Student guest post: Editing narrative journalism (an essay in question form)

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Jordan Wilkie is a first-year master’s student on the reporting track at UNC-Chapel Hill. He focuses on the criminal justice system, with an expertise in juvenile and LGBTQ incarceration.

New Journalism is defined by Robert S. Boynton, the author of “New New Journalism,” as “reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction.” In other words, journalists tell long stories that are true (we’ll get back to that last word in a minute).

In the obligatory name-drop paragraphs, I’ll mention that the most famous contemporary, i.e. “new new journalists,” include Adrian LeBlanc, John Krakauer and Ted Conover. They inherit their craft from off-beat journalists of the 1960s and 1970s looking to make journalism tell stories rather than just inform. They experimented with language and style, incorporating literary techniques long relegated to fiction. These rebels, who certainly had their detractors, were such giants as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese and, the man credited with codifying the genre as “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe.

“New” journalism is, of course, a misnomer. Nothing is new under the sun, and the tradition of narrative reporting harkens back through Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell to a handful of 19th century writers (really, read the summary, it’s helpful).

Now that you’ve reserved 10 more books on your public library’s website, let’s get to the heart of the matter: How do we, as editors, manage creative writing in journalism? How do we negotiate truth — facts, observed reality — and Truth, the honesty and faithful-to-experience essence of a story?

[Spoiler: I don’t know the answer. Ask The New Yorker.]

Let’s look at an article by an up-and-coming journalist, a soon-to-graduate senior, who published an excellent article on Media Hub, a project of the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Tess Allen’s piece on the abuse of women in French refugee camps opens with a narrative scene: A woman goes to the restroom in the middle of the night; she is raped.

Allen is not present to see the unnamed woman wake, to see her tip-toe around others sleeping on the ground, to listen outside the bathroom stall with the broken latch, yet Allen writes with near omnipotence.

She steps out onto the uneven, jagged gravel and the night air hits her cheeks. She shuffles between graffiti-laden shelters and down the dirt road, about 50 yards to the nearest bathroom.

The smell of feces and urine hits her nostrils before she even steps through the raised doorway. She shuffles blindly forward on the floor that’s wet with stale water, feeling for a stall door. Her hand catches the edge of the door, and she goes inside.

The writing is based off good journalism, off interviews and being on-scene. Even if Allen’s subject did not describe the earth under her feet when she stepped outside, Allen would have been able to see this detail for herself when she visited the shelter and later add it to the story. Allen measured, or at least eyeballed, the distance to the nearest bathroom.

But how did Allen know her subject shuffled to the bathroom? Does she always shuffle?
And how did Allen know her subject smelled feces and urine even before she entered the bathroom? Was that described in the interview? Or did Allen go there herself and think, “How could you not smell this s**t a block away?

[Disclaimer: I have never met Tess Allen and know nothing about the editorial process for publication on Media Hub. I chose her work to rep UNC and because it is a solid piece of journalism – for anyone, not just for a student.]

Journalism is the reporting of facts, which makes new journalism — such as narrative journalism and creative non-fiction — especially hard to write. Where does a publication draw the line around reality, and how does an editor enforce it?

If I were editing Allen’s work, I’d be a hard-liner. Show me your notes, show me the interview. Where did she tell you about the smell? Tell you about the water? For a new reporter, I’d say no inventiveness, no assumptions, get it on tape, from multiple sources, or no dice.

The logic is to teach the young reporter to ask extremely detailed questions, to elicit sensory descriptions. It is also to protect the reporter from accusations of falsification.

The secondary role of an editor would be to improve the writing, to improve the flow, to edit for the creative presentation of the facts. In that role, I have nothing to offer Allen’s superb writing.

When you make it big, the rules can be bent. Take Gay Talese, famous for his in-depth reporting, which he often takes years to develop. His method is old school. He packs boxes with manila folders stuffed with clippings and notes, then covers them in collage relating to his stories. Talese earned his stripes decades ago – his career took off in 1965 with his story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which he researched in the lightning’s flash of 31 days. Right at the beginning, Talese does the impossible:

The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Talese gets into their heads!

He didn’t interview the women, does not know their names, nothing. The line was an educated projection, a third-party judgment from afar, just shy pure fancy.

But I’ll be dammed if it didn’t sound good.

Student guest post: Should Facebook Live be deleted?

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Avery Williams is a junior studying editing and graphic design at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the campus editor at The Tab – UNC, an online newspaper.

Facebook Live was launched in April 2016 as a reaction to consumers of media becoming media producers themselves. More than ever, major news events are filmed by civilians on their smartphones and shared with their friends and followers. News outlets have picked up on this trend and now use Facebook Live for many of their own events or coverage, including using Facebook Live footage from their viewers for their own news coverage.

