Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the sixth of those posts.
Madeleine Fraley is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in reporting and psychology. She has previously written for The Daily Tar Heel, and currently writes preventative health articles for the UNC School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine. Following graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in mental health work or health communications.
Sunday night at the Grammys, Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) won the award for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for his summer hit, “This is America.” While Gambino co-wrote the song, performed the song and was the face of the song, he was a no-show to the night. When they called his name a second time for the song’s second award (after an awkward first non-appearance), his co-producer, Ludwig Göransson, accepted the award on Gambino’s behalf.
But even if Gambino had been there to accept his Grammy, his producer would still have been there by his side. Gambino wrote the song and it was his voice, but his producer ultimately helped to make the song what it was — adding needed sound, mixing the vocals and fixing what needed to be fixed.
In a night where producers of songs are given the most visibility to the general public who listen and stream their work, I began to think about how this relationship is similar to the writer-editor relationship in journalism.
Producers and editors very rarely get the byline. Some producers make their contribution clear — producer Benny Blanco did this recently on his hit “Eastside.” Halsey and Khalid perform the song, but Blanco’s name appears as the lead artist.
Most of the time though, we see “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande, while the producers — in this case, Tommy Brown, Michael Foster, and Charles Anderson — are in the fine print of the liner notes (if anyone my age or younger knows what liner notes are). And very, very rarely, when you read a column in The New York Times or a sports story in The News & Observer, do you see the editor’s name next to the writer’s.
While the song or the story is often the vision of the artist, writer or performer, the producer and the editor help that vision come to fruition — clearly, concisely and correctly. The artist, writer and reporter have the voice — whether singing or inscribing — but the producer and editor have a crucial role when it comes to that voice. Their job is to smooth over that voice, weave the words together, mix the sounds, secure the flow of the piece, and do so without taking away from the artist’s voice or message itself.
In “The Subversive Copy Editor,” author and editor Carol Fisher Saller advises other editors that when editing an author’s work, one needs to be clear, flexible and transparent, as well as generous — “keeping in mind that this writer may have a take on his readers that you don’t necessarily understand,” she writes.
Hollywood and the music industry are constantly churning out tales of producers and record labels that have tried to change artists — their message, their look, their voice itself. In the recent blockbuster, “A Star is Born,” one of the themes of the film is how once Ally became a star, the producers and record labels tried to change her voice and change what she had to say.
As editors in journalism, we mostly check for the basics: facts, style and grammar. But we are also sometimes faced with having to cut pieces of stories, make wordy sentences more concise and decide whether something is a poetic choice of syntax or just plain wrong. It can be tempting to over-edit in these situations, to write it how you would have written it. We especially see this when it comes to opinion pieces and editorials, where a writer’s voice is most prominent.
So in making sure writing is correct and clear, we can’t let the writer’s voice fade. Like a producer shouldn’t bury a vocalist’s natural talent underneath too many instruments or synthesizers, an editor should not take a writer’s piece and edit it to the point that it loses the unique way they are conveying a message.