This posting completes our profile of a small-town editor. In the last posting, the focus was on her work as editor and sole full-time reporter for her paper. In this entry, the conversation expands into the influence of her undergraduate education, and the suggestions she has to make regarding our curriculum and teaching.
One practice from her undergraduate writing that has stayed with her is, from her journalism courses, the speed, efficiency and care necessary when preparing a story, including the gathering of quotations and other pertinent information. “I kind of learned the importance of finding what you need and how you need to put it in there. Of course, I’ve … streamlined it and made it faster now.” Her editing constantly draws upon her English language courses, and the need to accommodate the information requirements of non-expert readers was taken from her internship doing medical writing and her technical writing course. “You have to identify the person, because if you don’t, people aren’t going to know who you’re talking about. And … even if everybody in the whole world knows that PENNDOT stands for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation you have to put it in there. Because you have to make sure that people know what you’re talking about.” The ongoing pressure of producing copy for a weekly paper has altered the subject’s style, she asserts, eliminating much of the humor she once used and a more leisurely development of her ideas. “I wrote a couple of essays that I’ve entered in contests, and I had a hard time writing them because … one of them had to be 2500 words; 2500 words is like a book to me now. Because my articles in here, gosh, 500 words is the max. If it’s more than that, then it’s too long, because people just aren’t going to read it.”
The need for brevity also forces her to continuously use the “inverted pyramid” structure learned in the basic reporting course. “I have to make sure that all the information is presented quickly. So a lot of times what I do is … write the whole article. I don’t correct any of the grammar … I just write everything down that I want to say in the order I want to say it. I might let it sit for a day; I might let it sit for a couple hours and then I go back and look at it and I reread it again and a lot of times I read it out loud to try to make sure it makes sense. And then that’s when I’ll go through and I’ll move paragraphs, or I’ll cut things out, or notice that I spelt something wrong, and need to edit that way. … I know I did that in Slippery Rock. I remember asking my roommates, making them listen to me read it out loud. So that’s really stuck with me too, being able to take that time to read it out loud, to sit back, give it a couple hours, don’t reread it right away.”
The basic reporting course also touched on headline writing, but the subject says she’s just had to learn about point sizes, fonts, and trimming the headline to the space allotted while doing her job. Since she lays out the paper herself, she can adjust point sizes and column widths herself, but it still comes down to searching a thesaurus or dictionary for a synonym that fits, or eliminating articles, or substituting a symbol for a word. “Headlines. I have a really hard time with headlines. I hate headlines. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes I can think of them really quick. Other times I’ve had, that article sits there, saved on my computer until the day I put it in the paper and I still don’t have a headline. And then I don’t know what to say because you have to convey an entire 450-word thing.”
Regarding potential changes in curriculum or teaching, the subject thought both English and Communications needed to give students more practice with different software (such as In Design and Photo Shop), and with integrating visual and print elements in document design and on-line pages. She had no specific suggestions regarding web editing software. “But I know a lot of places hire people specifically for editing online. So it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to have.” Her own paper does not have a web-site and would need to hire someone to construct one, something she didn’t think the business could afford. The subject’s specific suggestions for the English department included informed advisement for students who might want to try the kinds of writing practice provided in Communications, and greater recognition of the Professional Writing majors in the language courses, which she felt were too oriented towards the pre-service teachers.
Most of the research the subject does is on-line, usually “background information on particular grants, or particular organizations. So I’ll either visit the organization Web site if I can find it; some organizations don’t have them. Or if I cannot find it, I use Wikipedia. Or I’ll Google it and go from there.” Digging deeper can involve contacting government officials or a trip to the library. Sometimes, because of her paper’s staffing and resource limitations, she will even observe a streaming video of a news conference or other event. Research techniques she has retained from her undergraduate days include the use of highlighting, post-it notes and the copying and pasting of source material. “Take that information, take all of it, put it in your document, and then look at that in the context of what you’re writing and then take out what you need, put in what you need. Of course, for me I can quote things; it’s much easier. I don’t have to cite them.” In journalistic writing, a heavy use of quotes is tolerable, and because it often comes directly from an official or expert the quoted material strengthens the ethos of the news story. For those reasons, the subject suggested that practice using attribution, rather than just the more academic forms of citation, would be useful for all students.