Using Facebook Live rather than posted a video shortly after recording it has some benefits. This function allows the user to see how many people are currently watching them as well as any likes or comments along the way. If a comment brings up a certain question, the person(s) in the Facebook Live video has the ability to respond in real time. It has become a popular tool to many since its launch, especially to those with a large following.

What started out as a way to better interaction and interconnectedness has now shown some of its negative side effects. On Easter Sunday 2017, Steven Stephens killed an elderly man and recorded the entire ordeal and posted it to Facebook. He later allegedly posted several videos bragging about killing more random civilians throughout the day.

Close friends of Stephens say they have no idea what the motivation could have been and have never noticed violent tendencies or clues toward this behavior.

Facebook has come out saying the video of the homicide was not live, but other videos throughout the day were. Even if this particular event was not done through Facebook Live, this opens the question of what would happen if it actually were.

Social media sites have a certain responsibility to censor posts to their viewers without too much restriction, but Facebook Live has always been in the moment with no previous review, censorship or filtration.

Even if this homicide was not committed on Facebook Live, it has proven that this could very possibly occur on the social media site.

Should users have this much power? Is no censorship and the ability to go live socially responsible for everyone, or should only trusted sources and media organizations have this power?

Many may argue that Facebook Live does more harm than good, allowing entertainers and public figures alike a chance to speak to their audience directly in real time. The issues that have now arisen deal with what happens when this power gets into the wrong hands. This is certainly not the first time illegal activity was filmed on Facebook Live, and it will not be the last.

Steven Stephens was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot on April 18, two days after the homicide.

Riding Cuba’s new wave

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Journalism student Veasey Conway lines up a shot in Havana, Cuba. He and other students spent spring break in the country. (Photo by Peyton Chance)

This semester, students in a multimedia course at UNC-Chapel Hill traveled to Cuba. Their mission was to document changes there, with a focus on the country’s young people.

Back in Chapel Hill, students in Advanced Editing pitched in by working with the writers of five feature stories and suggesting headlines and subheads. It was a fun and fruitful collaboration between classes.

The result is Cuba’s New Wave, a multimedia website developed from scratch. It examines the country’s post-Castro evolution. The students do that in words, video, still images and interactive graphics.

I encourage you to take some time to explore the site and to follow Cuba’s New Wave on Instagram and Twitter. You will be impressed by where this wave takes you.

Student guest post: Rethinking editing — my journey from editing news to reading books

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Molly Weybright is a junior studying journalism and creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill. This summer, she will be an editorial intern at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As a college student, figuring out what you love is one challenge, and synthesizing what to do with it is another.

I always knew that I loved books, reading and writing, but it wasn’t until I was a junior in college studying journalism that I discovered my knack and love for editing.

I love reading and editing — now what? As I tried to figure that out, I started to learn about the field of book editing.

Lindsey Alexander, the editorial director of The Reading List, told me that to be a book editor, I had to love books and reading, have a good sense of trends in the market and be able to give constructive feedback to authors and agents.

To me, it sounded perfect.

So there I was finally feeling like I was discovering what I was meant to be doing. Books and editing, what could be better?

But as with any career path, I quickly discovered some misconceptions and challenges I would have to overcome in order to succeed as a book editor.

Different Types of Book Editing

In the process of researching book editing, I learned that there are four different types of book editors who are involved in different aspects of the book publishing process. There are project editors, developmental editors, copy editors and acquisitions editors.

Project editors and developmental editors work with authors during the writing and production of their books. Copy editors edit manuscripts line by line to correct grammatical errors and inconsistencies. Acquisitions editors read through book proposals and manuscripts to determine whether the publishing house should acquire the books.

While project and developmental editing sounded interesting, I was more interested in working with the physical books than I was in working with authors. So, I thought, copy editor or acquisitions editor?

Both positions are so distinctly different, but to me, the idea of reading books for their content and quality rather than looking for every error was appealing. Also, most publishing companies offer internships as editorial assistants to acquisitions editors.

Acquisitions editor it was.

Thinking Differently

Naively, I thought that once I decided what form of book editing I was interested in, it would be smooth sailing from that point on. Not only did I have a background in editing, but I also study creative writing, so I figured it would be an easy learning process.

I was wrong.

After interviewing with the local publishing company for an editorial intern position, they gave me a test. In less than a week I was to read an unedited first draft of a 400-page manuscript and decide whether the company should take the book to publishing.

I could not have foreseen the difficulty I had with reading that unedited manuscript. It was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve done since being in college.

Earlier in the year, I read “The Subversive Copy Editor,” from which I learned that authors operate on a different plane than editors. In other words, as authors write, they don’t always pay close attention to grammar, punctuation and spelling. In order to get their thoughts on the page and write their story, those editorial aspects are often pushed aside.

