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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the February 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Editing U.S. 1

How do you edit a weekly newspaper such as U.S. 1? Where

do you begin, what do you do, and how do you know if you have done

a decent job when you are finished?

Now I realize that many readers will not care how it is done, no more

than I care about how the mechanic accesses my car engine when he

changes the oil and does a lube job. On the other hand, if the car

mechanic got run over by a truck some day and if his kids wondered

what the old man did all day, someone in the shop would be able to

show them and possibly bring out a manual explaining details of the

these operations.

I’m not sure anyone could do the same for a newspaper editor. So in

one of those "what if I get run over by a truck tomorrow"

moments, I decided to write down a description of how I edit an article

(acknowledging of course that other editors surely attack the problem

in entirely different ways, some no doubt far more effective than

mine). For me it begins with a formula that has been attributed to

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno: "Pay attention to the details

and winning comes naturally."

So I begin my editing by reading the submitted article with an eye

for appositive commas, for example, the ones that come before and

after a phrase such as this one, and for beginning and ending quotation

marks and single quotation marks. I remove unnecessary commas. I make

numbers 10 and over numerals rather than words (unless they are used

in close proximity to a number under 10), and I delete the zeros in

numbers over 1 million.

If something happens in the 1990s, I don’t believe it needs an apostrophe,

but the rule changes if the 1990s on second reference becomes the

’90s. Because the rest of the world has become acronym happy, I insist

on spelling out first references. I spell check the article with an

eye toward proper names all passing the spell check after the first

reference — then I know that if we have spelled the name incorrectly

at least we have been incorrect through the entire article.

Does all of this make the article any better? Probably not. But it

forces me to read the story more closely than I would otherwise and

raises questions about its organization and content, and what it does

not include that it might include. At this point I switch to a new

analogy: A good story is like a good cocktail party. You should meet

some interesting characters (who thanks to the writer’s judicious

use of direct quotation are never boring or banal), you should feel

transported for a few minutes to another place and another time, and

at the end you may even feel that this entertaining event also has

been worthwhile in other ways.

I was pressed for time as this issue went to press and the only story

I examined critically was Carolyn Foote Edelmann’s piece on the Plainsboro

Preserve (pages 30-33). As Preview editor Nicole Plett originally

presented the piece and its sidebar, which describes how this 630-acre

plot remained undeveloped in the midst of the nation’s most densely

populated state, the main article and three photos took up the first

two pages, and the sidebar was squeezed into page 32.

I first read the stories for the details (debating whether to capitalize

the word "preserve" when used alone and finally deciding it

wasn’t worth the trouble of changing what was already there —

it’s a capital P). Then I gave the piece the cocktail party test,

and decided that the story of the venue was as important as the guests

(the various flora and fauna artfully introduced by Edelmann). So

I moved the sidebar from page 32 to page 31 and incorporated a photograph

in it.

Did that mean that Plett had erred in assigning the sidebar with no

photo to the third page? Not at all. I probably would have done the

same if I had started from scratch. But the best stories are not written,

but rewritten. And the best editing is often the re-editing. We would

keep improving these pieces forever but for the harsh reality of the

printer’s deadline.

With that layout change I looked again at the contents of the story.

I agonized for a few minutes over whether or not to include the directions

to the Preserve in the third paragraph of the main story rather than

at the end with other listing information. I kept the directions up

high, since the location of this nature refuge is so critical to the

story. After that brief, internal debate, I double checked the two

Web links at the end to make sure they access the right Web pages.

After all that I went back to the story in desktop publishing form

and chiseled away a few words here, a fraction of an inch on a photograph

there, and pretty soon had the final piece filling four pages of U.S.

1 — right to the line, of course.

So it’s all very simple: Just pay attention to details and don’t sweat

the small stuff. If I don’t get run over by a truck I might come back

next week and reveal how to combine all these articles into one balanced

newspaper, with every story fitting exactly to the line. And the week

after that I might review how well we are doing at U.S. 1 compared

to all the other competitors out there.

In the meantime let us all be careful crossing the street.

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