Copy editors: The art of article surgery p.26

By: Bill Kirtz

Don Fry, advocate for copy editors, suggests
ways that copy desks and reporters can coexist

Copy editors get scant respect. To change this truism ? and to move better stories more quickly ? they must convince bosses and reporters they’re their paper’s backbone.
Don Fry repeats this point to news executives across the country.
“You’re the safety net between the copy and the readers,” the well-known consultant told a New England Newspaper Association workshop in Danvers, Mass., March 25. “You’re the standard keepers.”
Though the duties have changed drastically with pagination tasks falling to the copyeditor, “You must stand up for excellence. You have to be stronger as the newsroom gets weaker.”
Fry, former head of the Poynter Institute’s writing and ethics programs, sees frequent miscommunication or non-communication between the copy desk and reporters. He says this causes newsroom “bristle,” where journalists misunderstand and mistrust each other’s functions.
To eliminate the bristle and speed and improve the editing process, Fry says every news staffer should spend at least a shift or two on the desk. When they see the “maelstrom-Mixmaster, the giant wad” of over-long, under-polished copy that descends on deadline, he says, they’ll recognize the need to get stories in early and at assigned lengths.
Writers can both help editors and guarantee that their stories have focus by suggesting headlines, Fry says, noting that European reporters write headlines and cutlines and help select photos.
Fry sees his job as constantly asking executives, “Why do you do that?” He says editors should do the same. They should constantly examine the stylebook, not simply follow it. For example, most papers use only a person’s last name in a second reference. But if that reference comes 40 paragraphs later, the writer should use a title because the reader has forgotten the reference.
A stickler for accuracy, Fry defines this not as merely correct. “It’s accurate only if the reader understands it.” So editors shouldn’t tell writers they “don’t like” a lead. Instead, say “The reader won’t understand.” If a reporter insists flawed copy is perfect, ask her to tell you what she’s saying. She’ll likely describe it better than she’s written it, and then see the need to clarify.
Fry says editors should help writers see areas to improve, not win arguments. Discussions should not be turned into contests, he stresses. “Ask questions, don’t argue. A good copy editor does almost nothing to a good story, and a really good editor can change copy so the reporter doesn’t notice.” Any close calls go to the reporter. “He was there. You weren’t.”
Turn mistakes into training, Fry advises. “Chewing out someone for misspelling a name produces fear, but not accuracy. You can’t assume he knows how to be accurate,” so tell him to ask every source for a business card and to make sure that every line on it is correct.
A no-cost way to cure the “no feedback/little praise” syndrome he sees in many newsrooms? Public compliments and tearsheet comments.
“Praise is real cheap and very powerful,” he says. And doing it where other reporters can hear “multiplies the effect” because they’ll want some too.
To Fry, a good newsroom is a talkative newsroom ? editors and reporters reading stories out loud for pace and cadence, staffers lauding each others’ fresh approaches.
To spark such chat, Fry recommends posting daily tearsheets with sticky-note comments like, “This is a terrific lead because ?” More than a management tool, this should be democratic. “Let anyone add an opinion. The discussion itself is the goal here. You want ongoing discussion about craft and technique.”
To further provoke comments and remind colleagues of an editors’ importance, Fry suggests a “Catch of the Day” account of a goof the desk kept out of the paper. He says such newsletters and broadsheets can help if they’re positive, not nasty, identifying the sin but not the sinner.
Good editors nitpick but don’t amputate. Fry remembers one overnight deskman driving to a 24-hour grocery to determine the correct spelling of “FrootLoops.” A lazy editor would simply have changed it to “cereal.” But this preserved an important detail and assured accuracy. Fry’s point: “It’s our job to get it into the paper, not cut it out.”
Not all the time. Fry says editors should “buff up and stand for good writing, and that’s not just pretty writing. It’s clarity: serving the reader.” When there’s no clarity, “sometimes you have to have the courage to say, ‘This story doesn’t make sense'” and spike it for awhile.

?(Kirtz is an associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.) [Caption]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(Copyright: Editor & Publisher April 10,1999) [Caption]

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