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

Encore: Try, but you won’t succeed

By · Monday, January 22nd, 2018 · Comments Off on Encore: Try, but you won’t succeed


This post originally was published Jan. 16, 2017, reflecting on the end of the fall semester’s editing course. As we begin the spring 2018 semester, now is a good time to reinforce — at the start of the editing course — that we all must do more than try.

Just finished folding a set of sheets, including the dreaded fitted sheet. Actually, folding sheets was an exercise for students during one of their editing classes at the end of last semester.

Two students were given a flat sheet. Two students were given a fitted sheet. Their instructions were simple.

Those on the sidelines were eager to assist, and they pitched in when asked.

As might be expected, the one team produced a perfectly folded flat sheet so neat that it looked like it had come straight from the new package the students had just opened. (And they didn’t cheat by folding on the creased lines.)

The other team produced a not-bad-looking fitted sheet that had only a bit of excess material cleverly tucked in the folds here and there. It was not perfect, but it was mostly neat. And it was folded.

Everyone judged the flat sheet a success, but not the fitted sheet.

Imagine their surprise when I concluded the opposite. And then the protesting started about the neatly folded flat sheet.

What do you mean we didn’t succeed? Look at this!

I know. But you were told to try to fold the sheet neatly.

We did!

I agree. You folded the sheet neatly. It looks great. But you didn’t follow the instructions. You were told to try to fold the sheet. If you had tried, you wouldn’t have succeeded.

What? We can try and also succeed.

No, you won’t succeed if you only try.

I tossed a highlighter on the floor and invited anyone to try to pick it up — not an original idea, but one I had learned years ago from two motivational speakers. One student and then another and another reached for the highlighter and grabbed it off the floor.

No, I didn’t say to pick up the highlighter. I said to try to pick it up.

Then one student quite dramatically reached for the highlighter, coming oh so close but never touching it.

I’m trying. But I can’t pick it up.

Even this on-the-mark demonstration did not sway them. It was only when I shared another example that they started to get it.

Picture yourself excitedly talking to a friend, I told them.

You: “A bunch of us are getting together tonight. Come over.”

Your friend: “Hey, thanks. I’ll try to come.”

What do you think will happen, I asked everyone. “They’ll show,” answered one, optimistically. “Nah, they aren’t coming,” concluded another, realistically.

A new semester in a new year … we all must do more than merely try.

Think — give yourself this gift every day

By · Saturday, December 2nd, 2017 · Comments Off on Think — give yourself this gift every day

Time. Never enough of it. But there’s always time to think.

You might be thinking right now that we haven’t had time to post on this blog since the last item, Oct. 1. Not true. Just didn’t have anything to say.

Really? Really.

We understand, because we experience it ourselves, that you are bombarded all the time. With information. Misinformation. Useless information. News. Repetitious news. Fake news. Blogs. Videos. Photos. Photo galleries. Photo albums. Life hacks. And more.

Find the right place and moment to just think

Find the right place and moment to just think

As the fall semester draws to a close at the Newhouse School, with classes ending next week, we share this final review for journalists.

Take time out of your day, every day, to just think. You’ll feel refreshed and energized. And when faced with important decisions, life-changing realities and mind-numbing situations, you’ll use that energy to your benefit and the benefit of others.

Time. There’s always time to think.

Read, read, read. Did we say read?

By · Sunday, October 1st, 2017 · Comments Off on Read, read, read. Did we say read?

Time to read. Wish I had more of it.

If that were the case, I might have finished reading three special books by now.

For journalists, to read is to take in air — it’s essential. For authors, such as Ron and Cheryl, to read is what enables them to write with authority — for fiction or nonfiction.

That’s why, for example, among the 50 strategies that make up our book, “Think Like an Editor,” we insist on the need to read:

Time to read. Not going to try to make time. Going to actually make time.

But, first, breakfast. Hmm … butter pecan or mint chocolate chip?

Instant recall is a tricky undertaking

By · Monday, September 11th, 2017 · Comments Off on Instant recall is a tricky undertaking

IMG_0647In a visual exercise the other day to demonstrate how editors must be mindful of a variety of issues in a story, I donned two different earrings (usually, I wear none); a pin with three snowmen (it’s September); my jacket backward (on only one arm) and a sock (on my other arm).

