Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How to explain editing?

We've just come through an "interesting" (if you use the Chinese saying's ambiguous connotation of the term) couple of years here in the basement of the Coliseum as we try to refashion a journalism and mass communications curriculum that is at the same time forward-looking and flexible, yet retains the foundation of good journalism.

During the course of this, we had a family spat about editing's place. To help get the changes through -- because I thought it more important to seriously loosen our current lockstep curriculum so students have more flexibility -- I did not push to have our current required copy-editing course kept as required.

Some faculty were concerned by that, a bit of jostling ensued, and we voted over broadcast faculty objections to make editing required again for all journalism students. More jostling, another vote, and we compromised: the full editing course will be a directed elective, but an editing module will be put into our first reporting/writing course (the one after the general mass media writing).

It's an agreement I can live with, though it means I have to fashion yet another syllabus, this time for the module. (I am convinced the road to perdition is paved with curriculum-change syllabuses.) One of the broadcast arguments was, essentially, "We already teach editing as part of writing."

But it set me to thinking about how to explain editing and why it is different from writing, especially in its teaching, and why it can't really be effectively taught as part of writing (though certainly some self-editing has to be taught as part of that).

Editing is about approaching a story, in whatever medium, in a different way, with a different mindset.

Then, in getting ready for classes this semester, I came across some old lecture notes I'd scribbled years ago, and there was a phrase I think elegantly explains it:

Reporters query sources; editors query the copy.

Think about it and why reporters (and line editors) really should not be asked to copy edit their work. I want reporters knee-deep in what they are reporting, to have the mindset I've got to get it all in. I want line editors almost as enmeshed as they drive the coverage.

Left to their own devices, good reporters want to make sure everyone understands the nuances, the warp and weft that they just know, because they have the expertise, is important. This is good.

Yes, the best writers have a great sense of elegance and prose, but the best writers are not necessarily the best reporters, and vice versa. The reality is that we generally come down somewhere in the middle of both. And even the best writers have to struggle against the shackles of approaching the story from their perspective, not necessarily that of the reader.

The writer/reporter, for example, strives for that great lede (just observe how long it takes many writers to fashion one in relation to the rest of the story), but often it's as much about writing the great lede as a device for the writer to get into the muck of the story as it is for the reader's benefit.

But where the writer may instinctively know the elements of a good lede, of good flow, etc., the editor, when he or she takes up the story, approaches it differently and more explicitly. He or she starts querying that lede: Is it backed up in the rest of the story? Does it overreach? Does the verb tense give the proper sense of timing? Does it signal to the reader this is yesterday's news tomorrow, or in this digital age does it recognize the need to avoid that? Does it have the right tone?

As the editor moves through the story, more querying of the copy, just as if the copy were a living, breathing being the editor was interviewing: Do you have enough background to feel full? But do you also have indigestion from too much in one place?

Do you have any lingering questions for me?

Is everything here (or are you missing a button that you might not have noticed but that others will) … OK, a little too far on the metaphor, but you get the idea.

It's why editing remains valuable and why I shudder a bit as some news organizations think reporters are going to be able to jump into the editing desk as needed. Let reporters report and editors edit, with the understanding that editors also need some new ideas on how to do it to fit the economic realities as journalism moves from an industrial manufacturing business to a service business.

But let's also remember who queries what - and why both sides of that statement remain important.

Ralph Hanson reblogs a nice piece of artwork that also explains a different aspect, self-editing.

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At 8/29/12, 12:03 PM, Anonymous Patrick said...

Did those in the broadcast faculty give a specific reason why they thought copy editing for everyone is a bad idea?

At 8/29/12, 2:21 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

No, just that they already teach editing as part of writing and that this was eliminating one of the five electives (three free, two directed) the students would have in the new curriculum - and if our objective was to give them flexibility, this wasn't right.

At 8/29/12, 5:06 PM, Anonymous Patrick said...

I'm a USC J-School grad. When I was in school, I was frustrated that it appeared that the faculty seemed to believe that every student who was in the journalism program wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

But I realized toward my senior year that copy editing classes that focused on print taught a far better picture of basic journalism than anything in broadcast writing.

It's one thing to tell someone how to write for broadcast; it's much better to tell someone how to write ... then tell them how to change things up a bit for the broadcast style. Especially nowadays, where even broadcast reporters are writing in a "print" style on the web, too.

I've worked in local television for 21 years. What I learned in copy editing -- copy editing that had more of a leaning toward print -- has served me well in every TV-related job I've had over those two decades.

I'd hate to think that today's broadcast journalism students are only getting copy editing from writing classes that are specifically geared to broadcast writing.


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