There are two tribes in every newsroom. Those who go out and chip the stories off the coal face of current events, and those who sit in the office complaining about them.
The aim of every reporter should be to attract as few complaints as possible from his or her editor. This is done by being reliable and reliably good. The reward, the greatest accolade, is that when something big comes up, it is YOU who gets the call to hurry to the scene.
You’re judged on one thing alone – your copy. You have to be able to write, and I’ve just assumed you will be fast and can spell. Those are the basics.
This love letter, from all sub-editors to all reporters, sets out a few of the more annoying traits of scribblers.
While I’m at it, just to spice the mix, we all have to recognise that the newspaper industry is changing. We’re being dragged, screaming and screaming a bit more, down the road to that semi-mythical land known as: “Writing straight to page”. What a reporter writes will go straight into the newspaper, without (in some cases) ever being seen by a sub-editor. This inevitably means reporters have to start regarding their job a bit more like sub-editors. You’re in for a shock, readers. Or as a reporter might put it: “Your on fur a shack, reedurz”.
Because preparing copy for text isn’t as easy as you might think. Sub-editing is a craft, a vocation. It isn’t easy to explain what a good sub does to a story. It’s even more difficult to do it. And only the truly exceptional can do it to their own writing.
Are you sure you still want to try this writing-straight-to-page idea? All right then, here are the seven deadly sins of writers.
1. Not doing a last read-through.
It is the most basic advice. But it’s amazing how many writers hit “send” as soon as they reach their last full stop. Subbing is the last line of defence but if the safety net isn’t there, it can be a hard fall.
In every group of sub editors, there are opinions on the writers who feed them copy. Sometimes, the opinion isn’t very high. They might not think you’re a good writer, or well-informed or have an elegant turn of phrase – but those are subjective opinions.
The hard facts are your main problem. In your final read-through, you are trying to look at your copy as a reader might see it. If you continually misspell, improperly punctuate and leave words out, however, the subs will think you are a sloppy idiot.
That’s bad enough, but if you are writing straight to page and make the same mistakes, it’s the readers who will think you are an idiot – and they’ll buy another paper. Newspapers without readers often struggle in the modern marketplace.
2. Not being accurate.
Get the details right. All the details – the little ones, the big ones, the dangerous ones and the lawsuit-attracting ones. Every last fact has to be thought about. Take a step back, what would you think of this story if you were reading it for the first time? Does it leave you with any questions? Does it all make sense?
Is it legal? If you think that someone who gave you a story is 17, when they are 15, you might be in deep trouble. You have to know the law. If you say someone lied, when they haven’t, you run the risk of a hefty lawsuit.
But it isn’t just the ones that scream “danger” you have to nail down. Everything has to be nailed down. You have to remember that every story is about someone – and that story might be the only time the “someone” will ever appear on the pages of a newspaper. They want you to get their details right. Not just mostly right, but 100% right.
Editors hate having to apologise to readers. They especially hate apologies for small things like calling Mr Smyth Mr Smith. Or Mrs MacDonald Mrs McDonald. If you persistently get small details wrong, and the phone calls to the news desk mount up, then you’d perhaps be better advised to suggest another career to yourself – before your boss suggests it.
3. Writing like an amateur.
Don’t make the schoolboy errors. Don’t mix metaphors: You don’t burn the midnight oil at both ends, sunshine doesn’t rain down, Jerusalem isn’t a mecca for tourists. If in doubt, look it up.
Don’t misuse idioms: it is toe the line, not tow the line; a free rein, not a free reign; just deserts, not desserts. If in doubt, look it up.
Don’t use a word unless you are absolutely sure what it means. Uninterested and disinterested are not synonyms, neither are historic and historical. If in doubt, look it up.
Get a dictionary and use it. Often. Do you know the house style? Make sure you do.
Read everything you can so you can learn from others. If you are impressed with an article in another newspaper, ask yourself why. Is it the word usage, the phraseology, the use (or abstinence from using) adjectives? Copy that.
It is understandable to rush ideas out of your imagination and on to the screen and sometimes your fingers run away with the phrases forming in your head. But go back, re-read. Make sure your tenses are consistent. Make sure you have punctuated properly.
Writing isn’t easy but it isn’t difficult either, so don’t overcomplicate.
4. Overwriting and underdelivering.
Yes, it WOULD be a wonderful world if your paradigm-changing, 3,000-word expose on the disappearance of Mr Fluffytoes, the cat formerly resident at No. 9 Acacia Avenue, was used in full. But the paper would have to be 800 pages thick if all reports were like that and there wouldn’t be a tree left in the western hemisphere.
If you have a space to fill, or have been given a word count, then stick to it. Learn how to say more in less space. A good sub-editor will tell you that EVERYTHING can be cut – even The Bible can be subbed down to two paragraphs.
Being concise is a discipline you have to master.
The old truism passed round the subs’ table is that once you’ve stripped out every extraneous word but the article is still too long – then, by necessity, you have to start cutting out facts.
And get it in quick. Some reporters hang on to copy until the last possible minute. I’d like to think this is because they are hoping to milk the news for the last up-to-date drop. The cynic in me suspects that if a reporter repeatedly hangs on until the last minute, he might be holding back because if he is seen to have a story “on the go” he can’t be given another job to do.
