Adventures in Editing Or How Editing Taught Me to Be A Better Journalist

13 Sep
Editor Image by dave pike, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by dave pike, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Recently, I marked the end of an era. Earlier this month I stepped down from my role as The Public Reviews’ Scotland Editor, and passed the responsibility onto my successor, the more-than-qualified and very talented, Lauren Humphreys of Glasgow Theatre Blog.

I began my role at The Public Reviews straight after my three-year tenure as The Journal‘s Theatre Editor, and after four years of commissioning, editing, publishing and generally looking after other people, I decided that it was time to look after me.

So, in May this year, I told my boss, Editor John, that this Fringe would be my last as Scotland editor. There are many reasons for this, but the main reason was that I longed to have more time to write. I’ll miss the perks of getting editor’s choice on shows that I really, really want to review and I’ll miss ranting about the innumerable bad PRs that littered my inbox like discarded shopping trolleys on wasteland but, I need to write, and I want to be a better writer.

However, my time as an editor hasn’t been for nothing. I’ve learned so much, not just about my own writing, but  also managing people, and dealing with truly terrible PR pitches. Working as an editor for the last four years has taught me so much about journalism, communication and other issues.

So, here are my top 5 lessons that I believe that everyone who aspires to be in the media should learn.

Read Your Emails

I proofread and sense check my emails to ensure that what I’ve said is clear and easy to understand. However, there are those that don’t do this, and their emails usually consist of unclear demands, spelling and grammatical errors and bizarre sentences.

After they hit send I have to try to translate the bloody mess they deposited in my inbox, which I don’t enjoy, and I usually email them back and enquire about what it is that they want. Use punctuation, have a clear message and tell me what you want, I don’t have the time to second guess anything.

I don’t know if there was something in the water in Edinburgh in August, but I encountered a few writers who weren’t reading my emails properly. At the beginning of the Fringe I sent out a link to a spreadsheet for writers to fill in with their ticket requests, which was designed to stop any double bookings and make the whole process as open and transparent as possible to everyone involved.

One writer started trying to book tickets for shows that we’d already reviewed. When I emailed them and asked them to look at the spreadsheet more carefully, they emailed back asking, “What spreadsheet?”

Another writer got confused with the spreadsheet, and thought I was allocating shows to specific people and that they’d missed out. If they’d read my email properly, they would have known that this wasn’t the case. Another writer double booked a show because they didn’t pay attention to the spreadsheet, which clearly stated another writer had booked a ticket to that performance.

If you want to get on the good side of your editor, it’s a good idea to read every single email you get from them at least once. If you’re not sure about what they’re asking, email them back and ask them to clarify.

Respect Boundaries

From weddings, to illness, to engagements and the old trope, computer problems, there are many things that conspire to stop a writer filing their copy on time.

I’ve heard nearly every excuse in the book, and while I understand that writers have lives and they might get engaged/married/be too busy planning their wedding to file copy by deadline, I have the venue breathing down my neck, so all I care about is the review.

I know that sounds heartless, but editors have a job to do, and a publication’s reputation to uphold, so their investment is in the article. I’m friendly with my writers and count some of them as friends, but I’ve found that it’s odd how easily people will open up to you when you’re in a position of authority. It’s good that they feel they can be honest with you, but sometimes, when you’ve only had a handful of emails from someone, and suddenly they’re telling you about how they split with their partner/lost their job/their dog died and that’s why they’ve not been answering emails, it’s just a little too much.

Just say you’ve had some personal problems, your editor doesn’t need to know any more unless it’s something that they can help with or if it’s something that will affect your ability to write for the publication in the long term.

Enthusiasm Means Very Little

Enthusiasm is great, enthusiasm and drive is what got me to where I am today. However, in my experience, when I have encountered a writer who has been overly enthusiastic about writing reviews for me, alarm bells have gone off in my head immediately. Because that kind of energy never lasts, and it usually hides something else.

The first enthused writer turned out to be a prolific, or to use the nickname given to the late Sir David Frost, a “bubonic plagiarist” who couldn’t write an original piece of work if her life depended on it. She was also studying journalism, because wonders never cease.

The second super-anxious writer had my back up from the very beginning; he sent me a link to his portfolio, but had not made it accessible online, so he then animatedly cornered me at a press night, telling me how much he wanted to review for me. However, without my knowledge or consent, he was also submitting the reviews he sent to me to another site, which meant that we couldn’t publish them without permission from that publication, or we would be accused of plagiarism.

When this was explained to the writer, he said: “Well, I knew it was a grey area…” It’s not a grey area, it’s very clear, so never assume that you know something: if you’re unsure, ask the editor.

Another seemingly passionate writer was so excited to be reviewing during the Fringe that she claimed that she nearly fainted with excitement when she passed one of the Fringe venues before the festival started. Her emails told me how delighted she was to be working at the Fringe, until suddenly, after reviewing 5 shows, she emailed to say that she couldn’t review as something had come up.

A few weeks later a theatre company contacted us to say that this writer had booked to see their show (not to review it, but as a paying member of the public) and had asked for a refund. Unfortunately, during this email conversation, they mentioned that they were a reviewer, which made the company defensive, as it sounded as if the writer was trying to use their reviewing status to get their money back.

I don’t think they were trying to do this, and it could be that because of their lack of experience in the industry that they naively thought this it would ok, but they reacted very defensively to my emails asking them about it. They refused to explain anything and they told me I’d handled the situation very badly and demanded to be taken off our reviewing team.

After this, I kept the enthusiastic ones at arm’s length. It’s usually the safest thing to do for me. Be keen, just not overly keen, because it doesn’t last.

Assume Nothing

I know that I’m repeating a point I made earlier in the post, but if I could give new writers one piece of advice, then it would be this: never assume, always ask for clarification.

If you’re booking your tickets, and you’ve not heard back from the venue, don’t assume that the tickets are there, phone the venue press office and ask. This will save you time and energy later on.

If you’re not sure about something an editor has asked you to do, email them back and ask again. I would say that most of the problems that I have had to deal with as an editor have stemmed from people not being clear and doing what they think is right, not what is right. Remember, your editor was new at this once too, email, call, text, tweet, just get in touch with them and ask.

If you have not heard from your editor, email them again and reconnect. Inboxes fill up quickly, so you need to keep pushing yourself to the top of the pile. Don’t assume that an editor has asked you to do something, or wants you to do something. Email and ask.

The Editor Is Not Always Right

Despite appearances, editors are only human, they aren’t infallible, and they make mistakes. However, unlike writers, editors have a lot more responsibility on their shoulders, and have to consider a number of issues.

The editor’s word is final, so arguing with them is not always a good idea, but if you feel that they’ve made an error, you have the right to reply. I was once a little heavy-handed when editing a review, and the writer sent me a very strong email, arguing that they refused to be “censored” and other words informing me that they were really very cross about what I’d done.

We eventually came to an agreement, and they were happy, but I stand by my initial thoughts that a synopsis should never be two paragraphs long, ever.

However, and I cannot stress this enough, don’t argue with the editor when you’re applying for work, because the editor knows the publication they work for better than you, and gets emails from people like you everyday. Persistence is a great trait to have, but don’t take it too far, and remember to be thankful for any feedback that you get, because in this industry, you won’t get very much.

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One Response to “Adventures in Editing Or How Editing Taught Me to Be A Better Journalist”

  1. adithyaentertainment September 14, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

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