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Good Writing For Good Causes

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Editor & Publisher
August 31, 1996

By David Thomasson

A Plea for Collaboration

Editors, those who edit copy, come in two species: collaborators and loners.

A collaborator edits, whenever possible, with the writer at his side. The two carry on a dialogue about what the writer has created, and through that dialogue produce a finished piece that is typically stronger and clearer than they could have produced separately.

Loners edit alone. They occasionally bounce a question back to the writer, but they typically edit without the writerís direct participation.

I want to make two claims: 1) The great majority of newspaper editors are loners. 2) This represents a default, a missed opportunity to improve the quality of the stories we print and the skills of the writers and editors who produce them.

I base the first claim on the assumption that the half dozen newspapers Iíve worked for over the years are roughly representative. The other day I sat down and, paper by paper, listed the line editors Iíve worked with. Out of the 22 listed, only four were collaborators.

For the plausibility of the second claim, consult your own experience. How many times, and in how many ways, have your stories been made worse by an editor working alone? More to the point, how many of those manglings could have been avoided if only the editor had consulted you while editing?

Iíve had more bad experiences than I can recall. They range from such relatively minor errors as Ann Margretís named being rendered ďAnn MargaretĒ in print, to deletions that gutted the central elements from stories about pending legislation. These were invariably done by editors working on the lonerís assumption that collaborating with writers is merely an option, not a requirement for producing quality stories.

The paradigm of the collaborative editor in my experience was Roy Fisher. I first encountered him when he was dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. I was fortunate enough to work as his teaching assistant for nearly two years while I was a graduate student.

Fisher had done it all. He began as a night-side city reporter at the Chicago Daily News and became a prize-winning investigative reporter. He worked his way through every desk in the newsroom and, after that, the editorial department, finally emerging as editor in chief. As dean at Missouri, he was ex officio editor of the Columbia Missourian and taught the course in editorial writing.

As Fisherís assistant, I trooped to his office several times a week, copy in hand, and submitted to a merciless ordeal that I now recognize as good collaborative editing. We still typed editorials on paper in those days, and I would sit with him at a little table while he put the pencil to my copy.

Sometimes he edited with a broadax, hacking chucks out of my precious editorial as if it were a rotten log (and, in a sense, it often was). Then he would plunk his heels on the table and grill me. What, exactly, was I aiming to accomplish with this editorial? To whom was I speaking? What did I want them to think? By what arguments and rhetorical devices did I expect to persuade them? Why this device rather than that?

Though I was often rubbed raw by these inquisitions, Fisher wasnít abusing me. He was teaching me. He expected me to think and answer his questions. And if I stood an answer on spindly legs, he would knock it down and challenge me to build a sturdier one. Other times he edited with a scalpel and microscope. He would tap his pencil on a word, circle it. Precisely what does this word mean? Name some synonyms. By what nuances do they differ from one another? Which of them best serves your purpose here? Fisher put me through this hundreds of times.

Iíve worked with one or two good collaborators since then, but I dwell on Fisher to illustrate a point: Collaborative editing is the best and most natural way to teach writing. When Fisher moved from newspapers to academia, he didnít have to find a technique to teach writing. He had already developed a superb teaching method by being a collaborative copy editor.

We in the newspaper business — line editors in particular — constantly complain about the poor writing skills of students coming out of j-schools. Yet the overwhelming majority of line editors are loners and thus miss innumerable opportunities to cultivate better writers.

Look at this opportunity from the writerís vantage point. If a writer spent just 30 minutes a day collaborating with an editor, that would total 125 hours of tutorials each year that could focus on each writerís specific needs and weaknesses. Surely we could cultivate better writers in this way.

Look at this from managementís vantage point. Suppose you have four loners in your newsroom. Suppose, conservatively, that each spends four hours a day editing in-house copy. On a six-day week, thatís 1,200 hours of teaching that is forgone every year. It could be gained by turning those loners into collaborators.

But this advice raises a cautionary point. Not every loner makes a good collaborator. Some arenít disposed toward teaching. They donít know how to ask questions in a way that provokes thought rather than resistance, or how to adjust their approach for different writers. Some are authoritarian rather than authoritative and feel threatened by open dialogue with a writer.

But these caveats throw light on another virtue of collaborative editing: It provides criteria for assessing candidates for editing positions. The worst-kept secret in the newspaper business is that good writers can be awful editors. A great mystery is why top management so often seems not to understand this.

An intelligent policy for converting to collaborative editing might open some eyes, for it would require management to ask of any given candidate: Does this person have the temperament and skills to collaborate effectively?

Look at those editors who are commonly regarded (by writers) as poor editors. Iíll give you 10-to-1 odds that they fail the ďtemperament and skillsĒ test. The matter of temperament and, more broadly, personality, raises another important point. Because collaboration requires two people, its effectiveness is a function of two personalities. And some matches are decidedly better then others.

I thrived under Roy Fisherís aggressive style of collaborating, but some withered under it. The larger the staff, the better the chance of making productive matches between editors and writers.

And note again the opportunity this provides to assess editorsí strengths and weaknesses. For publishers and executive editors who think they already know them, let me propose a test: Give your writers a list of your editors and ask for (anonymous) assessments of their skills and temperament as editors.

I suspect that the results would astonish the brass as most newspapers. Why? Because the dearth of collaborative editors in our business is evidence of a massive blind spot in newsroom management: the failure to examine and think critically about the relation between editors and writers.

We need more collaboration.

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