Want to be a Great Editor? Check the Reporting, But Don’t Forget AP Style


So you’re taking your first editing course, or you’ve signed on to be an editor on your student newspaper or website. Congratulations. Editing is obviously a very different skill from reporting or writing, but these are complimentary skills. Being a good writer makes you a better editor, and vice versa.

You probably think of editing as fixing things like grammar, spelling and Associated Press style. You’d be party right. Editing can actually be broken down into two broad categories, what I call macro and micro editing. Take a look at the graphic above.

This is the organizational structure of a typical newsroom. On the left column you see assignment editors, on the right, copy editors. In the middle are higher-ranked managing editors who oversee broad sections of the newsroom, and at the top are the editor and publisher. Obviously, the bigger the news outlet, the more editors there are. A very large newspaper like The New York Times will have dozens of editors.

At the very bottom of the graphic you see macro editing on the left and micro editing on the right. Assignment editors are macro editors, meaning they oversee the “big picture” aspect of news stories. They deal with reporters directly. They assign articles, discuss coverage with reporters, give tips on how to approach stories, and so on. When reporters finish their stories they send them to their assignment editor.

Again, assignment editors – macro editors – are looking at the big-picture. Is the story well-written? Is it thoroughly reported? Is it fair and balanced? Are there any factual errors? These are the issues macro editors are primarily focused on.

On the right side of the graphic we have micro editing. These are typically copy editors. Copy editors get stories after they’ve undergone a first edit by an assignment editor. Copy editors don’t deal with reporters often. They focus more on grammar, spelling, punctuation and AP style. They also typically write the headlines and lay stories out on the page. That’s micro editing.

Of course, these skill sets overlap. Assignments editors can fix grammar and spelling, and copy editors can catch things like factual mistakes or a lack of balance in a story. But broadly speaking, this is how these tasks are divvied up in a newsroom.

Some people are born to be macro editors. They love dealing with reporters and shaping news coverage in a broad, big-picture way. Others are micro editors through and through. They like catching small errors and polishing stories until they’re ready for publication.

You might have a natural talent for either macro or micro editing. But in your editing course you have to be able to do both, because macro and micro editing are equally important. The most important story in the paper can be ruined by thin reporting or factual errors. And even if a story gets the substance right, if it’s filled with misspelled words or AP style mistakes, no one will take it seriously.

So as you edit stories, train your brain to focus on both sides of the equation. I generally tell young editors to read a story through from start to finish before doing any editing, just so you know what it’s about. Then, make sure the story is well-reported, factual, objective and so on.

On the other hand, don’t forget to be exacting and precise in making sure that spelling, grammar and AP style are all correct. That’s where the micro editing comes in. Get both right – the macro and the micro – and you’ll have  a well-edited story.

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