How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

I’ve written plenty about the importance and craft of editing – about how it’s a collaborative process that starts with helping the reporter shape the pitch and plan the story, continues through the reporting process, and doesn’t end until the facts and audio have been checked and the text and photos in the digital piece are in place.

I’ve also written about how editing tends to be undervalued. After all, it happens behind the scenes, and managers rarely understand how time-consuming and labor intensive it can be.

I now have data that sheds light on the time question.

Continue reading “How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.”

Advertisements
How long does it take to edit a story? I can tell you. And I have proof.

The Story Pitch: Three Basic Rules

http://judithsmelser.com/

I often start my editing training courses by asking people when in the life of a story the editing process begins. Usually someone says what I believe to be the “right” answer, namely, editing begins at the pitch stage.  But then I ask about the pitch processes in their newsrooms, and the answers are often something like this:

“Oh, reporters just say what they’re working on in our editorial meetings.”
“Well, we kind of have informal conversations about story ideas.”

I’m all for conversation about story ideas and communication about what reporters are working on, but if you don’t have a formal pitch process, how can editing begin with the pitch?  A written pitch is an important part of the pre-editing process.

Pitches don’t have to be long or fancy, but they do have to be focused and compelling.  And while you certainly don’t have to report the whole story before you pitch it, you have to do enough reporting to be able to convince your editor that the story is worth spending time on.

Often, we only give thought to the pitch itself when we’re proposing a story to an editor outside our own newsroom – but we shouldn’t sell our own newsrooms short.  As an editor, I often get pitches that don’t do much to get me excited about the proposed story.  They’re vague, they’re not very timely, and they don’t tell me what the end product will look or sound like.

The next time you get ready to pitch, ask yourself these three basic questions before you hit “send” on that pitch email:

  1. Am I pitching a story or just a topic?

    Topic: I want to do a story about invasive frogs.

    Story: The wildlife agency says it’s counted 20% more invasive frogs this year than last. My story will investigate why, the effects of the increase, and what’s being done about it.

  2. Am I pitching a timely story that’s relevant RIGHT NOW?

    Not timely: I want to profile the local homeless shelter’s tutoring program (that’s been going on for ten years).

    Timely: The local homeless shelter is considering expanding its tutoring program to include high school as well as elementary students. I’ll profile the tutoring program but also look into other shelter programs that might have to be cut if the expansion goes forward.

  3. Have I identified the types of voices and scenes I expect to include in the piece?

    Example: I hope to go with a wildlife officer on a frog-counting expedition. I’ll interview him/her about the invasive frog problem and record frogs croaking and general outdoorsy sound.  I’ll also talk to a scientist from the local university who’s developing a new way to trap invasive frogs and a state lawmaker who’s introducing a bill to make it illegal to import frogs.

There are more tips I could give on how to make your pitches stand out, but first, practice those basics. Your editor will thank you for it!

The Story Pitch: Three Basic Rules

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

judithsmelser.com

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

New Beginnings: 5 Tips for a Great Host Intro

http://judithsmelser.com/

We’re going back to basics today to talk about an element of broadcast writing that still confounds even some of the most experienced reporters: the host intro (aka, the lead, or lede).

Sometimes the problem stems from a basic lack of understanding of the story’s focus. Yes, it is possible to do days of reporting, conduct scores of interviews, and gather hours of tape … and still not be quite sure what the story is really about.

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!

Stay tuned for a post about that lack-of-focus problem in the near future.  It’s an important issue that also speaks to the role of the editor in the story visioning process.

This post, however, is for reporters who know what their story is about but need a little help crafting an intro that’ll tee it up so they can hit it out of the park.  (I really have no business writing baseball metaphors, so my apologies if I bungled that one!)

It Doesn’t Matter What You Say if Nobody’s Listening

A boring host lead can make your audience tune out.

A good host lead is your opportunity to have someone else tell listeners how fascinating your piece is going to be and why they should drop everything to listen to it.

My friend Kerry Donahue tells her graduate students at Columbia’s Journalism School to think of the lead as a promise to the listener: “You give me 3:45 and I’ll tell you this,” where this = something very specific and engaging.

Whether you think of it as a promise, a great PR opportunity, or both, you’ll use it to its greatest advantage if you follow these …

5 Simple Rules

1. Be Active
2. Be Current
3. Be Selfless
4. Be Brief
5. Be Specific

1. Be Active

The simplest part of this concept is to write in active voice whenever possible:

PASSIVE: A bill raising taxes was passed by the legislature today.

ACTIVE: Lawmakers voted to raise taxes today.

Watch out for that word “by” – it’s the telltale marker of a sentence in passive voice.

This rule also includes that old demon, burying the lead.  We’re so used to telling stories chronologically in our daily lives:

Last week, my cat threw up a huge hairball, so today I shaved off all his fur.

It goes strongly against our grain to tell the story out of order, but if this were a host lead, think how much more effective this would be:

I shaved off all my cat’s fur today.  I made the decision after he threw up a huge hairball last week.

Watch out for top lines that start with a time marker like “last week” or “last month.”  Resist the urge to tell the story chronologically, and start with the most current bit of information.

2. Be Current

This is a spinoff of burying the lead, but it’s important enough to warrant its own section.

