It’s a time-honored progression: you start writing for your college newspaper and before you know it you’re recruited to be an editor. Suddenly, badly written articles are being thrown at you left and right and you don’t have a clue about what to do.
This isn’t unusual. At many college newspapers, editing skills are picked up on the fly. With that in mind, here’s a list of eight things for new editors to watch out for.
Buried leads – it’s not uncommon for beginning journalism students to do what’s called burying the lead. That means they put the most important information in a news story down around the eighth paragraph instead of in the first sentence, where it belongs. So keep an eye out for buried leads in every story you edit.
Weak reporting – some journalism students are naturally talented writers but produce stories that are thin on the reporting. Maybe they haven’t interviewed enough people or provided enough background information. Maybe, on a controversial issue, they haven’t gotten both sides of the story. Think of it this way – does the story fully flesh out what’s said in the lead? If not, then you as the editor have to send the story back to the reporter and tell them to keep digging.
Bad grammar – this is probably the most basic thing you can do as an editor. Even if you haven’t yet mastered the newswriting format or AP style, you should be able to spot poorly written sentences and fix them.
AP style errors – one of the hallmarks of a well-edited student paper is that all the stories, from news articles on page 1 to the sports section, follow AP style. Why is this important? Because just about every professional news outlet in the U.S. uses AP style, so you’re going to have to learn it sooner or later. There is no simple way to fix AP style errors other than to get out your AP Stylebook and use it. You can also check the AP style cheat sheet on this website.
Long sentences and paragraphs – journalism students accustomed to writing research papers tend to produce never-ending sentences and gigantic paragraphs. But in newswriting we keep things short, sweet and to the point. So if you see a ridiculously long sentence that’s trying to convey too many ideas at once, break it up into two or even three sentences. And remember, paragraphs in news stories should generally be just one to two sentences each.
Opinions – a lot of beginning journalism students like to insert their opinions into their articles, which is fine for things like movie reviews. But there’s no place for opinion-mongering in a straight-news story.
First person – journalism newbies also seem to like putting the first-person “I” into their stories, something that should make any editor cringe. Remember, there’s no “I” in news.
Libel – does the story contain unsubstantiated material that could damage a person’s reputation? This may be libelous and any story with such content should be discussed with your paper’s editor-in-chief and faculty adviser before publication.
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