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.)