Student guest post: Editing, style and fashion

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Alex Norton is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design and communication studies. He loves writing and editing, but he says his true passion lies in clothes. He’s hoping that these two loves will lead to a life and career New York a la Carrie Bradshaw.

Whether or not you’re an editor by trade (or in training), editing is present and important every single day. We edit emails, edit our thoughts to make them into words and we — or at least I — edit the millions of garments out there to create a single stunning outfit.

Picking an outfit is just like producing a news story, really. It’s a lot of work, a lot of stress and, if it’s a particularly difficult one, a lot of junk food and cigarettes.

The research

As a reporter, when you’re assigned a story, going into the writing process blind can and most likely will lead to a subpar story. A good reporter will research the history of the story, the key characters, events and components, as well as the future of the story and what the audience needs to know.

Research for me is Vogue. It’s “Fashion Police” on E! It’s Going into preparing an outfit without knowing the designers, the retailers, the fads, the fashions, the accessories – and most importantly, the “fashion don’ts” – would only lead to a subpar outfit that is going to leave Joan Rivers (critics), my peers (audience) and myself (reporter and editor) disappointed. If my newspaper of an outfit isn’t of the highest quality, no one will be interested in buying me … getting to know me.

The facts

History is important, as Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly so graciously showed Anne Hathaway as Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but the most important thing about composing an outfit for the day is the trend of the day. You wouldn’t write an article about a story that was out of date; I wouldn’t wear a basketball jersey or a snapback for the same exact reason.

These trends are the facts of the story: Without them, there is no outfit worth looking at.

The composition

By far the most strenuous part of creating a story is the actual writing: A reporter not only has to organize all his research, but now he has to put it together in a way that is attractive to a reader and that represents him as a writer as well as his employing institution.

Like writing a story, putting together an outfit is hard work. I spend at least 10 minutes every morning staring at all my sources, evaluating each one individually for relevance, uniqueness and quality. Once I know what I want to put into my story and what I’m going to leave out for the day, I can get dressed.

Rarely do I produce the perfect outfit on the first try, so my dressing process goes through quite a few rough drafts that my audience will never see.

The editing

As an editing student, I consider editing the most important part of a story’s life: It’s here that it is polished and readied to face the world. Any causal “typos” I may make in the morning when choosing pieces of my outfit – putting on a brown belt and then deciding on black shoes, wearing clashing colors, etc. – must be caught and corrected before I go out into the world.

I have to consider my audience, the time period and what my outfit needs to say. Sometimes I even have to scrap the entire outfit and replace it with a backup.

The publishing

Publishing is when the finished story – after being researched, written and polished, is debuted to the world. A story is made public as soon as it hits newsstands (or even sooner in the case of a Web story); my outfit is published when I walk out the door. At first glimpse, the focal point of my outfit – the centerpiece – has to catch the eye of a passerby (or even a regular reader) in order for me to capture the attention that a composition on which I’ve worked so hard deserves.

It’s after this publication that I and my story must face indifference and scrutiny, but a positive letter to the editor in the form of a compliment on my new boots from a stranger makes the whole process worth it.

Q&A with Carol Carpenter, copy editor at the Times-Picayune

Carol Carpenter is a copy editor at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses recent changes at the newspaper and how those changes have affected her work.

Q. Describe your job. What do you on a typical day?

A. I’m not sure I have a typical day! A lot of things have changed since the paper went to fewer days a week.

All of our local copy hits the website first, and it comes to us, the print team, on a wire feed. The reporters — oops, I mean the content creators — photographers and most editors — now called managing producers — who make up the online team now work in a different building. Only the print team (about 20 people), a business office of two and the presses remain in our building. Our schedule has changed as well; we work four 10-hour days a week.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I select stories from (I am called a curator) and repackage them for print, for the Lagniappe entertainment tab that comes out of Fridays. I search for art, which sometimes involves gentle reminders to the online team that I need a high-res version for print.

I supervise a designer who makes up all the pages. I write headlines, edit and trim copy. I set the pages to the press and make sure they are all received. Many times only I and the designer lay eyes on the pages — scary.