I discovered the truth of that while I was reading the manuscript. Every misspelled word, every grammatical error, every incorrect sentence structure jolted me out of the story that I was trying to analyze.

Throughout the process I developed tactics to help me read the manuscript without getting too distracted by my learned newsroom copy editing techniques, but it wasn’t easy.

Book Editing Strategies (That Helped Me)

I had to get out of the mindset of a newsroom copy editor. So what did I do?

There were four main things that helped me refocus my frame of thought:

  • Jot down edits onto the manuscript as needed. The manuscript is there to make notes on so I found that making some copy editing marks helped to ease my mind.
  • Make note of the common errors on a separate sheet of paper so that I knew I had already accounted for them.
  • Remind myself of what my job was: to decide if the story needs to be told. If a book is brought to print, it will get copy edited by someone; it will not be published with the errors.
  • Think about the first draft of any paper or story ever written and remember that it’s never perfect. Also, I tried to remember that what I was reading was someone’s hard work and a huge accomplishment.

This was a learning experience for me, and I got the job. This summer as an editorial intern I know I will encounter more challenges, but my experience as a news copy editor will help me overcome them.

One-and-done digital news

This week, I visited the website of the Louisville Courier-Journal for the first time. I did so via links on Twitter to a couple of its stories about a passenger being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

The newspaper covered the story extensively because the flight was bound for Louisville and the roughed-up passenger lives in that area of Kentucky. A follow-up article that looked into the criminal past of that person drew heavy criticism: What did drug-related offenses from 13 years ago have to do with the incident on the plane? Here’s how the newspaper tweeted about that story:

united

The Courier-Journal’s executive editor defended the story as newsworthy to a local readership and as a part of the newspaper’s overall coverage of the airplane incident. He also said this:

We didn’t account for the fact that some people might just hit on that piece, and we didn’t put the necessary context for a national or international audience to understand. We’ve since done that.

Editors need to understand how readers get to news on their sites. Readers do that largely through social media and search engines. Those paths lead directly to individual articles, not home pages.

People like me are clicking on a link, reading the one story it leads to and moving on. It’s a different experience from picking up a print publication and seeing a set of related stories. If newspapers are to survive in the digital era, journalists must recognize that reality and edit accordingly.

Student guest post: A first-hand look at a championship win in a student newsroom

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Staff members of The Daily Tar Heel hand out copies of the newspaper the day after UNC won the national championship in men’s basketball.

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Hannah Smoot is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She spends most of her waking hours working at The Daily Tar Heel.

On April 3, UNC won the NCAA national championship in men’s basketball. As a senior at UNC, this was a dream come true. As managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s independent, student-run newspaper, my feelings were a little more complicated.

More than anything, I was excited — this year, The Daily Tar Heel stopped producing a print newspaper on Tuesdays, but we had a special edition championship edition in the works.

Part of me was apprehensive at the same time. While we’re used to putting together a print paper every day, this would be an especially taxing night.

In preparation, we moved our print deadline to 2:30 a.m. — and missed it by about an hour. We were stuck waiting on writers in Phoenix (the site of the Final Four) to find Wi-Fi and send in their stories. In this situation, we had to figure out how editors can effectively communicate with writers and hold writers to a deadline.

Before we sent writers to Phoenix, we sat down and asked them what a reasonable deadline would be. We talked about how long it would take them to check stats, interview players and finish writing, and then brought that deadline to our printers and worked out a deadline.

Of course, the night of the game, this deadline was much harder to hold our writers to. Holding writers to a deadline can be difficult enough when they’re in the same room as you — but we realized just how hard it could be when they’re not even in the same state.

While we missed our deadline, we were able to get the pages to the printer in time to start handing out papers at 7 a.m. This was in part because we were firm with the writers — and made sure they knew why the deadline needed to be followed as closely as possible. Communication is always important, but in this case, over-communicating our needs with the writers was critical to printing a paper at all.

When we finally got the stories, we sped-read the stories, checking for accuracy in record speed. We went to bed, woke up at 7 a.m. and started handing out papers.

In all, I got about one hour of sleep and worked over 30 hours almost nonstop in two days. While it was one of the most exhausting days I’ve had at the DTH, working for a student newspaper during the NCAA championship was an incredible experience unlike any other Franklin Street rush.

Q&A with Kathleen A. Flynn, author of ‘The Jane Austen Project’

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Kathleen A. Flynn is a copy editor at The New York Times. Her debut novel, “The Jane Austen Project,” will be released May 2. In this interview, conducted by email, Flynn discusses how she researched and wrote the book, and how it was edited. (Photo by Bryan Thomas, 2016)

Q. How did you get the idea for “The Jane Austen Project”?

A. It came to me in a flash, not everything, but the main idea: a time-traveling physician sent on a mission to Jane Austen, a terrible price for achieving an amazing thing. I felt chills go down my spine. I thought, I can totally do this! For some reason I never stopped believing that.

