June’s Question of the Month: Are you your own best editor?

I learned early in my years of reporting not to rely on an editor. Many times editors save us from an embarrassing error, and that means they are doing their jobs well. But there are also editors adept at making shredded beef out of copy and then blaming the writer for being “unclear” when the hatchet job results in an error. Same goes for headline writers.

Being your own best editor means answering the questions you know the editor will ask before you turn in your work. Don’t just hope the editor won’t ask. You know the editor will ask. And if the editor can’t reach you on deadline, then you know the worst-case scenario: The editor will be forced to work around you, and that can be a very bad thing.

Imagine picking up your article, or perhaps column or short story, once it’s in print and choking on your scrambled eggs when you read it. It happened enough times to me early in my reporting years, although I was probably just having toast.

One of my worst experiences occurred when I had written about a tiny town’s post office that was about to be closed. The post office was one of just a couple meeting spots in town—a place where people connected.

I had just returned from a relaxing vacation and picked up the newspaper. The story’s headline dubbed the small post office a “Gossip Stop.” Perhaps had I been more direct that yes, there indeed probably was gossip shared there, the town may have been spared the headline. But there is gossip shared at every diner, watercooler, and barber shop in America, so it goes without saying. There certainly were lots of arguments supporting closing the post office in the name of efficiency, but this was an “end of an era” kind of story. Perhaps if I had just spelled that out more clearly in the article, the headline would have been more kind. Maybe nothing I could have done would have prevented that unfortunate headline.

I left my editor a strongly worded voicemail. I don’t remember who wrote the headline or why. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s best to headlong address the questions the editor will raise, so that the editor will feel confident rather than cranky about your work.

And if you take time to read and re-read and re-read your pieces before submitting them, it will make an editor’s job that much easier. An editor will appreciate you for it, and you will be more likely to enjoy your breakfast.

-Jennifer Sandmann

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