Other days I might work on the op-ed pages, doing basically the same curation/art search duties, as well as editing. On those days I also serve as the rim for all the A1 stories.

Or I might curate the wire pages, and the sections are much bigger since we made the switch. Or I might curate the zoned metro sections, one for the north shore and one for the south shore.

The metro section and the wire section have page producers, who make up the pages as well as edit the stories and write headlines. I also gather stories and art for the religion page and sometimes for the travel section.

The duties are mostly the same, but the focus changes.

Q. Last year, the Times-Picayune’s print edition went from daily to three times a week. How does this transition toward digital affect you and other editors?

A. As I mentioned above, not only have the duties changed but so have our titles. We are still getting used to many new things, new employees, new ways of doing things.

One thing is, of course, that there is not a paper every day. But during the Saints season, we issue the Black and Gold tab on game day Mondays (strictly game coverage, no other news). We have a paper on Wednesday and Friday, and on Saturday we have an “early Sunday” edition that we call the pup. That paper is partly remade for Sunday. So it is really more than three days a week as far as working goes.

Probably the most difficult thing for me is trying to weigh coverage of events that happened between papers, for example between Sunday’s and Wednesday’s paper. Many news events can’t be ignored, but at the same time they are old.

We have a new feature called a Trends column in each section that was designed to highlight these “old” news items in a briefed format, but sometimes an event is too important for a brief — the inauguration, for one. There is also a lot of give and take between the Living and the Lagniappe sections about which stories go where — sometimes (not often) we both run the same items.

Now that reporters have no print deadlines or length restrictions, stories are a little iffier, the budget is more laissez-faire and the stories can be much longer than our pages permit. I find myself trimming stories a lot more.

Q. New Orleans often plays host to big events like the Super Bowl. What is it like to report and edit that kind of coverage?

A. Just like the police in New Orleans are world-renowned for crowd control because of Carnival, I believe that our staff is terrific at letting readers know what is going on in our town.

We are used to big events, and we have an experienced team covering all the angles. Jazzfest, Carnival, Essence Fest, Final Four, Voodoo Fest and the Sugar Bowl bring hundreds of thousands of people to town. We are used to it. We have a routine that works.

Q. You are a native of New Orleans. What is your favorite thing about the city and about the Times-Picayune?

A. Gosh, just one thing? I guess I would have to say what I love most about the city is its people’s creativity and determination to survive and thrive, no matter what hits us.

Within months after Hurricane Katrina, there were innumerable locally written, locally produced and locally acted theater shows about the storm. We come up with satirical themes for individual Carnival costumes and for entire parades. (the FEMA jokes after Katrina were scathing.) We celebrate precisely because we know that life is precious and must be thoroughly lived.

When the Times-Picayune’s owners announced that the paper would cut production, there were protests. Not just protests. Yard signs. Letters to the editor. Three different T-shirts with clever newspaper sayings were sold (The SomeTimes-Picayune). An organization was created to help those who were laid off, and a party (of course) was held to raise money for them.

One of the most revered philanthropists in town started an organization to get the owners to sell, enlisting the mayor, the archbishop, many luminaries. They passed around a petition signed by every favorite son you could think of, celebrities, some 10,000 people. It was a scary time but also a very heartening time to see how much people in New Orleans cherish the Times-Picayune.

And the Times-Picayune is staffed by those people, those creative and determined New Orleanians. People do amazing things for this paper because they know it’s important and because they know New Orleans needs and appreciates us. I love the tradition (175 years), the smart investigations and the snappy writing, the modern design, but mostly my co-workers.

Q&A with Ariel Zirulnick, Middle East editor at the Christian Science Monitor

Ariel Zirulnick is Middle East editor at The Christian Science Monitor. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job, the editing process at the Monitor and how to land a job in international journalism.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. I work from our Boston headquarters, editing copy from a slew of staff writers and freelancers living in North Africa and the Middle East, and occasionally reporting and writing myself.

On a typical day, I wake up around 6 a.m. and immediately check my work email to see if any of my reporters, who are anywhere from 6 to 8 hours ahead of us, have emerging stories or other time-sensitive things on which they need a response. Since they’re already halfway through their day at that point, it’s critical to get them an answer ASAP.

