I attended an editing workshop at The Poynter Institute this week. In some ways, I don’t really know why. I’ve never held an editing role in my life. I’m not particularly enthused by the thought of reading over other people’s work. And for all I know, editing is the red markup you get back when your writing is bad. Who would ever aspire to be that person, that word janitor?
Beyond reason, I went to the workshop anyway, and I’m glad I did. It certainly didn’t hurt that Poynter is conveniently located in St. Petersburg, Florida, home to soft white sand that sifts seamlessly through your toes and a sun that coalesces beautifully with your skin. I figured that my indulgent beach lounging would be justified if I acquired some form of knowledge in addition to a bronze glow (which ended up being more lobster-red than anything).
The other attendees at the seminar were -surprise!- actual editors, and way more accomplished than me. I was humbled to sit alongside some really impressive individuals. Shout-out to Lisa, a news editor who works for a news wire I can’t pronounce (the Swedish version of the AP) and who travelled all the way from Stockholm! The 15 of us learned tips on line editing, brainstorming story ideas, coaching reporters, and social media. But for me, the most important takeaway was quite basic: an understanding of what an editor actually does.
Traditionally, the image of an editor conjures up images of a white male, legs perched on a desk, brooding over a newspaper mark-up or proceeding over a meeting. It’s a grand representation of man’s authority over what is “fit to print”. That image is partially true. But there is also a softer, less tactile element that involves the relationship between editor and writer. I learned that editing, at its core, is less about being a hardline news guru as it is helping to nurture and coach writers to construct stories in a way that enhances their value beyond the individual lens.
So, the most basic question an editor must ask is: “What to look for in a piece of writing?” Looking over someone else’s work is a huge responsibility. The first temptation is to rewrite from our own lens. All spelling, grammar, and syntax aside, I learned that there are really only 2 important things to look for: theme and clarity.
Theme – A story is only good when you know what it’s about. At the end of a story, you should be able to easily identify the core message. If you can’t, that’s a problem. Determine the focus of the story and be sure that every section directly adds to that theme. This eliminates redundancy and trims fat, builds muscle.
Clarity – This goes hand-in-hand with theme. If you know the theme, find a way of mapping it out – clearly. Kelley Benham, a writer and editor for the Tampa Bay Times (whose recently Pulitzer Prize-nominated piece you should read) recommended “running a chronology comb” through the writing. Making a timeline with a logical procession of events usually helps to construct stories with absolute simplicity and clarity.
I found these guidelines reassuring and helpful. Previously when given a piece to edit, I would strap on my writing helmet and enter battle. Never was the pen a mightier sword as it slashed through words and corrected spelling like a gallant warrior. (Allow me, itt was the closest I’d get to feeling like my life was an action movie. These days, it’s not so glorious when everything is done on a blinking screen; I type louder to make the process seem more dramatic.)
But in reality, making the paper bleed is not an editor’s job. It’s the reverse, actually; becoming a word janitor is what happens when you don’t let the writer do what he or she is supposed to do: write.
John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, advised editors to cultivate a lazy streak:
“What’s better than rewriting is to take an extra few minutes diagnosing the story’s one or two biggest problems (but not all of them) and return it to the reporter for adjustments. This is good for all concerned. You won’t get bogged down doing someone else’s jo b while oher stories pile up. And the reporter will be able to take pride in the story. The story’s minor problems tend to get straightened out in the rewrite process.
Good editors often have a lazy streak. Instead of impulsively jumping into the fray, put your feet up and figure out how to get somebody else to do the work. Things usually turn out better that way.”
Rather than rewrite, an editor’s job is to discuss the story and make it culturally relevant, together, with the writer. It is to make the story so deep, rich, and revealing of something deeply embedded within our human nature. It is to find a story that rises above the individual lens, that spreads its wings beyond the mere facts. That’s editing.
I knew I was attracted to it for a reason.
*Many thanks to the staff at Poynter for a well-organized and insightful workshop. I highly recommend their training programs to those in the journalism profession looking to sharpen their skills. Special thanks to Tom Huang of the Dallas Morning News who led the seminar and encouraged us to find our “personal dimension” to this line of work. The story will continue to evolve, but I think, just maybe, I’ve found the beginning scraps.
