The Magic of the Pre-Edit: Focus Your Story, Change Your Life

Pre-editing changed my life.  Seriously.

When I became a news director and started editing stories, I’d often get a reporter’s script, get about halfway through the first edit, and have the sinking realization that things were missing.  Big things.  And I was going to have to ask the reporter, who thought his work was almost done, to go back and do more reporting.

Sometimes, a whole side of the story was left out, to the point that an additional interview was needed.   More often, though, the scripts were simply unfocused – one might go in five different directions, another might wander aimlessly around a topic without ever telling a story.

I got more and more frustrated with my reporters, but here’s what I didn’t realize at the time:

These script problems were as much MY fault as theirs … and they were almost entirely preventable.

No Surprises

Fact is, I should’ve started editing long before the script hit my desk.

Very fortunately for me, I had this revelation early in my editing career, thanks to the annual Public Radio News Directors Inc (PRNDI) editing workshop.  The trainers, including Sora Newman, formerly of NPR, and Martha Foley of North Country Public Radio, first taught me about pre-editing, and I’ve never looked back.

I’ve written previously about editing as a collaboration between reporter and editor – well, the editor’s part of that deal includes helping the reporter shape and plan his story before he ever gathers his first scrap of tape.  If I do that properly, he’s super-efficient in the field because he knows exactly what he’s looking for, and there should be no surprises for either of us when that first draft comes along.  We get to work on polishing the story, not refocusing or re-reporting it, and usually nobody ends up hating anyone. That’s the magic of the pre-edit.  

The fancy name for this process is “story visioning” or “story mapping.”  Many smart journalists who’ve come before me have developed this concept and written about it; every good editor adapts it and makes it her own.  A good place to start is with this story visioning worksheet from PRNDI’s Public Radio News Directors Guide, written by Mike Marcotte.  It includes a list of great questions to ask during the pre-editing process.  I’ll highlight the ones I think are most important in these …

Four Key Questions for the Pre-Edit

1. What’s the Story About?

It seems simple enough, right?  Actually, it’s one of the most profound, powerful, and difficult questions to answer.  It’s also the secret to a tightly focused piece, and that’s why it’s the first and most important question in the pre-editing process.

To put an even finer point on it, the question is this:

What one thing is this story really about?

Many story ideas start out like this silly example I made up for my last post about lead-writing:

Well, it’s a story about cats, you know, and how they can bring down your blood pressure …  but it’s also about how they need different types of food depending on whether they live indoors or outdoors …  and I also got some great tape with a guy talking about the proper shape of a litter box and I really want to get that in!

There may be many directions you could go with a story, but you have to pick the best one.

Other story ideas might be just as big but less specific:

It’s a story about population growth in the metro area.

Wow that’s a documentary, not a 4-minute piece!  What one aspect of the story are you focusing on and …

2. Why Now?

This goes back to the idea of news pegs, which I’ve written about before.  The process of defining why the story is relevant now will help you narrow your focus too.

3. Who’s Affected?

As you answer this question, the reporter and editor should agree on a list of voices you’ll need in the piece to represent those different points of view.

4. Where’s the Action?

Stories come to life in real places.  If at all possible, the characters in your piece should appear in their natural environments, not as disembodied voices floating around in space.  This question is aimed at helping you envision those “scenes” – places with good sound possibilities and visuals too, if there’s a video or digital element.

Pre-Editing = Time Saver, Not Time Waster

If you’re not used to pre-editing, you probably think it sounds really time consuming.  Quite the contrary!!

It doesn’t take much time for the reporter and editor to go through these questions, especially if the reporter knows her story.  And if she doesn’t know her story, pre-editing is a huge time-saver.  Going through this process before she starts gathering tape (or pictures, or quotes – because this process works for any medium) keeps her from having to do two rounds of reporting – the initial one plus the extra reporting when the editor realizes what’s missing.

Pre-Editing Can Be Transformational

I’m not exaggerating when I say that pre-editing changed my life.  It was transformational for me, as an editor and as a manager.  Almost immediately, it improved both the quality of my newsroom’s output and my relationship with my reporters.  I truly believe it is the most important part of the editing process.  If you’ve not done it, give it a try … and let me know how it works out!

The Magic of the Pre-Edit: Focus Your Story, Change Your Life

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