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

3 questions to stay positive at work

By · Wednesday, March 20th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

If you find yourself dragging yourself to work, ask yourself these three short questions and see if they help to give you a sense of eagerness instead.

Was it fun? We tend to ask that question when we’re curious about some kind of event. But how about our work experience? Work can be serious and difficult. But it should not be drudgery.

Make time to make fun. If you’re bored, your audience is bored.

What’s the lesson learned? We make and mourn mistakes every day, and we learn from them. But we should not dwell on them.

Celebrate successes. Learn from them, too, and vow to repeat and build upon them every day.

How is working with colleagues? It’s all about collaboration with co-workers.

The rewards of collaboration are immense. Talk to one another. Brainstorm often.

Many factors affect our outlook, and each day is different. But each day does not have to be a drag.

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

4 ways to inspire ourselves and others

By · Wednesday, March 13th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Inspiration makes our jobs worthwhile. So does feedback.

It’s true of journalism, but we think everyone can relate.

With that general idea in mind, here are some key questions we can ask ourselves on a regular basis.

What purpose is my work serving in my community and for my audience?

How can readers and consumers act on my work?

How have I inspired others, whether they are peers and colleagues or readers and consumers?

What do people need to know and how can I deliver it to them?

Today’s news is fleeting. Everyone is in a hurry. People need to know how today’s news will affect them beyond the moment. We must inspire people to understand. And when we succeed, the hope is that their feedback will continue to inspire us.

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

It’s our choice — excitement or fear

By · Wednesday, March 6th, 2019 · No Comments »

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Creativity is one of those traits that can excite or agitate. Why is that?

It’s OK and it’s human to feel this way. Just don’t let fear get in the way. Move ahead.

The highest compliment you can be paid is to have someone say to you: “That’s a great idea.”

The worst thing you can say about yourself: “I can’t think of anything.”

The power of good ideas remains the key to your success. In today’s world, this is increasingly important.

Here are some tips about generating ideas that might help, especially for journalists. But these tips can apply to anyone.

Every day, we should ask ourselves: How have I been creative?

Every day, we should make an effort to generate at least one idea, however small. And let’s agree that our one idea will be a source of excitement for us, not fear.

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

Let cool heads prevail under pressure

By · Wednesday, February 27th, 2019 · Comments Off on Let cool heads prevail under pressure

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Overheard conversations can offer real lessons in getting along with others. Or not.

Here’s something you can try. When you are standing in line at a retail service desk, pay attention to conversations you can hear around you. Listen to a customer expressing a complaint or asking to return an item.

Now put yourself in each person’s place. Think about how you would handle the situation if you were the customer. And then if you were the service representative. Identify any problems in communication. What would you change?

Here are some tips that might help in tough situations, especially when people you’re dealing with — or working with — might lose their tempers.

  1. Don’t react immediately. Allow a cooling-off period.
  2. Don’t say anything you will regret later. Think before you speak.
  3. Don’t get into a shouting match. Keep an even tone.
  4. Don’t make it personal. Stick to the facts.
  5. Don’t stoop to another’s level. Be gracious in the face of adversity.
  6. Don’t talk behind anyone’s back. Rise above it.

It’s not always easy to get along with others, especially in high-pressure situations — such as on deadline. But a positive outcome has everything to do with how people interact with one another. And, too, you never know who might be listening in on your conversation.

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

How to fix 3 problems with story pace

By · Wednesday, February 20th, 2019 · Comments Off on How to fix 3 problems with story pace

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Let’s face it. We all like a quick read. Sometimes we rely on a mere tweet for information. Or we are in too much of a hurry to read beyond the headline.

But it is also true that long-form journalism still exists and thrives, and it still has an audience.

Maintaining that audience, however, means taking special care to keep readers interested word by word and graph by graph. We must be smart about every nuance that can affect readers’ attention. An important one is story pace. A plodding pace will cause readers to be easily distracted, and they won’t stay with a story.

Here are some tips on how to adjust the pace of a story by addressing common reader reactions, one problem at a time.


Certain information can interrupt the pace and leave the reader wanting to move on with the rest of the story.

Warning signs. Too much background high in the story before the reader knows what the story is about; too much chronology — or too much of anything — all at once; too much information before hearing what someone has to say in a quote.