The international desk editors get in to the office at 7:30 a.m. and spend the first couple hours of the day assigning and editing stories, planning coverage, tracking news in our regions, etc. The afternoon, when our reporters are done for the day and heading for bed, is typically the time to catch up on more long-term work, whether it’s magazine stories, non-time sensitive stories for the Web, or just organizational and administrative things, like handling our reporters’ reimbursements for work-related trips.

We spend a lot of time tracking what is rising and falling on Google and Yahoo! news. It isn’t the only thing that dictates our coverage, but it does influence our decisions and it certainly influences the way we write our headlines.

Q. How does story editing and headline writing work at the Monitor?

A. Every story for receives two edits.

The first is almost always done by the relevant regional editor, who will edit not only for spelling and grammar, but also for content – ideas, analysis, etc. The first edit is sent back to the reporter for him to answer any questions that came up and to read over the editor’s changes to ensure nothing was changed in such a way that it became incorrect.

Then they send back a fresh file incorporating all the editor’s changes and questions. That version then gets a read from another editor on the international desk – this time mostly for grammar, style, readability, etc. – before being published to the website. Stories for our weekly magazine go through one additional layer of editing with a designated copy editor.

The international desk editors write the headlines for stories on Typically it’s the editor doing the first edit who writes a headline, making sure to incorporate the so-called “key phrases” that Google News clusters are built around in order to get the story into that cluster and get traffic. We run our suggested headline by either the international editor or the deputy international editor, who gives the final stamp of approval.

Q. Readers often see bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How do you handle such criticism?

A. I receive more complaints on this than anything else in my region by a landslide. The fact is, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be impossible to satisfy critics – sometimes their objection is not grounded in fact and they will read whatever bias they want to into the piece.

It’s not rare to get two e-mails bashing the same story, one for being too sympathetic to Israelis, one for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. The only thing that’s different is the lens through which each reader is reading the piece. That’s what makes it so hard to satisfy everyone, or even most readers.

We do try to respond to all complaints because we want to make sure readers know we’re paying attention to their comments. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of pointing out to the reader the different voices in the piece to show that the reporter did her due diligence by using sources from across the political spectrum.

If the criticism seems valid – perhaps we forgot to include some background about a source’s political affiliation, or cast something in a certain light that seemed misleading – we will typically write to the person and ask them to provide us with their own sources to back up their claims. Sometimes we find that they can’t, sometimes they can and we file either a correction or, if it doesn’t warrant that, assure them that we will take that into account in future stories on the topic. Often readers are just happy to get an acknowledgement of their complaint, whether or not it prompts any action.

We get complaints the most often when we do a piece on only Israel or only Palestinians, mostly from readers angry that we “ignored” one half of the conflict. In that case, I’ll point them to previous stories that focused exclusively on the other “side.” Even if one piece is not straight down the middle, I can say with confidence that our cumulative work is.

Q. You are a 2010 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for students there to get a job like yours?

A. A second major, preferably something with an international slant, is very important if you want to work in international affairs journalism (I double majored in journalism and international studies, with a Middle East focus).

While outlets like CSM are happy when someone has journalism training, we care less about that and more about the reporter’s ability to thing deeply about the topic at hand, synthesize complex information, and see events in their broader context. Knowledge of the region, including its history, is essential for that, and that comes from studying the region, likely in an academic setting. It can be learned in the field, of course, but it’s unlikely an outlet like CSM will take something from a freelancer if they just arrived in the country and have no prior experience or study there.

Studying abroad, and even getting an internship abroad, will also give you a huge leg-up. Getting an international internship overseas is not as unattainable a goal as it sounds – most countries have an English language publication or a bureau for a major US publication, and it’s often much easier to get an internship there than at a news outlet in the United States.

The catch is that they’ll often be unpaid, since they don’t want to go through the hassle of obtaining a work visa for you, but the j-school has many scholarships specifically for covering students’ expenses while doing unpaid internships. That’s how I funded a summer internship at the Jerusalem Post, which I did on the heels of a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which I also mostly funded with scholarships, in that case from the Global Ed program).

