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Writing comes first

An anonymous commenter to this blog carried on at some length about what he* imagined to be my contempt for reporters.**

Well, that’s just not so. I’ve stated repeatedly that reporting and writing are primary, editing secondary. All those years in graduate school, I never fell into the trap of imagining that, say, the commentators on Jonathan Swift were somehow superior to Swift. They were dependent on him, in the root sense of the word, hanging from. Besides, just last week I went out drinking with a group of reporters, and no one found it necessary to summon the constabulary.

I’ll concede, though, that the focus in this blog on pathology rather than healthy tissue may have given rise to that mistaken impression. Some corrective comments are in order.

When Bill Glauber was The Sun’s London correspondent, he filed a news feature on the funeral of Ronnie Kray — “mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic” — one of the notorious Kray brothers from the 1960s. I’ve used that story in dozens of workshops and classes; it is a model of observed detail meticulously selected, of skill and economy in organization. And it runs just a little over 700 words, showing that a perfectly satisfactory news feature does not require 3,000 words and the heaving and sweating that typically accompany such productions.

A couple of years ago, I was the copy editor for Bob Little’s articles in The Sun on the Army’s failure to supply troops in Iraq with a $20 tourniquet that could have prevented numerous deaths from hemorrhage. His text came to the copy desk, clean, clear, thorough and precise. There was almost nothing to correct or question.

Last week Julie Bykowicz filed an article on the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office use of probation violations to jail defendants who had been acquitted of other charges. It was solid reporting, explaining the technical legal circumstances with clarity, and highlighting cases of people involved. She shows that it is possible to write about technical legal questions without putting the reader to sleep.

Diana Sugg and Abigail Tucker have written numerous articles for The Sun about people in situations that carry a tremendous emotional charge, and they have been successful in writing those stories in a chaste style that never resorts to cheap, tear-jerking effects.

In our Business section, Eileen Ambrose’s columns are models of straightforward, lucid advice, and Jay Hancock’s columns always impress with their acuity and edge.

These are a mere handful of examples. In 21 years at The Sun, I have seen a steady growth of respect and civility between the reporting staff and the copy editors. I have also seen a confirmation of a view long held on the desk: that the best reporters and writers tend also to be the most receptive to questions and concerns from the copy desk. The most defensive writers usually have the most to be defensive about; the professionals understand the process.


* Though the author was anonymous, I use the masculine pronoun out of a reluctance to think that remarks that rude and ill-thought-out could come from a lady.

** Yes, I could link to the post so that you could see the comments yourself, but I gave them an airing once, and I don’t feel obligated to give further currency to remarks that are little better than raving. (“Seek counseling” would be my advice.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (1)


No, writing does not come first.

Not in a news story.

REPORTING comes first. Getting the facts comes first.

Understanding the facts comes second, followed very closely (second-and-a-half) comes the getting of more facts now that you understand the first ones.

THIRD comes writing the facts.

But editors--whether assigning editors or line editors (a magazine term) or copyeditors--have the job of making the reporter's work, and the writer's work, look as good as it possibly can.

Those reporters and writers who do not think they need to be assisted in looking good are the ones who end up generating some genuine contempt from people who are trying to help.

I've corrected some big whoppers from the keyboards (I started to type "pens") of reporters/writers with nary a snarky moment around--because those folks didn't argue about it or take my suggestions, questions, or changes as an insult. The only times I've ever felt snide about a writer is when they are unpleasant about it.

As a copyeditor, I *know* I have the easier job. I try to be sure my writers/reporters are aware of my attitude.

I once reminded one of my copyeditors, when he complained that writers were sending in text with the state abbreviation, that we should be grateful that some of these rules of style and grammar elude our colleagues. Otherwise, we'd be out of work!

You're right, John, that in a blog like this, we don't really dwell on great turns of phrase, or clean stories. That's sort of analagous to a reporter's not covering the fact that the mayor did his job right today.

At InformationWeek, I published a weekly newsletter to the staff w/ tips, reminders, "error recently spotted a lot," but I also made sure to give out awards--best verb in a headline (that was for us); best transition; best substitute for "growing the business." Never the same award twice; just if I saw something I thought was good, or clever, or nicely crafted, I made up an award for it. I think it helped keep the desk from feeling as if it was the know-it-all enemy.

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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
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