Student guest post: Writers, editors can get along

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the tenth of those posts. Sarah Morayati is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior finishing her degree in journalism with a concentration in editing and graphic design. She’s worked as both a writer and copy editor at various points – no conflicts.

It’s downright unsettling how many people are surprised when I tell them I consider myself both a writer and an editor. You’d think the two roles would go together. One creates words; one refines words. Just about any other two professions, randomly chosen, would have less in common.

Perhaps it’s the adversarial relationship writers and editors are supposed to have. We’ve all heard writers complain about those anonymous bullies who barge in and change their beloved words.

Mind you, it goes both ways. What editor hasn’t griped, even just once, about a particularly troublesome piece of writing — or the writer who produced it?

Or perhaps it’s rooted in stereotype. We see writers as untamed auteurs and artists; editors, by contrast, are detail-minded technicians. They’re almost irreconcilable images — one’s mind soars wide, one burrows deep.

For whatever reason, people ask questions, but it shouldn’t be so surprising. I’ve never found either writing or editing to come into conflict with the other. In fact, they’re complementary. Being a better writer helps you be a better editor, and vice versa.

The first is just common sense. When you know how something’s stitched together, you know where the seams are to take it apart.

As a reporter, you develop habits and experience. You know how stories are built, and once you write enough, you know what they generally look like.

You learn the parlance of press releases (“leading” and “solution” are up there, it turns out and the places where you tend to resort to jargon. You learn what conditions writers work under — when they rush, when they spend more time on their work. You learn which facts get triple-checked and which tend to be added in at the last minute. All this can be learned while editing, of course, but there’s no substitute for doing it yourself.

It works much the same way from the other side. As an editor, you read enough stories every night to know what works and what doesn’t.

Every day, you learn more writearounds, more lazy transitions, more prose flourishes that distract from holes in stories. You learn where corrections tend to happen and the errors you find yourself fixing most often. After enough of this scrutiny, you’ll start seeing the same in your own writing, and you’ll be able to self-edit much more thoroughly.

A couple of writers I admire do a certain exercise at least once a year: go through their prose and pick out their bad habits – clichés they resort to, words they overuse, etc. It’s much easier to do this as an editor, when you know what to look for.

It’s been suggested from time to time that aspiring reporters should spend time on the copy desk or vice versa. Logistically, it might be a disaster — try asking someone who works reporter’s hours to take a four-to-midnight  shift — but theoretically it’s quite sound.

Writers and editors share a common goal, after all: to produce the best prose possible. The skills it takes to do that are applicable on either side.

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