This is a bad idea. All chief sub editors are prone to a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” mindset. They will use a story they already have rather than wait for a “maybe” story coming in. Then that “maybe” story, even if it does eventually arrive, runs a higher risk of ending up on the spike. You don’t want your stories to be spiked.
5. Being precious.
You have produced a piece of writing, if someone criticises it, cuts it or drops it, they aren’t saying anything bad about you as a person. It is a part of the working day, not one of your children.
Over the years I’ve found that some writers (naming no names) tend to overreact when you touch just one pixel of their Wordsworth-like prose. Gardeners don’t take it personally if you don’t like carnations, plumbers aren’t overly bothered if you think their pipe-cutting is rough. But writers. Sheesh!
Sometimes articles have to be cut or dropped. It might not be anything you’ve done wrong, it could be that there isn’t enough space or that there were too many stories of the same nature that day or that week.
Fight your corner, by all means, but don’t go in a huff, don’t slam doors and don’t, whatever you do, decide that you aren’t going to let that so-and-so of a news editor ever see your best work again!
Decide that you’ll do better, you’ll write so brilliantly that your next article will be an imperative part of the written record mankind will leave to whatever species evolves to overthrow us.
You can, of course, at the same time be imagining certain appendages of the news editor being dipped in hydrochloric acid. News editors are used to that sort of thing.
Also, don’t assume the job is done when you press “send”. Most production systems these days allow reporters to see the paper’s pages being assembled. Have a look at what is happening to your work. Suggest corrections, those sub-editor make-up monkeys love it when you point out corrections, it saves them being hauled over the coals for missing them.
And has any aspect of your story updated? Get on the phone quick, just in case you can catch the last edition.
Is the heading good? Has the headline writer missed the best point of the story? When you get a printed paper in your hands, have a look at what was subbed out, what was changed about your story. Can you learn from that? Can you learn from the way other stories were written?
Listen to what your editor says. Act on his or her advice.
6. Not seeing the potential in stories.
The old “hard news” formula is that you start with your best fact and then work your way through the rest of the facts. It isn’t the only way to write, but it isn’t a bad method to start off with.
But is that always the only way?
Might you save a juicy fact for a pay-off line at the end? Might you include some description along with the facts? Often, the answer to both of those questions is a definite “No”. But, depending on what you are writing about and who you are writing for, there is sometimes room for a spark of genius. I recall The Sunday Post sending female reporter Ali Kirker to cover the “naked rambler” story. Her account of the man’s progress and his brushes with the law included her musings on whether to avert her eyes, or not avert her eyes . . . and whether this meant she was or wasn’t covering the story properly by averting (or not averting) her eyes. It was written superbly and turned out to be a very funny, but at the same time very human, story.
Mind you, this isn’t to say that a hard news story should always be “fun”. There are times when news has to be reported “straight” with very little comment. If you find yourself having to salt your sentences with needless adjectives it might not be the best tale ever told – there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the need to say a criminal is evil. All criminals are evil.
What I’m saying here is that all writers should think about the way they write and think about how a reader will make their way through a story. You have to be able to recognise what the best or newest fact is, however. Your news editor, when reading your copy, will sometimes say: “He/she has missed the point” and promote your last four pars up to be the intro and prime meat.
That’s an embarrassment for any writer, so don’t let it happen to you. One way to guard against this is to ask for guidance, or, if there’s time, kick around the major points of the story with your news/features/sports editor. Ask for their opinion and make sure you listen to what you are being told.
7. Being just a writer, not truly a journalist.
The world is full of people who can write, but it isn’t full of journalists.
The first six “sins” I’ve listed are all about good practice when writing. But more important than all of the above, you have to know what a good story is. You have to have a “good nose”.
A good story is sometimes obvious, but sometimes it isn’t. The trick is to be able to sniff it out. Any fool can dash off six pars about a traffic accident from what the duty police sergeant tells them. That’s just a report. But there might have been a story in there somewhere.
Old heads have probably forgotten what the formula is for a good story. They “just know” what makes a page lead or a front page splash.
The first and most simple rule, however, is that if it fascinates, astounds and outrages you, then it has a good chance of doing the same for your editor and for your readers.
You have to know what type of stories your editor wants, of course. So make sure you always read your paper. All of it. To truly be a journalist, then, you have to be not just someone who can write, you have to be someone who writes about things. It is the “things” you have to pay most attention to. Listen to news bulletins. Read the news. Read opposition papers. Read blogs, read discussion forums, be aware of what’s trending on Twitter and what the current Facebook flame wars are about.
You have to be a man or woman of the world and also of your environment.
A newspaper lives and dies on the strength of its stories. Content is king. It’s the stories, not the pretty colours the artists use, or the well-placed full stops and commas the subs have put in, that have readers coming back day after day to lift your paper off the shop counter.
They do that because they want to read what you have to say. They do that so they can say in the pub: “Hey, did you see that story about . . .”
You are writing the first draft of history. In centuries to come, people will look back at the archives of newspapers and marvel at how the great events of the day were seen by the people of the day. And your byline is attached to that.
Make it worth reading.