But no idea comes from nowhere. It had to do with what I was reading at the time: the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander,” etc.) about a British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars and his friend, a doctor. These are like Jane Austen novels, except with sea battles – in their wit and subtlety, their depiction of human nature – and of course they take place in her time. Two of Austen’s brothers were captains in the British Navy and could have met Jack Aubrey, had he been real.

These books make the past come alive in a way that is very unusual and hard to do, and they made me start thinking about Jane Austen as I never had before: as a person, not just an author, and wondering what she was like. Because she wasn’t famous in her lifetime, there is a lot we don’t know about her. I found myself wishing there was a way to go back in time and get some answers. It made me sad we couldn’t. Then it struck me that I could — in a story.

Q. How did you go about researching, writing and pitching the book?

I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels; other novels by writers of her time that she would have read; biographies and discussions of her work. I also read to try to get a sense of what life was like then: books about household management and 19th-century cooking, biographies of some other important people of the time.

Eventually I traveled to England, to see the neighborhood where Jane Austen would have stayed in London (unfortunately her brother Henry’s house has been replaced by something larger and Victorian), and some other notable things, like a house museum and this weird museum about the history of medicine. I went to Chawton, where the Jane Austen Museum is in her last house, and to Winchester, where she died.

Although I had read many novels and even attempted to write one earlier, there was a lot to learn: about the architecture of a novel, about how to convey information gracefully, about sentence structure. How to keep going, how to make it all cohere. What to show, what to summarize.

When I finally had a draft that I didn’t completely hate, I did a manuscript workshop. There were five of us, and we all, plus the instructor, read and commented on each other’s novels. This was a big step because I finally had to show it to someone. It was also helpful reading other people’s work, thinking about what worked and didn’t.

I revised it for another year or so after that, and then I started trying to identify agents who might be a good fit and sending them queries. And mostly heard no or nothing.

It’s hard to think about how to describe your own work, how to interest an agent who’s never heard of you and has an inbox full of queries. I was not connected to the literary world at all. How I found my agent was this: I read a recently published novel that I liked very much and learned (by reading the acknowledgements) who the author’s agent was. I emailed him and said: I really loved X, I’ve written this book that is not like X exactly but has these certain similarities, would you consider taking a look?

It’s important to emphasize that all these things were true — I don’t think this approach would work if they weren’t. And that’s no guarantee it would have worked in any case, although it did in mine. Eventually.

Q. You’re a copy editor. What was it like to be edited?

A. It was fascinating and humbling. Naturally, I am a fan of copy editors and believe in the importance of editing.

I imagined I had done a pretty good job with at least that part of it, but the copy editor found several mortifying things I’d missed, including typos, a wrong birth date for a character and a number of dangling modifiers. And HarperCollins has its own house style rules on things like hyphenation, numbers, and the serial comma, which I had repeatedly violated. Everyone needs an editor!

Another cool thing was the “style sheet” they sent to me along with the page proofs. Part of it was a list of words from the book that needed style attention or a ruling of some kind, like capitalization or hyphenation, for consistency.

Reading this list was a strange experience, because the words seemed so odd out of context: banditti (pl), beetroot, bell cord, belowstairs, brickworks, coal smoke, country-gentry (adj), curlpapers, dairymaid. … Another part was a list of the names of all the characters in the book, the page where they first show up, and age and eye color, if mentioned.

This seemed quite obsessive! But also important for consistency. How to remember otherwise, a hundred pages on, if someone had green eyes and now they have blue? It made me realize how copy editing a book must be more challenging than editing even the longest piece of journalism.

Q. What advice do you have for other journalists who want to write fiction?

A. Journalists have some advantages: They are used to working with words, they are sensitive to the power of story, they are used to being edited and being rejected. But most of us tend to think in the short term; it is a big mental adjustment to the long time horizon required to write a novel.

I think writing journalistically is also something we need to overcome. Newspaper prose is functional: Its main aim is clarity and directness, but it can also be clunky. Ideally fiction should be a pleasure to read, with a kind of subtle music created through word choice, variations in sentence length, rhythm. So there are some habits to break, and new ones to get into.

I would advise reading lots of fiction – all kinds, but especially the kind you want to write. Read analytically, thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Get in the habit of writing regularly, and try to find a community of people who are also interested in writing.

One useful piece of advice I came across is that there are two basic ways to keep writing despite discouragement and setbacks: developing a work ethic that keeps you going even though the world does not care or notice, or having an idea that you are so on fire with that you can’t help working on it, because you’d rather do that than anything else. Ideally you’d have both, but sometimes having one is enough for a while, and then you can see your way to the other.

Follow Kathleen A. Flynn on Twitter and Facebook, and order a copy of “The Jane Austen Project.”