Also, work for the Daily Tar Heel! My work for them is what I used when I applied to my Jerusalem Post internship, and editors there were amazed at the quality of the student-run publication. UNC journalism students are fortunate enough to have a top-notch news outlet around that takes teaching peers very seriously.

Take advantage of it. No journalism school class can simulate the deadline pressures and real-life experiences that you get from writing for the DTH.

If a student wants first and foremost to be reporting overseas, his best bet is to take the leap and set up shop as a freelancer overseas. Do some research into what countries are undercovered (a tip-off is a dateline from a country other than the one the story is about) and move there! You’ll have to pitch like crazy to a number if outlets before you get a bite, but it’s really the best way to go if being overseas is your first priority.

But if, like me, you aren’t comfortable taking that financial risk (student loans!) or care more about being a part of a team than in getting overseas straightaway and having to work solo, you can look into internships with the international sections of newspapers based in the United States.

I got my foot in the door with CSM by taking a semester-long paid internship with the Monitor after graduating from college. You’ll probably spend most of your time editing, not reporting, but you’ll still have your head in international news all day long, and you’ll learn a ton about a lot of places, which will better prepare for a move overseas in the future and maybe even get you in line for a staff position.

I was fortunate to be interning with CSM when a staff position opened up. A year later the Middle East editor position opened up, and now I’m spending my day reading, writing and editing on the region that has enthralled me for years. I even got to take a reporting trip to Egypt and Lebanon last year, which was incredibly exciting.

The Monitor international desk hires an intern each semester and for the summer. If you are interested, or just want to know more, please be in touch! I need people to watch Carolina basketball with up here.

Follow Ariel Zirulnick on Twitter at @azirulnick.

Q&A with Ness Shortley, editor of the News of Orange County

Ness Clarke Shortley is the editor of the News of Orange County, a weekly newspaper in Hillsborough, N.C. She previously worked as a copy editor and reporter at The Free Press in Kinston, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Shortley discusses her job duties and the outlook for community journalism in the Triangle region of North Carolina.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. Since News of Orange is a weekly, I don’t have a schedule that stays the same day to day. But each week remains more or less the same with Tuesday usually being the craziest day. My weeks go Wednesday to Tuesday since the paper comes out Wednesday.

We have a fairly tiny editorial staff — it’s mainly just me and a staff writer — so I wear multiple hats. I write, edit, take pictures, lay out and proof pages: If it’s done at a newspaper and it’s not advertising related, I do it.

Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are interview, transcription and writing days. I tend to slog through the insane number of emails I get mostly on those days, too.

Wednesday is great for planning the next week’s paper. The general manager and I meet with my reporter weekly for a budget meeting, and there we’ll talk about what we’ve got going for the week editorially, what advertising — and, therefore, our page count — looks like, and any upcoming special sections that require editorial input either with content or layout.

Over the weekend at home, I edit any photos (in CMYK, greyscale and for the web) or video I took that week and finish writing anything I didn’t get done on Friday. I usually rough edit whatever community submissions I got the week before over the weekend as well.

On Monday, I put together a TMC called the Northern Orange Xtra that gets delivered to residents of the northern part of the county. Our community calendar, one staff-written story and one staff-taken piece of art go into that.

Every other week, I attend the meetings of the Orange County Board of Education, since my beat includes the county school system. I usually put together the community calendar — we call it Word on the Street — and make final edits on community submissions, editorial page content and my reporter’s stories. I tend to write my column on Monday since that type of writing is so different from what I normally do. If I had a board meeting, I transcribe any quotes I didn’t get down accurately and create a rough outline for the story I’ll write the next day.

Tuesday’s production day; I get in early and tend to stay late. I’ll do final edits on any of my reporter’s stories that hadn’t already been edited. I lay out the front and any jumps and the church/social, sports, schools and town/county pages. Erin, my reporter, handles the opinion pages and crime reports.

After laying out pages, we proof them, make corrections, doublecheck to see we didn’t introduce new errors into copy while making corrections and then send them to the press up in Virginia. Before we leave, we set some up some of the Web content for the next day, and I upload the eEdition. We also put out a monthly tab in Durham, so on the third Wednesday of the month, we put that together.

