Monday, February 19, 2007

Leaving Fingerprints

Editors want to leave them. They want a sign that they read that story, by God. I understand.

But resist.

Just because you can change a reporter's story doesn't mean that you should. Just because you can tweak and alter every sentence doesn't mean you should. Resist, editors of the world. You have nothing to lose but your nitpicks.

Understand, I'm not defending errors. You should ferret those out and exterminate them like ... er ... ferrets. But if you can't tell the difference between your favorite nitpick and an honest-to-God mistake, then you need some time alone.

Editors play a peculiar role in newsrooms, after all.

A huge amount of copy flows across our computer screens, yet we don't write it. We often design layouts for that copy, but we don't physically print the newspaper. We write headlines, sure, but those are then subjected to the stern glances of our peers. They often (thankfully) make us redo them.

We have great potential power. Yet, if the machinery of the newsroom flows correctly, we don't use much of it.

But we want to use it. Oh, how we want to leave something of ours on a story. So we pick something, something petty. We make all attributions "Jones said" rather than "said Jones." We decide to eliminate all semicolons. We decide no paragraph can be longer than three sentences and enforce our will ruthlessly.

Each of these nitpicks can be defended. (I'm sympathetic to all of those examples.) But after we spend our energy and time making these changes, how much better is the story? Even the most grouchy among us will admit: not very.

So hold back. Restrain yourselves. Make the changes that need to be made. Find the real mistakes. Rework the bad writing. Communicate and collaborate with reporters. Make the stories better.

Don't leave your fingerprints all over something just because you can.