I was at a networking event the other day, mostly for the tasty hors d’oeurves and the opportunity to imbibe free drinks, but figured I’d entertain some awkward conversation so my freeloading wouldn’t be so conspicuous. When someone approached me, I’d hurriedly finish my chewing (lest the silence be deafening) and begin talking mouth full with a load of quiche crumbs tumbling out. I’d chirpily extend my hand, “Hi my name is Lynne! Nice to meet you. What’s yours?!”
Nothing like an overly enthusiastic greeting that labels the “new girl on the block!” title square in the face.
So be it. I’m a Florida girl at heart and if my sunny disposition makes people squint, get some Ray Bans. Being from Florida in a cold city actually works to my advantage because it immediately creates an easy topic for conversation: weather. Inevitably, weather talk leads to the ultimate ‘elephant in the room’ question “What do you do?” which subsequently triggers an incessant chatter up in my prefrontal cortex on how to explain who I am, what I studied, and what on earth I think I’m doing here in the city. I panic, realizing I have no lucid way to introduce myself. So I usually start with, “Well, I drink a lot of wine…” (true story)
I’m not in any position to bestow wisdom on how to create your perfect elevator pitch and I’m not writing this post to pretend like I’m close to figuring it out. I probably won’t ever know how to describe myself in a witty one or two-liner and the day I can, my life will be officially pathetic. We are more complex (and interesting) than titles allow us to be.
That said, all this weather talk reminds me of another time not so long ago when I partook in a lot of chatty mingling, albeit in a less classy environment. Memories of a frenzied freshman year of college when I rushed to sign up for every organization offering community, value, and free food flood my guilty psyche. “You’ll find your best friends here!” “Make an impact!” Back then social situations were more beer pong and club meetings offering free pizza, less wine and cheese with keynote speakers from [insert reputable global organization].
I’m about 9 months out of the old stomping yard (college) and while it’s fair to say I’m no longer a college student, I still feel endowed with a somewhat privileged collegiate mindset. Perhaps even more than I did during my four lecture-sitting years.
I don’t roll out of bed and spring to class anymore, and I don’t bump into people I try to avoid every five minutes. Instead, I dress up, hopstop to work among suited up strangers, and carry a brown tote that looks slightly like an old man’s briefcase (it was the only one at the thrift store that could fit my dang laptop!). During my subway ride, I whip out my cranny nook and read up on design. Trust agents. The digital sphere. Or “how to get rid of that gut!”, which just conveniently happened to be on the latest cover of Shape.
After graduation, the learning doesn’t stop. My current line of work forces me to think digital, social media, and e-commerce while tasting new products and writing about them (which involves wine…what a bummer). It keeps me busy, but the knowledge appetite is still not satisfied. Curiosity widens like the mouth of a hungry child with a bottomless stomach. Now that I don’t have professors to direct my questions to (ironically whom, I barely spoke to when I was actually in college), I am more curious than ever.
As a newcomer to the city, I am still trying to determine the activities and people that are worth my limited time and energy. Of course, in order to play the game, you have to put up with some ‘small talk’. Slowly but surely, in this so very refined adult life, you whittle down the prospects to your truest, deepest interests, one glass – escargot – smooth talking schmooze-at a time.
Tomorrow I begin a wine tasting class called ‘Raise Your Wine IQ’. (Shameless plug- my boss is teaching and you can register here!) I’m also enrolled in a month-long online course called “How to launch your startup idea for less than $5000” which sounds gimmicky, but I’m getting information far more valuable than what I sat through in college without spending a penny. The class is being offered through the education startup Skillshare, a cool company that is trying to revolutionize education. I’m very interested to see how I can apply what I learn to a possible venture. Throw in my dance class and bible study, compounded with the professional life, and I have my own class schedule! I’ve never been more excited to learn in my life!
The Florida sunshine is probably blinding you but before you put on your blockers, keep this in mind:
“Your 20’s are your ‘selfish’ years. It’s a decade to immerse yourself in every single thing possible. Be selfish with your time, and all the aspects of you. Tinker with shit, travel, explore, love a lot, love a little, and never touch the ground.”
|Kyoko Escamilla (a.k.a Brain-Food)|
Even without a bell tower or quad, the collegiate mindset stays for however long you allow it. I am experimenting and exploring more now than the past four years. Do I regret not doing more of this when I was actually in college? Yes and no, but it’s never too late.