Coaching young writers

During my undergrad years, I spent some time as an editor for my school’s general magazine. It was my very first editing job and we used the Associated Press (AP) style guide. I had a number of responsibilities as the Features Editor, one of which was making sure the stories that went into the magazine didn’t completely blow. This meant helping new writers (typically freshman and sophomore journalism students, but not always) establish positive writing habits and practice ethical journalism.

Not every story turned into me was good and sadly, not every story that went into the magazine was great. But during that year I spent as an editor, I learned a lot about couching other writers and the disconnect you feel from the opposite side of the red pen.

The biggest challenge was working with writers who clearly had no idea what they were doing. This could include not attributing quotes, not using quotes at all, and blatant editorializing. Some habits are easier to correct then others. The hardest was definitely the editorializing, especially when a writer was working on a story that they suggested and knew a fair amount about.

One story we worked on was about the P90X system that was gaining popularity among students. The first draft of the article read more like an advertisement than a feature story. To correct this, I had to sit down with the writer and reevaluate what we both expected from the story. This was where the problem was. She thought the story was just explain, explain, explain, when really what I expected was a story about students and their choice to switch to this workout rather than go to the gym.

It was this meeting that changed the way I assigned stories and functioned as an editor. Sure, line-by-line editing is one thing, but making sure your writer understands what they are doing is most the battle.

My advice to anyone who finds themselves in a position of working with inexperienced writers: help them understand what you want. Lay it out clearly and make sure they understand it before you send them off to write another draft. I met with this writer three times because I thought she understood when clearly she did not.

As a writer, you are responsible for the content in an article, how you portray that content, and how you deliver that content. The editor is there to be the gateway to the reader, not to rewrite your article.

And if your editor tells you to rewrite the article, open a blank document and rewrite it. Changing one or two lines, cutting that one paragraph and moving that quote up does not make it a new article, and chances are it’s still wrong. Plus, the second time you write something is probably going to result in a better draft than the last one anyway.


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