Q. How does headline writing and copy editing work at your paper?

A. Erin and I write our own suggested headlines when we write our stories. Of course, once we get into laying out the pages, the suggested head may not work. It could be too long or too short for the space; it might break in an awkward place, or we might honestly just think of something better. We try not to get too cute with our headlines, and I just don’t like puns, so we try to avoid those, as well.

Copy editing is a multi-stage process here. Since Erin and I write everything and edit everything, we want to make sure we read it multiple times to give ourselves a better chance of catching errors. I tend to read content silently and then out loud for style, content and flow. Then, I read it backward sentence by sentence word by word to try to catch typos and grammatical errors.

After the pages have been put together, we proof hard copies of them. I also have our office manager and general manager look over them just to get extra eyeballs on the pages. Then, Erin and I make corrections.

We print out proofs again and go over our edits again to make sure we didn’t miss anything and to ensure we didn’t introduce new errors. We also doublecheck headlines, cutlines, dates, page names and numbers, and jumps.

Q. You are active on Twitter, and your newspaper has a Facebook page. What are your goals on social media?

A. I think social media is a great place to reach out to the community in a way that’s more informal than what’s allowed in the paper. When I became the editor, I made a concerted effort to be more accessible to people, and it’s a philosophy Erin has embraced as well.

Through News of Orange’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, we can engage with readers and post content that wouldn’t make it into the paper. If we’re at, say, the fifth-grade musical production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at Pathways Elementary School, we can tweet a picture or short video to let people know. It gives the community the chance to see what we’re doing, see that we’re out there taking pictures of their kids or covering meetings or just doing our jobs.

When I worked at a daily, there was a conscious push for reporters to remain apart from the people we covered. That ivory tower approach to journalism doesn’t work at a community paper. When people talk to me about the News of Orange, they tell me what they like and dislike about their paper. They feel ownership, and they care about what makes it into its pages.

I made a decision awhile back to allow community members to friend me on Facebook and to unlock my Twitter feed for the same reason. It’s made me feel like a member of the community I cover instead of an outsider.

I’ve had people tell me they have found me more approachable as a result of some of the things I’ve posted. Sure, it means I have to be careful what I put out there. I don’t post anything political or controversial, and I watch what people post on my wall, but I think it’s a fair trade. I’ve been lucky enough to connect with some fantastic people through social media and engage with a more tech-savvy segment of our readership.

There are, of course, pitfalls for newspapers and reporters using social media, but I don’t think not being out there is an option anymore. People expect us to be there, so we muddle through as best we can.

Q. These are tough times for newspapers. In our area, the Carrboro Citizen recently ceased publication, and layoffs have hit newspapers in Durham and Raleigh in recent years. What is the outlook for community newspapers like yours?

A. When I first started at News of Orange back in 2008, the media landscape here was fairly diverse. At school board meetings, there were reporters from the Durham and Raleigh dailies, local radio and TV stations, and even student journalists from The Daily Tar Heel. Now, it’s just me. It’s the same at Hillsborough Town Council meetings. That’s a trend that’s played out in all coverage areas.

I think that’s a strength of community newspapers in general and News of Orange in particular; you can’t find most of what’s in our pages anywhere else. As other newspapers have pulled back, we’ve tried to increase our coverage — though that can be tough to balance with financial considerations; most people don’t seem to understand that the number of pages we get each week is dictated by advertising, not by content.

Even so, we put out our first-ever mass mailing in April, which weighed in at 32 pages (a normal paper for us averages 14 pages); we’ve increased the number of editorially supported special sections on everything from high school sports previews to health and wellness; we took our sports coverage from essentially nothing to having a healthy section every week.

The expanded sports coverage isn’t just the big name sports —football, basketball, wrestling, baseball — but everything. It allows us to get the names and faces of lots of kids in paper each week, and people have really responded to it.

Community newspapers have a place in this changing media landscape; News of Orange certainly does as well. The people who read community papers deserve the same quality product that metro readers get. The editorial department at NOC — such that it is — tries to deliver that every week.

UPDATE: Shortley is now managing editor at another North Carolina newspaper, The Daily Dispatch in Henderson.

