See where they put their commas, their dashes, their colons. See when they deem short and long paragraphs appropriate. See how they use quotes and paraphrases. You will be amazed to find that news stories are only superficially similar. Even in copy written for The Associated Press, that is, for wide dissemination to many different kinds of media, there are significant stylistic differences.
A story doesn`t sound the way it looks. And the brain doesn`t take in sound the way it takes in sight. By reading your story or other people`s stories aloud you will discover aspects you wouldn`t have discovered by reading silently. Sometimes what looks logical doesn`t sound logical. Sometimes what looks clear doesn`t sound clear.
If you would like to test what I am saying, go to poetry slams. You will be
amazed at the difference between a poem that is read on a sheet of paper and a poem that is acted out at the mike. Sometimes the theatrical delivery of the poet will mask a bad poem. That can happen in journalism, too.
And here is something else to consider. Words, once they`re printed on a page, look institutional. They look as if they must be true, as if they have the weight of history behind them. But in truth all they are is words. One reason broadsheet newspapers tended to use Gothic type was to convey that sense of authority and history to the reader. The early resistance to modern newspaper designed was rooted in a fear that modernity would strip the newspaper of its authoritative presence. But the look had nothing to do with content. It was an illusion. A lie or a misleading statement can be printed in Gothic as well as a modern typeface like Times Roman.
Reporters do a lot of interviewing and fact-checking by telephone. They learn very early, if they`re any good, to listen to the demeanor of the conversation, the inflections, intonations, pauses, hesitancies. These are all clues as to the mind of the person they`re talking to. They may set off alarm bells. I can`t remember all the times I`ve said to myself, This doesn`t sound like the truth, something`s wrong here. Cops do the same thing questioning people. They study the micro-expressions of the face for clues. And today we do the same thing when we read e-mail. Everyone`s e-mail style is different. It gives clues as to intent, attitude, clear-headedness or muddleheadedness. If you`re a poker player you will recognize such clues as tells. Stories have tells, too. And sometimes it`s easier to hear them than see them.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
See www.djelloulmarbrook.com for more.