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One Minute Tutorial on Editing
by Jack Driscoll



Editing involves more than making sure words are spelled correctly, language is used properly, punctuation is in the right places and spelling is accurate. These, however, are important details that separate a polished publication from a sloppy one.


As with reporting and writing, there are big-picture issues that editors must attend to before plunging ahead.


As gatekeepers of a publication, editors must have a clear idea about what the mission is. For instance, the Junior Journal has decided to be a voice for children's issues, a chronicler of Junior Summit action and a vehicle for breaking down barriers of distance and prejudice. Without being too rigid, editors should be sure stories fulfill at least part of the mission.


So part of editing involves being mission-aries (pardon the pun). Part also involves being ambassadors of ideas.




What does it mean to be an ambassador of ideas? Bearing in mind that an ambassador is one who exercises diplomacy, let us examine the issue of idea formulation.


It is my experience that the best ideas most often come from the bottom up, not from the top down. So editors should be encouraging writers to pursue their own story ideas. This is done with prompting, nudging, cajoling, pushing--whatever works. Diplomatically, of course.


Ask the writer what interests her or him? What issues are writers passionate about? What intrigues them? What are they curious about? What's "hot" where they live (event, trend or issue)?


Editing requires good listening. The writer should be heard first, then the editor responds. This then is the beginning of a conversation, be it online or by telephone or in person.


Stories are enriched by the conversation process, because two heads are better than one. Conversation should be taking place when the idea is first being formulated; it should take place during and after the reporting phase; it should take place before the story is written and it should take place after the editor has fully processed the story.


At each stage the editor should bear in mind that it is the reporter's story on the one hand, but it also is the reader's story. It is not the editor's story.


Thus the editing should generally take the form of questions readers might ask when they come to the story cold (How was he dressed? When did she say that? Where did it occur?). When editors start dictating


what should go into a story, they tend to stifle the conversation and the story. On the other hand, editors should speak up if there are gaps in the story; that is, elements that make the story incomplete. And they should speak up when a story is too long, unclear, awkward, meandering, etc. It's a bit like pulling a wagon: the job is easier when two people are pulling, rather than one, especially when the two are pulling together.



ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL...on Editing (#3)

Story ideas are similar to loaves of bread. All of the elements need to be brought together and kneaded. Then the dough is popped into the oven until it rises and is ready to eat.


Editors and reporters should be collaborators in the development of story ideas. Two minds are better than one. It doesn't matter who has the initial idea. What matters is how the idea is molded and framed into a better idea.


Let's say someone wants to do a story on how to make bread. The editor might suggest providing some historical perspective, pointing out that before the 20th Century B.C. there was evidence Egyptians baked bread as did the Swiss Lake Dwellers in the early days of civilized Europe.


That might prompt the writer to recall religious connotations to bread: manna from heaven to feed the Israelites; Jesus calling himself "the bread of life" and the ritual of bread and wine being served in Christian traditions.


Soon a simple four-paragraph story can become a story with substance. Part of this illustration is based on the evolution of an actual story.


The point is that we shouldn't be satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. That's only the beginning. We should turn it over in our minds, shape it, pull it apart, push it back together again. You know, like kneading.


Now, if I were the editor, I would say you can't write a story about bread without referring to peanut butter! And you, of course, might be inclined to say that's a half-baked idea.




Lingo means jargon or slang language. The journalism trade is full of lingo. Some of it actually makes sense.


We talk of "heads" for headlines (sometimes spelled "heds"). We refer to the story as "body type". So you can think of a story as having a head and a body.


The hed is as important as the body. We need to put more thought into our heds (no pun intended), especially on the web, because readers are browsing fast. So the hed has to say, "Hey, wait a minute: you need to look at my body." (pun intended).


The tone of the headline should reflect the tone of the story. Don't use funny or flippant headlines on serious stories.


Most heds should contain a verb to connote action. The selection of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs should be done with care. Choosing just the right word can illuminate.


A hed in smaller type under the main headline is often called a subhed. Its purpose usually is to expand on the idea in the top headline or to interject a second thought. Generally the main hed expresses a single thought or point.


