Student guest post: Lessons from both sides of the editor’s desk

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 13th (and last) of those posts. Mimi Tomei is a sophomore majoring in journalism with a concentration  in reporting. She is a contributor for CollegeTown and works with the Yackety Yack, the UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook, as 2018 assistant photography editor and 2019 co-associate editor-in-chief.

This semester, I’ve had the unusual but rewarding privilege of simultaneously occupying both sides of the editor-writer relationship in my work in both John Robinson’s feature writing class and Andy Bechtel’s Advanced Editing course. In Advanced Editing, we edit some of the stories feature writing creates as classwork.

When I was finalizing my schedule at the beginning of the semester, I sent an email to both Professor Robinson and Professor Bechtel explaining that I had enrolled in both their courses explaining my situation. I thought it would be weird editing the work of my classmates.

But as the semester draws to a close, I’ve come to realize that my knowledge of the process of reporting and writing a feature helps me in my editing process immensely. It has its logistical advantages, because I have the opportunity to communicate with the writers I edit in person twice a week in class. In Professor Robinson’s course, I learn what makes a good feature story, which helps me look for these elements in the pieces I edit.

On the flip side, learning to edit has made me a better writer, too. Before I submit my feature stories to Professor Robinson, I devote time to running through my stories, checking AP style and catching as many small errors as I can. I want to let my editor focus on bigger picture things. Roy Peter Clark’s “55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” formed part of our lectures in feature writing. Tools like #37, “In short works, don’t waste a syllable,” can be just as applicable to editing as they are to writing.

Sometimes our roles as editors and writers aren’t as clear-cut as in these two courses. When we as editors curate content on a Wakelet page, create a photo slideshow or even produce layouts for the Durham VOICE, we consider things like story structure and paragraph and sentence length that are crucial to putting together an effective feature.

And the value of this experience isn’t just limited to news professionals. As part of our midterm in Advanced Editing, we read Carol Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.” On her website, the first line of her biography is “As both a creative writer and long-time editor on the staff of The Chicago Manual of Style, I’ve seen it all from both sides of the publishing desk” – note the italics this Chicago style aficionado uses. Saller is an editor for the Chicago Manual of Style, a style more familiar to book authors than news writers.

Of course, there are things as editors that we won’t ever be able to learn from writers. The writers who create the Durham VOICE have a deeper understanding of the community they cover, Northeast Central Durham, than I’ll ever have sitting in a classroom in Chapel Hill. And with features, as with pretty much anything else I or my classmates will edit, we won’t have been there for interviews. This means we don’t have the memory of the interview to help guide us as we help punctuate quotes, for example.

Learning to understand what the other cogs in the metaphorical wheel of news media do is especially important as the media industry continues to require us journalists to have increasingly multifaceted skill sets. Perhaps as we do this, we can learn to harness this expectation and allow these skills to complement, not confront, each other.

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