Most reporters have love-hate relationships with their editors, and that’s probably the way it should be. Recently, though, I’ve become aware of a disturbing and widespread misunderstanding in our profession of what editing is and should be. I’m discovering that there are a lot of shops where editing simply doesn’t happen … and a lot of journalists who think editing is a punishment, or something that should only happen to “bad” reporters who need remediation.
Fact is, every story needs an edit. Every reporter, no matter how experienced or respected, needs an editor. I say that with the utmost conviction, as someone who’s been on the reporting and editing sides of both good and bad edits. (Yes, I’m sure I’ve doled out a few bad edits in my time – but no comments from my current or former edit-ees, please!)
I think we as a profession need a reminder of why editing matters, so allow me to present this short piece of editing evangelism.
1. Editing is collaboration, not correction.
Yes, an editor should correct factual inaccuracies, biased reporting, bad grammar, and poor sentence structure, but that’s not an editor’s primary job, and it’s not how most good editors want to spend their time. A good editor and a good reporter are partners, from the conception of the story to the final product. Your editor is there to help you think through the elements of the story before you ever go into the field. S/he’s there to help figure out how to adapt that plan as things change during the reporting process. And when you’re drafting the story, your editor is there to make sure the piece is balanced and that it’ll make sense to a reader, listener, or viewer who’s not as close to the story as you are. If you have a rigorous edit, it’s not necessarily because your first draft was bad; it could be because your editor thought it was good enough to be worth investing the time and effort needed to make it even better.
2. Editing is improving and polishing, not rewriting.
A good editor won’t rewrite your copy in his or her style. Instead s/he will help you write the best story you possibly can, in your own voice. The editing process should be a conversation. Your editor will make suggestions, but when possible s/he should ask you to do most of the rewriting yourself. The two of you will work together to make sure the story is told as clearly and engagingly as possible … but it should still be your story.
3. Your editor has your back.
If you’ve had a good edit, you can have the utmost confidence in the final product because the story has been fully vetted for accuracy, content, balance, style, and sound or visuals. Should anyone inside or outside your news organization question the story, you won’t be alone. You’ll have an advocate who is just as responsible for the piece as you are. Unless you’ve been dishonest with your editor, s/he will stand by you and back you up.
I’m not saying editors and reporters should be holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” every time they sit down to edit a piece. By definition and by design, edits can be confrontational. Two intelligent journalists will not always agree on how a story should be told. The ideal, though, is for neither side to become entrenched or defensive. A good edit is a negotiation between two professionals who respect each other and who have the good of the story and the good of their audience as their ultimate goal.
Years ago, the public radio news directors’ professional association, PRNDI, adopted the slogan “Get an Edit!” … but not everyone is heeding that call. Let’s start now. Reporters, seek out good edits! Editors, let’s strive to become better editors! The more we all come to see the value of a constructive, collaborative edit, the better off journalism will be.