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The psychology of editing

A reporter’s ego can be, and often is, like a Venetian spun-glass globe: very large and extremely fragile. It. Must. Be. Handled. Very. Carefully. *

The assigning editor has a difficult job, more challenging in the psychological dimension than the copy editor’s. The assigning editor has to cultivate, encourage, sometimes mentor. The assigning editor has to be an advocate for the reporter’s work with other editors, carrying the story into budget meetings and lobbying for its placement on the cover. At the same time, it falls to the assigning editor to point out shortcomings and curb the writer’s excesses, oversights and misjudgments.

The trap is this: I have here a reporter whom I see every day, whose work I promote in the newsroom, who is sensitive about criticism. Out there I have tens of thousands of readers, whom I never see or hear from, who will find this story opaque, dull or amateurish, and who will drop it like a stone after looking at two or three sentences. Which party will I favor?

The trap for the copy editor is simpler. The reporter has turned over his story. It’s his story. He remembers vividly the circumstances of its conception, he carried it through a long gestation, and then, in strain and struggle, he brought it into the world. That story is his child. And here comes some S.O.B. from the copy desk, saying, “Mmmmm-MMPH, that is one ugly baby.”

The way around these traps is professionalism. And it has to be learned, because the psychological reactions can be suppressed but never eliminated. No one likes being edited, but professionals submit to it.

The professional demand is for all concerned to look at the text as an artifact, a thing, a production that is separate from the producer. To point out shortcomings in this thing is not to identify them with the producer of the thing. So professionals, writers and editors, try to avoid the second-person pronoun. It is the story, not your story. Refer carelessly to what you did wrong here, and armed missiles start to rise out of silos in Montana. (Restrict the second-person pronoun to instances of praise.)

This is an artificial little dance, but it can be learned, and performance of it ultimately benefits the reader, the party who is otherwise pretty much ignored.

 

* Imagine, for illustrative purposes, a former reporter who has gone on to a fresh career in which he finds success, money, and recognition and praise far more widely than was ever possible within the compass of the circulation of his old newspaper. And yet it galls him, scalds his soul, that the editors in that newsroom never gave his prodigious talents the recognition they were due. Imagine that this hypothetical former reporter now embarks on a new project — payback time — in which he will be able to hold up thinly disguised representations of those philistines to scorn and ridicule.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:27 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Comments

I think this applies to any kind of critique. I run a creative writing workshop, and I think that this advice is definitely beneficial to anyone looking to join or start a group like that. I hope you don't mind that I decided to blog a response on my site.

I agree with you it is really a difficult job.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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