Whether you’re writing a newscast spot or a human interest feature, listeners needs to know why they should hear this story today, as opposed to last week or three months from now.  That reason is the story’s peg – you can read a lot more about pegs and their importance in this post from late last year.

The peg needs to be in the lead.  It can be tempting to put the peg at the end of a piece, in an effort to solve the pesky dilemma of how to finish a story, but think about it from the listener’s point of view:

LEAD A:  A local nonprofit is helping refugee children deal with trauma through art.

LISTENER RESPONSE:  How nice. But I really need to dry my hair now. (SFX: loud hairdryer drowning out your story)

LEAD B:  A local nonprofit will find out today whether it’ll get a $5 million Gates Foundation grant for its program to help refugee kids deal with trauma through art.

LISTENER RESPONSE: Wow, I wonder if that group is really worthy of such a big grant.  My hair can air-dry for four minutes while I find out.

3. Be Selfless

Many reporters have told me they don’t want to put their “best stuff” in the lead for the host to read – they want to save it for themselves.  There are two responses to that:

a) Once again, it doesn’t matter what you say if nobody’s listening.

b) Isn’t your “best stuff” all the compelling tape and nat sound you’ve gathered, along with the creative storytelling you do throughout the piece? It’s ok to let the host spend 15 seconds telling listeners about the crux of the story.

There’s also an urge not to “give it all away” in the lead.  I support the idea of creating drama and mystery but not to the point of completely obscuring the story.  For example:

SELFISH: Thousands of people shop at the local Wal-Mart each week.  Yesterday, many of them got a big shock.

SELFLESS: A shopper at the local Wal-Mart stripped to his underwear and streaked around the aisles for 15 minutes yesterday before security personnel apprehended him.  

Now I ask you, which of those two leads makes you most want to listen to the story?!

4. Be Brief

While we shouldn’t save all the “good stuff” for ourselves when we write leads, we also don’t want to make the host tell the whole story.  We love our hosts, and they work hard, so be nice to them, and don’t make them say all of this:

LONG AND WORDY: A crowd of potential Republican contenders for Democrat Joe Smith’s U.S. Senate Seat is already shaping up, and among them are two current Congressmen and two state lawmakers. But a recent poll shows none of them has what it takes yet to unseat Smith. Instead, as Jane Doe reports, the one person who could do it is a former Governor.

Whew, I’m exhausted just reading that!  Try this on for size:

BRIEF: A new poll shows former Governor Tom Jones is the only person who can unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Smith in next year’s election.  The survey suggests none of the Republicans currently in the race have enough support to win.

If you have a lot of details that you don’t want to put in the body of the piece, ask yourself whether you really need them in the first place!

5. Be Specific

A meeting happened today?  That’s boring.

Something was decided at the meeting?  That could be interesting.

Nothing happened at the meeting?  You probably don’t need to report it anyway!

BORING: A local education task force held its monthly meeting in Boring City today.

INTERESTING: A local education task force says Boring City should close ten elementary schools to save money.

BORING: The census bureau announced new population numbers today.

INTERESTING: Florida will gain two Congressional seats because of new census numbers released today.

First Things First

One more thing before we close:

I’m still surprised to hear a lot of reporters say that the lead is the last thing they write.  A good lead will identify your focus, not just for your listeners, but for you as well.  It will help you write the rest of the piece.  So, I leave you with this:

WRITE YOUR LEAD FIRST!!

Disclaimers

1. None of the examples in this post are actual leads.  The Wal-Mart streaker story probably has happened somewhere, but any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.

2. No cats were shaved or otherwise harmed in the writing of this post.

 

Happy lead writing, and here’s to New Beginnings!

 

New Beginnings: 5 Tips for a Great Host Intro

Grammar Matters!

judithsmelser.com

A former coworker of mine became a U.S. citizen a few years ago – he’s Australian – and as part of his naturalization exam, he had to write the following sentence:  

They ride in their car.  

He passed, but a staggering number of natural-born Americans would not.  If good grammar and punctuation were required for the rest of us to be American, I’d wager many of our fellow citizens would have to surrender they’re passport’s.

Ok, I admit it, I’m a bit of a grammar nerd.  When I first started in radio, it nearly killed me to write sentence fragments, even in the interest of striking that all-important conversational tone.  I’ve gotten used to that, but a misused “it’s” or a misplaced apostrophe still has that nails-on-a-chalkboard effect (although I have decided that somewhere, someday there should be a band called “Misplaced Apostrophe.”)

As a group, we broadcast journalists have tended to be a bit, well, relaxed about grammar.  Our audiences don’t read our work; they hear and see it, so why spend too much time worrying about it?  Of course, all that changed with the digital revolution.  Like it or not, we’re now expected to turn our on-air stories into web articles, to blog and to Tweet, to post on Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram – all venues where our words will be read.  While it’s true that most of those venues are relatively informal, it still dings our credibility when we publish content with grammar and punctuation error’s (sorry, couldn’t resist).

To that end, I’m sharing this excellent blog post by writer and editor Emily Paterson.  I really wish I’d written it myself because I wanted to shout “Amen!” after almost every one of her points.  Take a few minutes to read it.  Maybe post it on the bulletin board in your newsroom or office.  It’s a great refresher on how to avoid the most common – and most annoying – mistakes that seem to be popping up everywhere we look.  

Thanks Emily – keep up the grammar evangelism!

Grammar Matters!