Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: A Word About Process

There’s nothing revolutionary about saying, as I did in the previous post, that writing is a process. Many high school and college students can recite the old four-part, writing process box step they were taught: Prewrite (brainstorm, research, outline, figure out what you want to say); draft (get it down on the page, say it); revise (organize, clarify, polish); edit (proofread, correct, clean it up). Relatively simple and straightforward.

The hard part starts when you try to figure out how to perform each of these steps, and what to do when what you’re trying to do isn’t working, particularly when you aren’t quite sure what ‘”working” means. But you have a nagging feeling that what you’ve written doesn’t sound the way it’s supposed to, mainly because it doesn’t sound like anything is supposed to. But you’re doing the steps. At least you think you are.

Fortunately for me, rather than writing more of the English lit papers I produced in high school, in college I wrote news stories. And although the structure of a standard newspaper story can be quite formulaic, the process for writing that story both was and was not standard. Here let me pause to explain how I experienced the process in some detail, because this has informed everything related to my views about writing.

It begins when an editor assigns a story, tells you how long it should run, and gives you a deadline. Until that deadline arrives, or unless you run into a problem, you determine your own process for reporting and writing; and I have those seen those processes vary widely from writer to writer. That’s the non-standard part.

The standard part starts when you complete your story and turn it in. At that point, you enter into a dance with those who review your work. A desk editor reads it. She likes it, or doesn’t, or more often likes some aspects but not others. She tells you which parts generate which feelings in her. She peppers you with questions about why you made the reporting, word, organization, structural, and content choices you did. She may suggest different choices and return the story to you to ponder them; she may insist on different choices and return the story to you to incorporate them; or she may, if she is of a mind to and her deadline approaches, simply erase parts of what you wrote and type the different choices into your story. You may, of course, argue for your choices. You may win some or all of these arguments; you may lose some or all of them. If you want to work long as a journalist, you will thereafter know you must be prepared to at least explain your choices.

In any event, you arrive at some accommodation satisfactory to her (and, hopefully, you), and the story moves on. Depending on the importance of the story, another editor or editors higher on the food chain also may review it, generating new questions, new defenses, new alternatives, new accommodations. Or their dissatisfaction may reach such a level that they decide not to run the story at all.

But assuming they approve, your story then travels to the copy desk. Here, in addition to the kind of scrutiny previously applied, your story undergoes a line-by-line, word-by-word, punctuation-mark-by-punctuation-mark reexamination. Copy editors are the kind of people who argue over using the second serial comma before a conjunction (in the way baseball fans get into disputes about the designated hitter rule or jazz aficionados debate whether fusion was ever “really” jazz); they know which city names can appear in a story without the state or country name added (New York and Paris) and which cannot (Salinas, CA and Bhopal, India); they can recite the names of the current American president’s cabinet members and various heads of state around the world; and they read The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual to pass the time. These are the people who now have your work in their hands, and if you are smart, you learn to be grateful for that fact.

But copy editors also look for flaws—“holes”—that previous editors may have missed. If they discover significant holes, you will be called upon to fill them. If you can’t, the powers that be may yet decide not to run the story.

At this point a story undergoes the more mechanical processes of turning it into print (or these days, text for the screen). It’s formatted or coded, arranged on the page (screen), and proofed or previewed. Again, copy editors conduct this proofing, looking at the product as the reader will see it. They may catch additional errors of varying levels of severity, fixable or not. Even at this late date, because of holes or new information (or jitters on the part of the editors) a story can be pulled.

Accommodating your editors might mean something as simple as changing a few words, moving a paragraph to a slightly different spot, or adding a clarifying sentence. It might mean something as complex as returning to sources you’ve already consulted, re-interviewing people you’ve already spoken to, deleting entire sections, completely shifting the direction of the story, or scrapping virtually everything and starting over. Reworking the story can take a few seconds, or a few days, or longer. Or all of your work on a story can disappear down a rabbit hole from which it never returns.

In short, at any given moment in the process, anything and everything can be up from grabs.

Only years later did I realize that the demands of this writing situation changed me after a half dozen years. And perhaps it’s only now that I understand how much it matured my writing practice.

 

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