Sunday, November 16, 2008

My text editing background

This post primarily supports planned posts about writing, editing and expanded skills needed by contemporary PJs.

Unless it's necessary, I try to avoid using first person. Today it's required because this post is about my personal text editing process and background.

Although some of my longer pieces were (rightfully) criticized for verbosity, let's remember PJs must consistently summarize entire stories into two succinct sentences. These are rarely criticized for brevity. Few text reporters can make similar claims.

By seeing my training and editing process, writers might consider how editors and readers view their work. Additionally, PJs should realize they must have complete skill sets to compete for remaining jobs in a difficult market.

I've also been asked several times recently to edit and evaluate the work of other writers. Most of these pieces were written by non-journalists. While I'm known for being a stern editor of images, I edit writing more harshly because writing doesn't have the same physical limitations of photography.

Writers often select subject matter. Writers also tend to have more time to work on stories than visual reporters. A written story can be polished to its highest quality. PJs are much less likely to have this luxury.

In short, writers must not waste readers' time.

Writing background
In the Army, I studied writing as a hobby. While enlisted, I had some fiction work published and a song produced in Nashville. Upon release, I earned my first pro income as a freelance humor writer for a studio greeting card company.

In college, I won a literary award during my first semester. When I started journalism studies, I was a text reporter for the college paper. Later, I moved to news editor and ultimately to Editor of an independent university newspaper. Some of my stories won national awards.

I simultaneously worked on my visual reporting skills. I learned I could tell more stories to more people in less time with still images. Photojournalism remains the most powerful form of communication.

College experience
I never intended to be an editor. I wanted to be a reporter/PJ. However, my journalism instructors were world-renown editors and writing coaches. In college, I was one of the most qualified candidates for the news editing job, so I did it.

I learned much about quickly moving college students from novice writers to reporters. I mainly focused on the mechanics of the story. Once reporters understood the basics, they could produce better work. This approach allowed many reporters to advance rapidly, win collegiate writing awards and scholarships.

Turning pro
After graduation (and a lecture by David Leeson), I concentrated on getting a job only as a visual reporter. Leeson spent his first few years as a text reporter before switching to images and didn't want other PJs to waste valuable time. I followed his advice.

Once I was a staff PJ, I'd occasionally write extended cutlines, news stories, columns and even poetry. PhotoJournalism (this blog) evolved from these pro writing experiences.

Finding only the best
The Beaumont Enterprise had a monthly in-house newspaper content contest. The contest awarded cash prizes in the categories of writing, reporting, enterprise, editing (copy/design) and photo.

The winners of the contest weren't allowed to win the following month because they selected and judged the upcoming month. The results were released around the 20th of each month.

Consequently, each category winner had about 10 days to read, assess and select entries to be judged from a month's worth of newspapers in all five categories. By the contest meeting, each judge was familiar with the month's best work. The judging process only took about an hour to achieve consensus on two finalists in each category. These finalists were presented to the Editor for final selection of a winner.

While it was a noble endeavor, it turned something great (winning) into a chore (quickly reading 30 entire daily papers).

The process redefined my text editing style. I needed to quickly eliminate stories from the reading list. The pieces by other winners were immediately eliminated due to the contest rules. However, a significant volume of work remained to be considered.

During this review, I stopped reading stories if I found any mistake (fact, typo, grammar, style, etc.). I was only searching for the best examples. There's no way to defend a flawed story to other judges, so I'd move to the next story.

With red pen in hand, I tackled the papers. The second I found a mistake or lost interest in a story, I'd circle the mistake and/or draw a red slash at the point I jumped. It forced me to realize other people would do the same to my work. Hopefully, this made me a better writer.

Looking forward
While I'm doing fine as a freelancer, I prefer to be a staffer. Freelance feels too much like retirement. I'm not ready to retire.

Consequently, I've applied for several non-PJ jobs this fall. Despite the volume and quality of available professionals, I've been a short-list finalist for the following positions: copy editor/newspaper designer, associate book editor/designer and managing editor of a promising online publication.

All of these positions required well-rounded reporting and design skills. Most required above-average professional text editing skills. Collegiate PJs without these skills should take heed and learn these skills quickly and thoroughly.

I have several brands in the fire. I expect to continue work as a freelance PJ in the future. However, I'm continuing to learn and expand other skills to make myself more marketable to employers.

The current marketplace simply doesn't acknowledge any "dues paid" or dried laurels on a mantel. There's too much pro talent on the loose during this industrial crisis.

While all PJs prefer to shoot, we must expand our skills to handle whatever happens. Communicators with the ability to organize text, images, video and sound as an author, designer or editor have the strongest chances of survival in this industry or beyond.

Enough for now,