Friday, September 26, 2003

The 'J' Word

Editing — besides reinserting first references and deleting adverbs — involves making distinctions. All stories don’t hail from the same ZIP code.

All stories don’t hail from the same universe.

The usual differences apply. Some writers can’t string clauses together to save their souls but do admirable reporting. Some writers produce polished prose in which the president’s name is spelled incorrectly.

But the judgments we’re called to make can be subtler. For instance, is that colorful phrase evidence of a.) the reporter’s winning way with the language or b.) egregious overwriting? Both?

At times, no editing can be the best editing. Sometimes those peculiar words that scream out to be cut have a reason for being. Few reporters dump their notebooks into a computer file and run. (Relatively few.)

We can’t check every change we make, of course. But we have to know why we’re editing, and we need to know that the changes we make will improve the story.

Judgment, judgment, judgment.

That’s the first and only word when writing about these distinctions. That big project a team has slaved over for half-a-year differs from a crime brief written in 15 minutes by a night cops reporter.

Such distinctions, such needs for judgment never stop. We have to make them every day, and we have to make them in tight situations. We shouldn’t be afraid. We’re paid to read through school lunch menus and city council stories and features about basket weavers.

But we should think before we hack.