Three ways editors can use their time wisely
Preparation, preparation, preparation.
Over the last few years, as I’ve spent more time editing longer and more in-depth features, I’ve had to revisit some of the fundamental techniques of editing. When I started out I was working on daily and weekly cycles, usually driven by hard news. The world of longform has different demands, so I had to learn some new approaches. Only afterwards did it dawn on me that some of these techniques would have been really useful in the past.
1. Spend most of your time up front
The ones I regret are nearly always when I didn’t work hard enough before the story got started. I don’t mean necessarily in dealing with a pitch, but in really spending time understanding the ways in which a story could go once the wheels start turning.
That’s not a surprise — with all the demands of your job, there is always a tendency to think “Hey, we can fix it in post!”
But every minute you spend up front is worth at least twice as much on the back end. Structural, heavy edits, or rewrite work, cost you a lot in terms of time and energy, and they introduce errors.
I still think about one story I assigned a couple of years ago. It was pretty complicated, and I was horrifically busy at the time. The writer and I had done good work in the past, and I sent him out to do some reporting without going over things as deeply as I would have liked. But when we got to drafting, things just didn’t work for me. We spent countless revisions going over the text and tweaking it — but we couldn’t make it work together. In the end I killed it, and he took it to another outlet, reworked it, and came up with something pretty great. That was on me: I think we’d have created something much better if I’d spent more time working through the idea on the front end.
2. Support the risks you take properly
Here’s another way of thinking about the same idea. Hopefully, in your career, there will be lots of times when you push ahead on a risky idea, or a risky voice. Sometimes it won’t pan out the way you thought.
Maybe the end result is flat, or bad, or that you’ve just got to kill it. Sometimes that’s because, well, the story was always a risk. Other times (and I think I’ve done this more often than I‘d like to admit) it’s because I made the mistake of thinking the risk I took on assigning was enough. After that it’s up to the journalist to sink or swim, right?
This can be true, but it’s not always. Now I look at it more holistically. Why introduce extra risk into the equation when you’re working with young or less experienced writers who you’re trying to level up with tough assignments? So when you’re taking a risk, try to mitigate any dangers you see. Give the journalist things to read — or listen to, or watch — that you know will help them get their heads around the work, that can help them through. They don’t have to be examples of the same thing (in fact, probably better that they aren’t) but they can be parallels, inspirations, tacit advice. Walk through every complicated part of the task ahead of them. Share war stories of your own.
For example, when I started out working on with Eric Reidy on our Ghost Boat series, it was definitely a risk: we’d worked out an interesting way to approach the story, and Eric had impressed me. But he was still a young reporter and didn’t have a ton of clips to back up the promise I saw. So we teamed him up with Gianni Cipriano, an experienced photojournalist, for the first part of our expedition. Getting them to work together mitigated the risk of the story: They clicked, and I think it helped them both step up to the next level.
3. Talk more than you think you need to
This is probably the one guideline I am guilty of abandoning most often — because I find talking to people so, so tiring. But when you’re a journalist working remotely, either on assignment or on staff, the amount of contact you have with editors at crucial moments is really critical, both practically and emotionally. Lack of contact creates a form of “foreign correspondent syndrome” where a writer gets detached, makes bad decisions, scrambles or goes quiet, and even gets paranoid (I know when I was working for the Guardian out of California, the low level of contact with my team back in the U.K. became a real issue for me.)
So “up front” doesn’t just mean before the reporting or writing happens. It also means while it’s taking place. On short assignments, quick checkins as regularly as possible can really help settle things down and make sure that the idea isn’t getting on top of you all. On longer-term projects, you’re acting as a guide and a confidante. Again: It’s all about making sure the work is as complete before the draft ever reaches your desk, because up front work reduces the risk later on.
Even though I fail at this a lot, I know that when the work has been its best, it’s because I’ve put in a lot of time while people were on the road. When Lauren Smiley was out on assignment for this award-winning story in Kentucky, we checked in all the time — even if just by text.
A couple of long conversations can really help a story develop and the reporter feel confident in how they’re spending their time. Depending on the length and urgency of the assignment, maybe it’s every week, maybe it’s every few days, maybe it’s a little bit of time every single day.
Any thoughts or examples? Let me know!