When students returned from their 10-minute break, I was ready. They took one look at me and, of course, they were curious. So I reminded them what we’d been talking about before break and asked them what all of this might represent. They told me:

All true.

I put myself back together and class resumed.

Next class, I decided to test their recall. So on their current events quiz, I included an “instant recall” question that asked in T/F style: “The sock prof emilie wore on her arm had pink/orange polka dots.”

Our practice is to go over quizzes after they are taken, so when we got to this question, students called out their answers:

The answer was “false,” I told them. The sock actually had pink and orange stripes, with maybe some aqua.

Hmmm … when I got home that day and was taking the sock out of my bag, wasn’t I surprised. No polka dots, true. But argyle? Oh, yes. One of the students had recalled correctly that the sock had argyle. My own sock, and I had gotten it wrong.

Instant recall can be tricky. Detectives know it. Investigators know it. Anyone who deals with witnesses knows it.

We don’t always register what we see. We don’t always correctly recall what we see. We don’t always agree on what we see — even when we see the same thing at the same time.

Editors are trained to “see” errors that lurk in stories because they are trained how to find them. That includes, as the students had said: inconsistencies, inaccuracies, inappropriate content. They are trained to find the primary source of information and to trust the primary source.

Well, now they know even the primary source can be wrong. That’s OK. They are trained to “see” errors, and they will come to see that, too.

Context can enhance even a solid story

By · Tuesday, September 5th, 2017 · Comments Off on Context can enhance even a solid story

BIG numbers. How can journalists convey how big?

A good example is found in the work of Manny Fernandez of The New York Times, whose story about Houston after Hurricane Harvey carries the headline: “Over 21 Miles of Highway, Snapshots of a Resilient Houston.”

How can we visualize the size of Houston?

Fernandez shows us in the lead of the story:

HOUSTON — This city sprawls over 600 square miles, an area so big that Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit could all fit within it simultaneously. The nine-county Houston metropolitan region, covering more than 10,000 square miles, is almost as large as the entire state of Massachusetts.

Context. Fernandez puts the size of Houston in context of what is familiar to us and what we can see. For veteran journalists, context is a natural item on the mental checklist when reporting and writing. Inserting context is an art that takes practice.

Editors have a role in ensuring that context is present, and context has multiple roles, too:

When context is present, even an otherwise solid story is greatly enhanced.

Without context, editors can feel a bit confused when editing a story, and they have an obligation to readers to do something about it. That’s because context says to readers: “Keep this in mind when you read this story.”

Editors can identify places where stories might need context by asking themselves an assortment of questions in the appropriate places:

  1. Is the news peg evident fairly high in the story?
  2. In numbers-heavy stories, are good comparisons made when possible?
  3. Are chronologies clear?
  4. Are special terms or references explained?
  5. Is there ample background information, or is it missing or scattered about in the story?

Even if you’re not an editor, and especially as a reader, at least this list of questions can empower you. You’ll know that it’s not you who is missing the point of the story. Instead, something likely is missing that should be in the story. Context.

Gatorade for inspiration? Give it a try

By · Monday, August 28th, 2017 · Comments Off on Gatorade for inspiration? Give it a try

Gatorade. Two TV commercials have become favorites in the memorable way they urge us to “rehydrate, replenish and refuel.”

“One and Only” has this kicker: “So if you want to be the one and only, and not just one of many, give that extra ounce. It might just be the one that all the others don’t.”

“Difference Maker” ends this way: “The next ounce you give might just be the one the other guy doesn’t.”

“Give.” That’s the theme that resonates.

On this first day of classes at Syracuse University, it’s a fitting time to share with students who are studying to be journalists that from the beginning, they will be expected to give to their profession:

It’s a competitive world for journalists, too. Working is not enough. Neither is working hard. Or long. Or for a good number of years. Read the latest news about layoffs, buyouts and job eliminations at any news organization around the country, and you’ll understand.

So why do it? Why spend thousands of dollars a year — for four years — to eventually take on a job that will challenge you, drain you and then, maybe, drop you?

Why do athletes do it?

They are devoted and driven. So are journalists. And while journalists will never make the kind of money that professional athletes do, they are passionate about their calling.

Perhaps in these trying times, when journalists are under constant attack like never before, they can apply the Gatorade message in a way that helps them cope and gives them hope. They might consider this: “Rehydrate, replenish and refuel” — any way you can, as often as possible, determined to have an advantage over the next guy.