Editors Suck—Until You Are One

Posted on July 18, 2013 by Martin Z

Learn Empathy and How to Write Better by EditingI never thanked the editor who caught the biggest mistake I ever made in a newspaper article.

In 1985, I wrote an article about the first African-Americans to play major league baseball. I interviewed Don Newcombe, but never sought out Larry Doby – the first African-American to play in the American League – because I thought he was dead.

Fortunately, an editor knew that Doby (1923-2003) was alive. Essentially, he saved me from being humiliated. A colleague mistakenly wrote that an auto racing executive was dead. For several years after that, racetrack announcers often paged “the late Bill France.”

My recollection is that I never thanked an editor before I became one. To me, editing was easy. Editors, I thought, only needed to fix mistakes and write headlines. They periodically rewrote stories, I thought, because they needed to justify their salaries.

I realized I was wrong on my first day as an editor.

Editing Improves Writing

Editing improved my writing immediately.

As a writer, I thought about my articles. As an editor, I thought about the readers. It was my job to increase circulation – something that I never thought about as a writer. Consequently, I thought about a headline as soon as I began editing a story.

I also thought about how to present information to readers. That meant:

  • More lists.
  • Shorter paragraphs. This tip applies to most kinds of writing, including email copywriting.
  • Inserting subheads into stories, as I just did.
  • Sometimes, taking interesting information that was buried in a story and putting it into a 100- to 200-word info box that would run adjacent to the story.
  • Sometimes, putting the info box and a promo for the story on page 1 and the story inside the newspaper.
  • Converting a long story into two shorter stories.

Within a few weeks, my writing was more reader-friendly because of my editing job. In fact, my whole approach was different. I usually tried to write the headline first – and found that this practice made it easier to write the story.

When I became a free-lance writer, I continued writing headlines. Editors have used my headlines for more than 20 years.

Editing Is Also About People

Editing isn’t only about words. Here are some of my tips on working with writers.

Focus On The Positive: I aspired to tell reporters three things they did successfully in their stories. Then, if necessary, I would ask questions that would elicit information the story needed or give tips that would improve the article (e.g. mixing narrative and short quotes instead of using long quotes).

Focus On The Important: Writing is often drudgery for children because teachers ignore creativity and focus on misspelled words. Bad editors often do the same thing. Just fix the mistakes unless they’re among a writer’s primary deficiencies. And it’s YOUR job as an editor to know the Associated Press Stylebook. A memo on common problems is OK. Lectures are pointless.

Save The Original: You will need the original if your editing doesn’t improve the story or if you need to edit your editing. Your writers should also save their stories so you can review them together.

Respect Different Writing Styles: Many writers excel at reporting facts. Others excel at telling stories. You should realize that different styles appeal to different readers – and you shouldn’t apply the same rules to all writers.

Respect Different People: Editors need to notice how writers react to tips and act accordingly on future stories.

Martin Z is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.


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