Neon sign in window that reads WHAT IS YUOUR STORY?

By Jacqui Banaszynski

The dance of editors and writers. Oh, the stories we all could tell!

Mine, during 20 years as a reporter, involve a lot of bratty behavior that would not be tolerated in today’s newsroom culture. I was far from alone in my impertinence, and far from the cheekiest. A top editor once wanted me, when I had senior reporter status in the newsroom, to get some especially fiesty staffers to moderate their behavior. My snapped retort: You can’t expect people to be pit bulls on the street and lap dogs in the newsroom. Ah, those were the chippy days…

After I finally went into editing I saw the world differently, or at least more fully. I realized I had some apologizing to do — not about everything, but about plenty enough. So I took the sweet man who had been my primary editor out for lunch at the best restaurant in downtown St. Paul, MInnesota. I told him to order whatever he wanted, and I had a bottle of bubbly waiting. (Drinks at lunch: Another thing that wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s newsroom culture.) Eventually, he asked what was up. I told him I wanted to thank him for being the best editor I could have asked for during some trying times and challenging stories, and that I was sorry for being such a pain in the bum. I expected he’d wave me off, dismissing my apology. Nope. Instead he took a few seconds, then looking me straight on: “Yes, you could be difficult. But you were worth it.”

I can’t imagine a more appreciated compliment, or a more humbling one.

Building partnership

I would wish, for those in the field now, to have such a partner at their side — because the partnership between writer and editor is key. I would also remind writers to realize the editor is juggling his/her own set of challenges, including the many demands of their own bosses and the many quirks of writers they work with.

One of my big surprises when I became an editor was to discover that writers did not want me to be the kind of editor I had always wanted; they wanted me to be the kind of editor they wanted — and each wanted something different. Writers also want attention to their needs, and especially to their copy, right now. That’s understandable; we all, as writers, wade through the shoals of insecurity. But it’s not very reasonable; being an editor is to be something of a juggler, and there are only so many apples, balls, plates, knives and flaming torches that fit in our hands at one time.

Were I made czarina of the journalistic world, I would decree that every editor take on the occasional reporting assignment and that every reporter sit in as a vacation sub for an editor. Short of that, I’d carve time for writers and editors to interview each other about their respective jobs, and how they do those jobs. What are they confident about? What worries them? What do they love to do and what makes them cringe? That this be a two-way conversation would be mandatory; I’ve found few career reporter/writers who have ever asked an editor what it’s like on their side of a story draft, and few editors who have asked reporters how they work in the field.

Maybe all of that comes down to treating our colleagues as we would treat valued sources: To lead not with judgments, but with sincere cuiousity, open-minded questions and the goal of understanding.

You can find lots of insight in past Storyboard posts that feature editors and editing. Do a search for “the pitch” or “pitching” or “editor-reporter relationships” or “self-editing.” Then dive into a new occasional series in Storyboard: What makes a good editor?

Further Reading