(Note bene: I use the words "usually" and "generally", because we should not get completely carried away by rules. There always is room for creativity if it's tasteful and well done).


Your goal is twofold: To capture the essence of the story and to entice the reader into reading it.


I believe reporters should submit headlines on their stories. They know what they want to emphasize. However, editors reserve the right to rewrite or polish the wording for the final headline. It's normal for an editor to write a half dozen, dozen or even more versions before being satisfied. You want to put your best hed forward!




When you're in another country, you would have difficulty getting around without signs. More and more signs are minimizing the use of words and using symbols, because not everyone speaks the native language. So when you are driving and you see a sign with an arrow bending to the right, you know there's a curve ahead. Sometimes I have to look twice to distinguish between the signs for the ladies' room and the men's room, but obviously these symbols are useful guides.


The same is true with punctuation. It has an important function in a story. It's function is to help guide the reader through the sentence or paragraph in a way that will make the wording more understandable. Many books have been written about the rules of punctuation, but in less than a minute I would make these points about commas:


  • Commas do not signal a pause, so don't drop them into a sentence without a reason.
  • The girl went to the store and bought milk (no comma, because "went" and "bought: have the same subject: "girl"); the girl went to the store, and the boy went to school (has a comma, because it is as though two sentences are joined by an "and").
  • In the beginning the writer did reporting (no comma after "in the beginning", because it is a phrase not a clause; would you put in a comma if it were at the end of the sentence?). The same goes for an adverb that starts a sentence: no comma in: "Luckily I did my homework."
  • In a series you have a choice as to whether to use two or three commas in the following sentence: She liked vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and chocolate chip. Newspapers generally don't use a comma after "strawberry", because years ago type was handset, so they tried to avoid punctuation marks whenever possible. It saved time and labor.



Most publications have stylebooks to provide consistency when usage and punctuation rules have variables, such as in the last example. Lacking a stylebook, the best thing you can do is use your common sense and think twice before you type a comma or other punctuation mark into a sentence. When in doubt, leave it out. No need to put a bump in the reader's road if you don't have to.




Pause before you insert a comma into a sentence, because a comma does not signal a pause.


Why is punctuation important? Because, just as in the case of the last sentence, it can tell you whether a question is being asked or a statement is being made. A comma can introduce a list. A dash can emphasize an interruption or change in tone. A semicolon may be used to link closely related independent clauses (which otherwise could stand alone as a sentence). Parentheses can set off relevant but not necessarily vital information. Quotation marks...well, you know.


The most used is the comma; the most misused is also the comma.


The following sentence takes a comma: "Jeff went to the store, and Hilary went to the movies." In effect there are two sentences joined by the word "and". The sentence has two subjects, and each subject has a verb.


However, the next sentence takes no comma: "Henry went to the store and bought an ice cream." One subject that has to use two verbs and doesn't want to stumble over a comma. Get it?


Therefore, this sentence has no comma: "Mervin started out for the store but decided to go to the movies instead."


Entire books are written about punctuation. Usually there is a chapter just on commas. Their use is sometimes tricky. For instance, which is correct?


red, white, and green.

red, white and green.


The answer is that both examples are correct. In formal English the first is preferred. In most newspapers the latter is preferred. It's important for publications to be consistent. Usually they have a stylebook to give guidance about such matters. The Associated Press stylebook often is adopted by newspapers and magazines.


Readers see inconsistency as a sign of sloppiness. That alone should be enough to give you pause.




So here's how it works: The editor goes through the story, is not sure about a few of the sentences, thinks the reader will be confused and makes changes in the story, right?




An editor always must remember that the story belongs to the writer. Errors in spelling and punctuation should be fixed without hesitation. At times an editor can see that the deletion of a few words here and there will tighten up the story without affecting its meaning. And there are other ways an editor can make a fair story into a good one.


However, when it comes to making any substantive changes, it's important for the editor to contact the writer and work out the changes as a team. No story should be published without going through an editor, ever. But major changes also should not be made without the writer's knowledge and consent, unless time becomes a factor.


That's why the good writers know it's smart to turn in their stories before deadline, rather than right on deadline. They also know that editors can improve the way a story reads or ask appropriate questions they think would be raised in the mind of the reader. There's no such thing as a bad question.


