Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, Newhouse School, Syracuse University. Editing for print and digital, new media journalism.

Listen! Can you hear the collaboration?

By · Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Collaboration is one of those words that evokes strong emotion, and not usually positive.

When asked about collaboration and teamwork, journalism students in the past often gave these responses:

Fair enough. But. These reasons miss the most exhilarating part of collaboration — the mix of minds and talents.

That’s why it was so refreshing to read the recent piece in The New York Times by Jim Farber under the headline: “Elvis Costello, Carole King and a Song 20 Years in the Making.” Their song, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” was just released on Elvis Costello’s new album, “Look Now.”

If you want to get an idea of how two professionals do it, consider these two excerpts from their published conversation with Farber.

Farber asked this question:

Elvis, you’re known for full-album collaborations with everyone from Paul McCartney to the Roots. Carole, you’ve teamed with artists from Paul Westerberg to Mariah Carey. Why do you enjoy the collaborative process?

Costello: It’s the speed with which it’s done. When I did the songs with Paul McCartney, it was like a tennis match. Reaching across the table, I’ve got this line. I’ve got that line. And then the song was done.

And Farber followed with this question for Carole King:

Carole, what do you look for in a collaborator?

King: You trust that the person is coming from the same place — i.e. let’s write something creative that comes to a conclusion we both want. Most of the people who I collaborate with rise to that occasion.

What stands out? A positive spirit. A shared outlook. Trust. Communication. Excitement. Energy.

And you can’t really experience all of that if you’re working alone.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Give up, but don’t quit

By · Wednesday, October 10th, 2018 · Comments Off on Give up, but don’t quit

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Time works against us in a publish-every-second world. But it doesn’t have to get the best of us.

Here are some tested tips to get you through time-sensitive moments:

As a journalist, you give up a lot of time to your profession — nights, weekends, holidays — but your sacrifices matter. Don’t quit on your life’s work.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Trust what you publish, what you read

By · Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018 · Comments Off on Trust what you publish, what you read

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Skeptical about anything these days?

It’s not enough for stories to be complete and clear. They also must be free of faults and shortcomings.

The best way to look for these — whether you are a journalist or a reader — is to apply methodical scrutiny to a story by asking questions.

We have relied over the years on a list of questions created by Reid MacCluggage, who began his career at the Hartford Courant. (He is a retired president, publisher and editor of The Day Publishing Company in New London, Connecticut, and former national president of Associated Press Managing Editors.)

Here are 10 typical questions you can ask as you read:

  1. Says who? If attribution is needed, is it clear?
  2. How does the source know this? Why does the source know this? This gets to what makes an expert an expert.
  3. Are the people we are quoting eyewitnesses, or are they repeating what someone else told them?
  4. What is the source’s motivation? Is it transparent?
  5. How do we know that? If statements need to be checked, have they been? Are we accepting something as true when we should be checking further, or at least applying a qualifier?
  6. Did we see information ourselves, or read this ourselves? This comes down to how much we are relying on someone else, who that someone is, and how clear we are about that to our readers.
  7. Did we check these numbers? Did we do the math? Do numbers add up? Where did they come from?
  8. Is there anyone who disagrees with this? Are there “givens” that should be challenged, or could be challenged?
  9. Are these generalizations supported? Or is this stated as a fact that we are asked to accept on faith?
  10. Who else could confirm this? Is vital information based on the account or telling of a single person or document?

If you’re a journalist, asking these questions can help in publishing a top-notch piece. If you’re a reader, asking these questions can leave you confident about what you’re reading or better equipped to find a better story.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

It’s true — there’s only one ‘only’

By · Wednesday, September 26th, 2018 · Comments Off on It’s true — there’s only one ‘only’

not teaching,
still THINKING …

If you listen carefully to what people say, you’re likely to hear this phrase: “one of the only …”

It doesn’t make sense.

Something can be “one” of a specific number, such as one of three, or it can be the “only” one, meaning just that.

Words take up valuable space when written and precious time when spoken. It makes sense to tighten words when possible, especially when clarity is at issue.

What does it mean, for example, to say: “One of the only times I broke my leg was when I was skating.”

The phrase “one of the only” confuses the message.

We might not care about this person’s leg, but think about it:

And if you’re deciding the veracity of anyone’s statement about anything, you’d be sure to keep in mind that there’s only one “only.”

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Wash, rinse, don’t repeat

By · Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 · Comments Off on Wash, rinse, don’t repeat

not teaching,
still THINKING …

An embarrassingly number of times, the following has happened to me: Go to washing machine, set all of the dials, start water, open lid — only to find not an empty washer, but instead a washer full of clean clothes, already washed, rinsed and spun. And now those clothes are being showered with water.

The result when the load is washed again?

The reason this happens?

All it would take to prevent this scene:

These very solutions also apply well to editing for accuracy, which would avoid embarrassing errors getting published. Finding errors is an editor’s job by definition — and needs to be everyone’s job by necessity.

Consider the following published material — mistakes such as transposed letters and numbers, wrong information, misspelled names — which are examples in our “Think Like an Editor” book:

We encourage one extra look to possibly spot that something is wrong; one more call to verify; an extra second it takes to take care with the publish button.

It all starts with the basics, and here are 10 quick ways to ensure accuracy before publishing material:

  1. Check names
  2. Check addresses and phone numbers
  3. Do the math
  4. Check dates
  5. Check numbers in the lead (to ensure they match the rest of the story)
  6. Use your resources
  7. Check previous stories
  8. Use common sense
  9. Check your own work
  10. Ask the reporter (when in doubt about accuracy of any kind)

No one likes to make a mistake. No one likes to miss a mistake. And there’s a big difference between a mistake happening in the privacy of your laundry room and one that is out there for all to see.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Think golf. That’s it. Just think golf.

By · Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 · 1 Comment »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Golf has topped the agenda of one of these two profs (you know which one) this past summer. So it is not surprising to reflect back on Strategy #3 of our “Think Like an Editor” book and to recall how golf is used as an analogy to explain how reporters can “manage up” when working with editors. As an editor, how can you be seen as a help, not a hindrance?

The idea, as in golf, is to do the opposite to get the result you want.

To get the ball airborne, for example, hit down on it. Don’t try to lift it. Likewise, editors are encouraged to share with reporters ideas for what the reporters can do to manage them, to anticipate their questions and to make the entire reporter-editor process less stressful, more efficient and even fun.

As we say in the book:

 “In the business world, consultants make a lot of money coaching employees on how to flourish in a work model where not everything flows from the top down, where the staff ‘manages up.’ This is especially important in ‘lean’ environments where there are fewer bosses, employees and support staff — less of everything.”

Editors would do well to make sure reporters, who are their partners, know they don’t mind giving up some power. Then the idea is to coach reporters on how to seize that power.

Here’s an easy start:

As we say:

“We advocate sharing power because we know the end product is a shared responsibility. You can’t share one without sharing the other.”

Don’t have an editor? You can still think like one, and you’ll find that coaching yourself regularly — just as a golfer does — will improve your results dramatically.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)