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.