There is such a thing as bad editing. That's what occurs when an editor plunges ahead with changes that cross the border from editing into rewriting. The most effective editing tool is a little conversation or an exchange of email. In the end the editing goal is to make the writer's story good enough to become the reader's story.




As stated earlier, journalism is loaded with lingo. The written matter of a story often is referred to as “the body”. What goes on a body? You got it on the first try: a head. Now you are fluent in journalese, because a head or “hed” is the coined word for headline.


Headlines differ from titles. They are more like sentences with article adjectives left out to save space and enable quick reading by the browser.


Titles go on books and poems and generally are more like labels. Headlines tend to have active verbs. They have two basic functions: 1. To reflect the essence of the story; 2. To draw the reader into the story.


Extreme care needs to be taken with the writing of a headline. It speaks to the reader and says: “This is worth reading, because…”. Otherwise the reader moves on. It doesn’t matter how well reported or how well written a story is if the headline does not perform its functions. It’s like a door to a house: It can keep you out or let you in.


That’s why good editors will try 20 to 25 headlines on one story before arriving at one that is satisfactory. The ultimate responsibility for a headline resides with the editor. However, I encourage writers to put headlines on their stories before turning them in, because the writers have the best feel for their stories and have a stake in what should be stressed. Editors, on the other hand, may write a new hed, because they realize that the art of headline writing differs from that of writing a story.




The best editing often occurs when an editor finds something that's missing.

It would seem a contradiction of terms: finding what's not there?

An easy example would be something like: "The teacher made three points." And then the story only lists two.



More difficult is the process of realizing that an element necessary to make the story complete is lacking. Usually, if the editor puts herself or himself in the role of the reader, these missing elements become obvious. The question is: Does this story answer all the questions that would pop into a reader's mind? Bear in mind that all readers are not necessarily acquainted with the subject matter of the story.



If a story says a rock band is the second most popular, what is the first? If it says her background makes her qualified for the position, what is her background? If it quotes a liberal on a controversial issue, what is the conservative position? What is the moderate position? Are there other positions on the same issue?


The trick is to keep stories as compact and as complete as possible.


Think of stories as a whole and make sure there are no holes.



ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Editing (#10)

“Rewrite” reporters for newspapers or wire services seldom leave the office. Their writing is based on the reporting or dispatches of several others, whose material often is combined into a story.


In my early years I was one of four rewrite reporters on the night shift at our newspaper. Each of us would write 15 or 30 stories a night of varying lengths. They’d range in length between 100 and 1000 words. The stories were written on typewriters in that era, and we all kept carbon copies of our stories.


At the end of the night, when the early edition had been published and most normal people were sleeping, it would quiet down. At that point we would trade our carbon copies, and each reporter would review the others’ stories to see what words could be cut out without hurting the story. For every word that was cut out, we had to pay our colleague 10 cents.


Soon we all became what is often called “tight writers”. We also became pretty good editors. Try trading stories with a friend via email before sending them to your editor and see who can delete the most unessential words. You may not get rich, but it’s a fun way to think more carefully about writing tightly.


Here’s another exercise: Go back over the above four paragraphs and see how many words can be deleted without hurting the message. I estimate there are about 15. That’s $1.50 I owe you. I’m getting sloppy in my old age.



ONE-MINUTE TUTORIAL…on Editing (#11)

A myopic editor adopts a narrow view of a story, sometimes doing damage by chipping away essential elements. On the one hand, editing should involve nitpicking; on the other hand, editing should only impose changes that improve a story.


What’s the best way to avoid getting so caught up in the details of a story that you fail to see the forest for the trees? I suggest taking an ambling walk through “the woods” when you first set eyes on a story. By that I mean you should first read a story from top to bottom before making any changes. Don’t even fix obvious typing errors.


The purpose is to get an overall feel for the story. This technique induces perspective into your subsequent editing.


Finally, after all editing is completed, remove your editing hat again and read the story through once more. This time put on the hat of the reader. If you stumble in that reading or you find something that’s unclear, you have more editing to do. If it reads smoothly, hat’s off to you.