By Cathrine Duffy
Editing is a process that helps shape a story from before it begins and almost until the presses turn. It starts with conversations between reporter and editor, continues after the story is written and wraps up as headlines and captions are written and proofs are given a last check. In a student publication, the same person can perform all these functions, but we’ll deal with them individually here.
This is what “editing” is all about.
Assigning: The First Step
Story ideas come from reporters as well as editors. Either way, the assigning editor needs to discuss the idea and okay the story. This lets the editor know what’s coming and when and what the story is to be about, as specifically as possible. Forethought helps smooth the reporting, writing and editing process.
This conversation also lets the reporter understand what the editor has in mind, which helps prevent surprises or disagreements later on, and it gives everybody an early read on deadlines and length.
Here are some tips for assigning editors:
Think Ahead: Have a list of story ideas ready. It’s self-defeating to lose momentum when an eager reporter is looking for a story to write.
Keep a Tickler File: This is a file with 31 folders, one for each day of the month, that lets you stay on top of what’s coming up. In the appropriate day’s folder, put press releases, tips, stories clipped from the paper, calendar items, advances, upcoming events and notes to yourself about the likely follow-ups to stories that you have run. Since other reporters often handle the follow-up stories, it is very helpful to have phone numbers or contact names on the items in the folders.
What’s News: Check the daily papers and the local weeklies for subjects that can be adapted. Get and review papers from other campuses. Look at old issues of your publication for subjects that can be revisited.
Know Your Audience: When a reporter suggests a story, consider whether it is appropriate for your publication. A story about senior-citizen housing usually doesn’t make sense for a college newspaper, but a story about student housing does. If a reporter has an idea that may not fit in your publication, try to come up with another topic that would be interesting to write about.
Turn Ideas Over: One idea always can point to another one. For example: A story about senior citizens who attend classes at Stony Brook can lead to a story about interaction between a student organization and a senior-citizen group.
Know Your Staff: Find out which reporter has an affinity for or special knowledge about a subject – for example, about sports, student government or music – and send appropriate stories their way.
Think Graphically: This is the time to assign a photograph or think about illustrations, graphs and charts. When they’re afterthoughts, they usually don’t make the paper and the paper is less interesting as a result.
Think Sidebars: Complicated details – lists, timetables, locations, reactions – can sometimes turn into small stories that are printed beside the main story. A sidebar can help make the main story easier to read. With its own headline, and sometimes a box, it also becomes a graphic device, helping break up long gray stretches of type.
Develop Beats: Many stories come from assigning reporters to specific areas of coverage, such as clubs or Staller Center. Check the “Covering a Beat” section of this handbook for a longer discussion of the subject.
Next: After It’s Written
Assigning editors generally are the first to read a story after the reporter has written it. Keep in mind that stories written on deadline often have errors. Before sending the story on for close editing, an assigning editor must work quickly, making sure the story is on the mark and does not have any missing elements. The in-depth, line-by-line editing generally is done by the copy desk.
Copy editing is a necessity, not a luxury. If your paper doesn’t have copy editors, get some. They are your protection against libel, the spread of misinformation and embarrassing errors. Nothing damages credibility more than errors.
Copy editors are not necessarily great spellers – they just pick up the dictionary often. And they may not be great with grammar or style rules, but they keep “The Elements of Style,” “A Pocket Style Manual,” “The Associated Press Style Book and Libel Manual” and their publication’s own style book handy. In addition to a dictionary and thesaurus, the reference shelf must include all the campus directories, campus maps, area maps, telephone books, and so forth.
Taste. If something in a story seems in poor taste or otherwise inappropriate, a copy editor should flag it and discuss it with the reporter and editor of the paper. If it seems out of place, it often is.
Fairness. A copy editor should look out for stories that are not balanced, or that don’t give both sides of an issue a chance to comment. In that case, if a response from other side can’t be added by deadline, hold the story.
Part of a copy editor’s job is to make sure stories fit in their respective “holes,” or the space in the paper where the story is slated to go. Often, there is more story than space, or vice versa. It’s up to the copy editor to trim when necessary.
Here are some tips for copy editors:
The Point: Is the main point of the story in the first paragraph? It should be. If the lede is cluttered with secondary information – the address, the time of day, the attendees at a meeting – that should go lower. The copy editor should make note of that and discuss reworking the lede with the reporter. If time is short or the hour is late, which often is the case, the editor should make a best effort at fixing the problem. If it’s beyond repair, hold the story.
Add It Up: Do the dates and numbers in the story add up? The copy editor should check all numbers and dates in stories, and should call any phone numbers in stories to be sure that they’re correct as written.
Checking: The reporter should have indicated that all names and unusual facts have been double-checked and are correct. If not, and the information is not otherwise verifiable through clips or directories, the copy editor should ask the reporter.
The Flow: A copy editor should look for bad transitions and make suggestions when necessary. A transition is the word or phrase that ties one paragraph to the next and avoid jarring jumps that confuse the reader. Words such as “however” and “but” are simple transition words that tell the reader where the story is going, but there are many ways to do it. For example, “Not all observers agreed” indicates that a different viewpoint is about to be introduced, and “Later in the day,” indicates that time has passed.
Headlines and Captions
The last thing a reader sees is the story itself. First impressions based on headlines, pictures and captions determine whether a reader will pursue the story. Layout, headline size and graphics are discussed in another section of this handbook, but here are some tips for headline writers.
Headlines need to be interesting, use active words and capture the point. They can be indirect, but not so far off that the reader is misled. They can be humorous, but not trivializing, and only when the subject is not serious. Puns and plays on words often don’t work and appear silly. The rule of thumb is that puns and plays need to work both ways – literally as well as the play on words.
Headlines need to avoid unnecessary words in order to get in more information. “Stony Brook Students” can be shortened to “Students,” unless it’s other students you’re writing about.
Captions, the lines of text under pictures, need to identify the people or subject. If it’s more than one, go from left to right, as in “Gregory Rodman, left, joins Beverly Adams and Harvey Waters before their performance at the Staller Center.”
Don’t waste valuable space describing the obvious. If they’re playing football, you don’t need to say so, unless it’s not obvious in the photo. Avoid “John Smith shakes hands with …”
Diplomacy in the Newsroom
Communication is what journalism is all about, and it’s essential in the newsroom. Editors and reporters have to work together to make sure stories are accurate and to the point. One of the worst things a copy editor can do is raise unnecessary questions about a story, or questions that are sarcastic and mean-spirited. And worse than that is inserting information based on assumption or a guess. If you don’t know it, don’t insert it.
Time is of the essence on a copy desk, and these types of things slow down the process and create conflict.
Some tips on diplomacy:
Cooperate: Be constructive, not critical in your comments and questions. The point is to get the story fixed and on its way as quickly as possible.
Be Gentle: When making suggestions, it helps to pose them as questions rather than commands. It helps both sides get to a solution without creating avoidable tension.
Remember Who: In the end, the story carries the reporter’s byline and he or she will be responsible for what the story says, so it’s only fair to consult him or her with changes. If a reporter disagrees with changes to the story, the reporter has the right to take his or her byline off the story. But before it comes to that, consult other editors or staff members about the change. Is it really necessary? Can a compromise be made?
Cathrine Duffy is a News Editor at Newsday. She graduated from the State University at Stony Brook in 1993. Before graduation, she was a reporting intern on Newsday’s Long Island desk.