Probably you don’t. Most aspiring reporters would sooner work as carnival geeks than as copy editors (and for many of them that would be the shrewder career choice). Many journalism schools, in fact, don’t even teach editing as such. They offer courses on the techniques of reporting narrative strategies. They have maybe a semester of copy editing, mainly grammar and headline writing, with page design sometimes thrown in, and that’s it.
This leaves many people, some of them editors, under the misapprehension that editing involves going obsessively over texts, changing a word here, tweaking a word there, without ever lifting their heads above the level of the sentence or the paragraph.
Real editing, macro-editing, is analytical. It is structural. It looks at the forest instead of individual trees. And because so few journalists have much training in this kind of thinking about articles, it is a strain for them.
Fortunately, I know the secret, and I am prepared to let you in on it.
The trick in editing lies in willingness to raise obvious, simple-minded questions.
Here are some of the main ones.
What’s it about?
That’s the question the copy editor has to ask when it comes time to write the headline, and that is sometimes the point at which the copy editor recognizes that there is no immediately apparent answer. “Say one thing,” one of Steve Young’s professors at Hopkins advised. Your article is about one main thing, however many subsidiary items may be pendant on it. Make clear what that one thing is. Focus, people, focus.
When do we find out what it’s about?
Skip the throat-clearing and get to the point. The reader is not likely to indulge you in that 10-paragraph introduction before you get around to identifying your point.
How do we know this?
Where does the information come from? A single source? Uh-oh, risky, very risky. An anonymous source? Uh-oh again. A report? Written by whom and sponsored by whom? Readers have an expectation of identification of sources of information. That’s one way by which they evaluate your credibility. Omitting or muffling sources, or including sources that look dubious, will not help the writer.
Insistence on sourcing will also tend to trip up the plagiarist and the fabricator; and if you imagine that your shop is not at risk from either, the day will come when you discover otherwise. And so will everyone else.
Is it right?
Accuracy is always the main thing. Without that, credibility evaporates. The old Chicago News Bureau slogan always and everywhere applies: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
What kind of story is it?
Identify the form of the article. You wouldn’t edit a column as heavily as you might edit a political analysis. Obituaries, crime reporting and other stock form have conventions to be observed. Narrative has its own conventions and demands.
How is it built?
Once you’ve identified the article’s generic type, look at how it is organized within the structure. If it is a narrative, is the reader oriented in place and time at every point? Are shifts among present, past and future marked by clear transitions? If it has a topical organization, are the topics or sub-topics clearly defined and marked by appropriate transitions? Is the background material adequate, and is it presented when needed without overwhelming the text?
Could it be shorter? Should it be shorter?
Virtually any text you ever edit could benefit from cutting the clutter. Wordy phrases and sentences can be compressed. Extraneous information can be deleted. Tighten the text.
Who’s reading this, anyhow?
Identifying and satisfying the audience involves a web of questions. Is the diction, the vocabulary, appropriate for the intended reader, not overly specialized or overly simplistic? Does the article give the reader the appropriate amount and kind of background information? But more important, what is in it for the reader? Why should the reader care about the subject? What is the impact on the reader? Where does the article connect with the reader?
Does this sound right?
The tone, the prose style, is a legitimate subject for the editor’s probing, never mind all the cant about preserving the author’s voice. (Some writers’ voices are like Fran Drescher’s, not universally appealing.) And writers are notoriously deaf to their hilariously misjudged prose effects.
Is it fair?
If someone has been accused of bad behavior, has that person been given a prominent opportunity to respond? Are the various reputable points of view represented? Are we being snarky, condescending, class-biased?
Are we sure we want to do this? Are we really sure?
These are the questions that Mike Waller, a former Sun publisher, identified as the most crucial for the editor. These are the questions that, raised and pressed, can spare the publication embarrassment, save the publication from publishing libel. And they are valid whenever and by whomever they are raised. Ignore them at your peril.