The fix. These are easy things to fix. If a chronology is a major part of the story, the main points of the chronology could be summarized up high. Or, consider taking out that information and using it separately — as a sidebar or as a data visual, such as a timeline. These same approaches could be used with a lengthy or technical explanation.

Outcome. Readers will be satisfied with the summary or attracted to the sidebar. And what remains in the story would move at a quicker pace.


Confusion will force a reader to reread. Or stop.

Warning signs. Wrong order of elements, such as a nut graph too low in the story; long and complex sentences; lack of specifics to substantiate information.

The fix. Review the story structure. Identify where key elements appear in the story. Assess the placement. You might need to: move one paragraph or reorder a string of them, especially in the opening paragraphs; switch the order of a quote and its attribution so a reader knows at the outset who is speaking; or move up the nut graph so readers know sooner why this story is important. Assess sentences. You might need to: rewrite long sentences into two; minimize clauses and instead focus on writing straightforward statements; or rewrite sentences that make too many points in one statement. Look at substantiation. Watch for: a story that never returns to information featured in the lead; adjectives that aren’t followed by specifics; or quotes or statements that aren’t supported with fact.

Outcome. The story will follow a logical flow from the lead paragraph to the last paragraph. Every element in the story will be clear enough to keep moving the reader forward.


Everything that causes readers to be impatient or to reread also will cause them to scan; these problems are closely related. Readers also will scan because they are looking for something the story isn’t delivering.

Warning signs. Detail featured in a headline appears too low in a story; reaction from an obvious source isn’t in a prominent place; background isn’t clearly stated up high.  Be in touch with your own feelings of impatience or confusion. Identify these areas in a story. If you find yourself scrolling and scanning, you are looking for something further in the story. What is it? Does it need to be higher?

The fix. One way to fix this problem is to present information as bullets in a story instead of as paragraphs. Adjust long titles and identifiers before a quote. They can cause readers to scan important information — such as who is speaking and that person’s role in the story — just to get to what the person is saying.

Outcome. The story will at least briefly explain background before it delivers reaction. It will not overwhelm readers with a lot of detail before it explains why this story is important now.

This post is an encore about an issue that is as important and relevant today as in May 2014, when it was originally published.

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

5 things to know about people’s quotes

By · Wednesday, February 13th, 2019 · Comments Off on 5 things to know about people’s quotes

not teaching,
still THINKING …

People’s voices — their own words — bring life to a story, but beware of trouble spots with quotes and know how to respond. Here are five issues to watch for when dealing with quotes:

  1. Facts and assertion of fact. When someone states a fact in a quote, be confident it is right. Is this really the first time something has happened? Did that state senator really vote against the bill last year? Have there really been four fatal accidents on this curve? The idea is not to check everything in every quote, but to be aware that a lot of people say a lot of things that are not accurate. Ask questions because the errors that can lurk in quotes range from simple facts to major misstatements.
  2. Sources quoting other sources. Sometimes people will represent the opinions of others as fact or something they know. But they don’t. When a source quotes another source, don’t let the quote run unchallenged.
  3. Criticism and attacks. The targeted person of an outright criticism or attack by another person should get a chance to respond. But, really, we need to ask: Should we publish this at all? Do not default to the “each side gets a say” approach. That is a legitimate response at times, but it also can be a way to avoid the real issue. If the initial quote is not worthy of publication, don’t publish it. No decision can be more difficult than withholding these “great quotes,” but sometimes not publishing is simply the right thing to do.
  4. Not available for comment. What does this mean? It means different things at different times. It could be that a journalist tried to reach someone once, 10 minutes before deadline. Or it could mean the journalist tried six times over an entire day and also left messages. What did those messages say? Were they detailed? We need to be transparent.
  5. Quotes that aren’t quotes. Did someone speak this quote? Write it in an email? There’s a difference, and we need to be clear about how the quotes were obtained. Personal interviews will yield unscripted responses with an opportunity for a journalist to ask follow questions. Email interviews allow a source to write and rewrite. And how can we know who actually wrote the email response — the source or a surrogate?

People’s quotes humanize our work. We just must be sure that problems do not escape us in our quest for ample quotes and in our enthusiasm for good ones.

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