Q&A with Elena Rue and Catherine Orr of StoryMineMedia

Elena Rue and Catherine Orr are the founders of StoryMineMedia, a North Carolina company that specializes in documentary storytelling. In 2011, they were among the News21 fellows who produced Coal: A Love Story. In this interview, conducted by email, Rue and Orr talk about their company’s mission, projects and business model.

Q. What is StoryMineMedia, and what do you hope to achieve?

A. StoryMineMedia is a visual storytelling company. We come from a photojournalism background with a focus on documentary-style video stories. We produce independent projects — stories we are passionate about, and are not necessarily getting paid to tell. And through those projects, hope to attract clients who like our style and see the value of using stories to communicate their message.

Q. How do you decide what projects to work on, and how do you go about reporting and editing them?

A. Most of our story ideas come from observing what’s going on around us. What stories aren’t being told, what stories are being told but could use a different perspective? How can we add to the conversation?

We recently released our first independent project, a quirky piece about a middle school student council election. “The Council” follows three eighth-graders as they navigate their way through the challenging landscape of middle school politics. The idea came from the flood of election coverage we’re all experiencing this year.

We wanted to offer a different perspective, and show what it could mean to “govern yourself accordingly.” Needless to say, we could learn a lot from these kids.Once we had the idea, we started contacting schools to learn about their student government systems and gauge interest. We chose a local middle school that was holding its first election in four years.

After meeting with the teachers and administrators, we did a round of pre-interviews with all of the candidates to determine which three we wanted to focus on. We chose Leah, Cara and Ryan because they are great and because they each represented something that added another layer of meaning to the project. (But we don’t want to spoil it, so watch “The Council” to see for yourself).

We filmed in the school and with our three subjects through the two-week campaign period and the election, and then came back for the first council meeting. We edit collaboratively, from identifying which parts of the interview should make the final script, to cutting scenes and choosing music.

In graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, professors and peers were constantly critiquing our work. Carrying that kind of constant back-and-forth into our business pushes us to be more creative and do our best work. Plus, it’s a lot more fun that way.

What we love about this startup is that we get to do any kind of story we want. “The Council” was light and quirky, but the next piece we do may be about astrophysics or race relations in college athletics (really).

Since the stories we’ll cover will differ greatly, so will the reporting and editing process. That too will keep us constantly challenged and hopefully mean that our work only gets better from here.

Q. How do you use social media to research your projects and promote them?

A. Viewing good work and seeing different ways of storytelling is essential to our process. Whether it’s a full-length documentary, photo essay, text piece, graphic or oral history, we are always looking for ways to build on our storytelling skills.

Social media is one of the main ways we are exposed to work on a daily basis. It is how we learn about new projects, share work that we find interesting, and follow other people in the field.

We also apply that same principal to promote our own work. Our hope is that other people who are looking for work might find our multimedia pieces interesting.

As a small startup, we rely heavily on word-of-mouth, bloggers and tweeters to share our work beyond our own personal networks. In addition to our visual work, we use our blog to share our experiences as we try to build our company from scratch. We have learned countless lessons from people who have shared experiences with us, and we would like to do the same for people who are also starting out.

One of the beauties of social media is that everybody (who has an account!) has a voice. We of course learn every day from others in our field, but we also recognize that we operate in a relatively small world of multimedia journalists.

One of our goals is to use social media to hear from others who are not in our field. We used crowdsourcing to find our name, choose our logo and develop a launch strategy for “The Council.” We plan to reach out to people for many of our decisions and ideas as we move forward. We know this will make our projects better, and we hope that it will help others feel invested our work.

Q. There’s lots of talk about small startups like yours as part of the future of journalism. What have you learned from the experience so far, and what advice would you give to people considering similar businesses?

A. The most important piece of advice we have for people starting out is to make time for your own work. Our commitment to producing independent projects was made before StoryMineMedia was born. We believe that good work is the best advertising for our skills and our hope is that people who like our independent work, might ask us to do similar projects for their organizations.

