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So you want to be an editor

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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:10 AM | | Comments (8)


How many times is enough to ask "Are we really sure?" I've run into things in the past that made me really uncomfortable, but my concerns were pooh-poohed. When do you let it go?

I'm a reader, not an editor. One problem I encounter from time to time in reading longer newspaper articles is that when an individual who has been mentioned earlier in an article is referred to by name a second time with no identifying information, I find I've lost track of the individual's identity and need to go back and track down the original reference, which can be disruptive and frustrating. Perhaps this is a sign of advancing senility on my part, but I would suggest that when a reference occurs in an article to an individual who has been identified earlier in the article and who is not well-known to the general public, you might consider encouraging the writer to add a tag that reminds the reader who the individual is and what role they (note the singular "they") play in the story.

This is great advice. I'm going to save it for my editing classes if that's OK with you!

I'm delighted that you'd consider using this for your students. I would, of course, appreciate being given credit for it and a plug for the blog.

I used to tape this question across my reporters' computers:
"Why does my reader care?"

If you can't answer that, why are you even bothering with the story?

This is off-topic, but isn't "overly simplistic" redundant?

I'd simply like to add that this isn't just useful in editing, but also in teaching - or should I say grading...

As a new teacher, I have found that my colleagues consider me a speed-grader and that my skill at grading seems to generate some suspicions about how seriously I take the job. I might just use this post to counter such claims.

Grading student writing could be about grammar and style and the minutiae. It could be, depending on the assignment and the class. But when the assignment is about substance, as it often is in social studies, these 'big picture' questions are a much better way to approach the task of grading. More specifically, if I find a paper entirely failing to meet any of these standards, I am instantly clued-in to what's missing from the entire piece.

Certainly the rules you put forward above are designed for reporting, but with a few adjustments, they fit almost any kind of writing. And the 'macro' is really what matters.

As a reader noted above, I may just give this to my students as a hint as to how they'll be graded. In most cases, though, they've already figured it out.

I found your blog a while back and catching up on some posts now. Being a senior journalism student, we are only subjected to take one (read: the only one) copy editing class. It's a great course which I've learned more than memorizing an AP style book; mostly what you've touched on here. I feel privileged to know I was guided in the right direction. But I feel that journalism students need more copy editing classes. Maybe it's only me, but I found it challenging, yet rewarding.

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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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