In an ideal world, every client would want us to work creatively and push the boundaries. In reality, most organizations have specific needs that don’t always fit into the most creative package. We respect this, but we also believe that we need to push ourselves creatively to be able to grow and keep ourselves engaged. Our independent work allows us to spend as much time as we need on a project and think outside the box.

Student guest post: How copy editing taught me to be a better writer

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Bailey Holman is a senior from Wilmington, N.C., who is majoring in journalism with a minor in creative writing.

I’m a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill (reporting track), but the truth is, news is not really what I’m into. I’m a creative-writing nerd.

Fiction, memoir, poetry — you name it, I want to read it and write it. I’m hoping to have a career as a novelist, or at least write novels on the side, but because creative writing isn’t a major at North Carolina, I settled into the journalism school. The journalism program is great, but I was frustrated. For four years I carried around the notion that creative writing and newswriting belong to two different worlds, and I was unable to shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time. It took an advanced copy-editing class to smack some sense into me.

Let me backtrack a little. I’ve loved every creative writing course that I’ve taken at this school, but I was struggling with one aspect of my writing: I was being too wordy.

Some writers sneer at the sentiment that wordiness is sin; of course we’re going to be wordy — words are our job. But some words, some sentences, are better left out. One of my creative writing professors, novelist Marianne Gingher, kept urging me to strike words and phrases from my stories that weren’t necessary, that didn’t add anything. It’s stronger without, she said.

I tried, but I couldn’t grasp it. My natural inclination was to explain everything in excruciating detail. Enter JOMC457 (Advanced Editing) and Rene J. Cappon.

In Andy Bechtel’s editing class, we are editing articles for wordiness and repetition almost daily, and outside of class, we’re reading Rene Cappon’s “The Word: An Associated Press Guide to Good News Writing.” Cappon says that bloated language is all around us; too many writers succumb to the “fatal lure of wordiness” and repetition – “the grossest form of wordiness.” His thought is that the skill of writing lies not in the initial gush of words, but in the sifting of them.

Cappon also implores that writers and editors show instead of tell. Why tell your reader outright that something is dramatic? Just give them the particulars and they’ll supply their own adjectives, he says.

With the words of Gingher ringing in my head – Don’t Spoonfeed Us! – I had my eureka moment. Or, more accurately, my eureka semester. I finally got it: concise is powerful. Cutting adjectives does not always mean a sacrifice of information or imagery.

While it’s true that copy editors often make deletions for reasons of space or to ensure that the average reader will understand, sometimes it is simply because wordiness and repetition can bog the reader down and cloud meaning. In this editing class, I’m becoming less reluctant to yield my proverbial red pen, slashing what’s not needed, and in my creative writing endeavors, I’m finding it easier to be concise. Alas, I’ve found the antacid to my writer’s bloating!

Now, I’m not saying that descriptive, poetic language doesn’t have its place in creative writing. It does. What I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be used all the time. A writer must find a balance. As the saying goes, less is sometimes more. Mark Twain put  it well: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean that utterly, but kill the most of them — then the rest will be valuable.”

Even as a self-professed language nerd, I sometimes find myself reading an author, and all I can think is: What are you trying to say? I want to go back and read over a sentence because I love it, not because I have to wade back through its excesses trying to find its meaning.

When Jim Roberts from The New York Times came to speak to our class earlier in the semester, he told us that it’s not only our writing that can be strengthened by an understanding of editing, but our speech as well. He’s noticed that a background in editing makes individuals more verbally concise and clear, a benefit he says is sometimes underappreciated.

So, out of fear of repeating myself, I’ll stop here, ending with an expression of gratitude for the field of copy editing, which helped me to see that I was being a moron. I haven’t been wasting my time. Writing and editing the news does not float in a realm separate from creative writing.

Instead, they can bleed together to strengthen my grasp of language. And teach me not to write sentences like: They mingle and overlap, blurring and bleeding together, swirling like dyes in an aqueous solution, until I’ve reached a higher level of consciousness and fully realized for the first time that one can really, truly help the other and vice versa. Did you get all that?

To hear the thoughts of a few other writers and copy editors on the necessity of concise writing and editing, check out:

Q&A with R.L. Bynum, editor and proofreader at AICPA

R.L. Bynum is a former newspaper editor who now works at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Durham, N.C. Before joining AICPA in 2010, Bynum was a copy editor and page designer at the Daily Press newspaper in Virginia, and he also worked in sports departments at several newspapers in North Carolina, including the Herald-Sun in Durham. In this interview, conducted by email, Bynum discusses his job, the transition from newspapers and his use of social media.

Q. Describe your job with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. What do you do on a typical day?

A. I proofread all material produced by the Graphic Design team at the AICPA. That includes all sorts of publications such as annual reports, white papers, brochures, conference programs, conference signs and application kits. Some of these can be as small as 2 or 3 pages and others can be 30 or 40 pages.

I copy edit all manuscripts before they go to the designer, proof the PDFs before they go to the clients and review any client changes before they go to the designer. I also proof/copy edit dues letters and various other sorts of small jobs.

I’m the only proofreader on a team that includes a copy writer and five designers. There is a freelance proofreader who helps with certain jobs and when the work load is excessive.

It can get fairly busy, but there is nothing approaching the deadline pressure that was routine during my years in newspapers. At a newspaper, a rush could mean turning around a breaking story in minutes. On my team, a rush job may mean that it needs to be done in two days.

Q. Before this job, you worked in newspapers for more than 20 years. What has that transition been like?

A. While there usually are more hours to my workweek (most weeks at least 45), the distribution of those hours is a pleasant change. I definitely don’t miss working nights, weekends (although I do occasionally have work to do on a weekend) and holidays.

Working 8 a.m. to around 5:30 p.m. gives me a lot more time with my family as well. I had the entire week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day for the first time in 29 years. The pace of work is quite different, but it was an easy adjustment.

There’s no doubt that I miss many aspects of working at a newspaper and the rush of working the desk when news is breaking. I miss being a journalist. The job security certainly makes up for that, and it’s nice not bracing for the next round of layoffs. There were six in five years that I survived before finally being laid off by the Tribune newspaper in Newport News, Va., along with nearly all desk people.

When I accepted the job at the AICPA, I canceled an interview with a Mid-Atlantic Gannett newspaper for a copy editing job that would have paid better. I had just been laid off and was very paranoid about joining another chain, particularly that one. A few months later, I found out that the person who would have interviewed me had been laid off.

Q. You are critic of sports media, including the News & Observer’s sports section and ESPN. What do you see as their shortcomings and areas for improvement?

A. On the surface, it probably appears that my criticism of the N&O and other newspapers is directed at the copy editors and designers. But I’m really more upset with the newspaper executives who seem to think that that fewer, younger desk people with double the workload can produce quality newspapers. It obviously can only cause problems, and we’re seeing that many days in the pages of the N&O, particularly in sports.

Combining two bad ideas — universal desks and regional desks — produces bad results. Certainly the copy editors and designers could produce cleaner sections, but mistakes are bound to happen when you’re putting out multiple newspapers every night.

The content, for the most part, is good. It’s just the packaging that often is irritating. The way to fix it is to have more copy editors and a more experienced desk, but we know that McClatchy isn’t going to do that. Even if it did that, it wouldn’t reclaim all of the institutional knowledge that was let go.

A lot of little mistakes frequently happen that shouldn’t. Stories routinely are jumped in the middle of a word (which is very irritating for readers). I’ve seen scoreboard pages in which the sport header is at the BOTTOM of one column, which obviously is a brutal break.

The N&O is far from the only media outlet that makes silly mistakes. I tweet examples from NBC News and ESPN on a fairly regular basis.

Mistakes happen, and I certainly made my share over the years working at newspapers. But there definitely seem to be many more in the N&O since it lost the Raleigh copy desk.

Q. You describe yourself as a “reformed newspaper man.” Any advice for those going through a similar change?

A. Experienced newspaper people, particularly those with a mixture of reporting and desk experience, have skills that are marketable outside of newspapers. It’s not easy to find those jobs, but they are out there.

Networking really is more productive in that pursuit than checking job listings. My advice is to work your professional network as much as possible as you try to find the opening that helps you escape from insanity that the newspaper business has become.

Follow R.L. Bynum on Twitter and check out his blog.