Monday, March 30, 2009

The difference between writing and editing

In his classic, “How to write” (reprinted by Jaico), the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock says most people confuse writing with putting words on paper. When you have not thought hard enough and have little to say, no wonder the writing is difficult and you ramble. Writing, he says, is mostly thinking and only a tiny part is actually spent putting pen to paper or typing at a keyboard.

Being able to write implies wanting to think. So is it surprising that those who have interesting thoughts are also likely to be the ones who write well. But while thinking up racy plots or an argument may be a necessary condition to writing, it is not sufficient. For you have to have the correct technique and skills to describe your thoughts or narrate what happens to your characters.

If writing has got so much to do with thinking, then what about editing? Because editing comes after writing, editing also means re-thinking or re-writing. Some gifted writers may revise by themselves. But most are so washed out after expressing ourselves or gathering the facts of a story, that we prefer having another to do the cleaning up, the tightening and tidying up, touching up or boiling down that includes the job of editing – before the piece is served up to the reader.

Editing, as communication, is different from writing, which concerns expression. The complete and exclusive focus on the reader is what distinguishes the editor from the writer. Not that the writer is self-indulgent and ignores the reader. But the editor allows the reader to constantly breathe down her neck, as she sits to edit or re-write.

Just one example of a guide to good writing and editing: the classic “UPI Stylebook”, the authoritative handbook for writers, editors and news directors, says United Press International (UPI) journalists have, since 1942, perfected the craft of writing news “for the ear”. Billy Ferguson, former managing director of UPI, who compiled the UPI stylebook of 1992, is acknowledged as the creator of the broadcast writing style and a master of writing “for the ear.” Learn anything by him and you have a treasure.

I shall return often to the theme of writing and editing. I included a piece by Baruk Feddabonn, “Should you read poetry?” because I wanted journalists to be as sensitive as poets.

Comment, before you proceed to the next post of this column.


Huned said...

Earlier we had the writers who knew their subjects and the sub-editors who carried out the task of polishing the copy, making it grammatically correct and, as you have pointed out, touching it up with the readership profile in mind. But today re-writing or sub-editing in most newspapers and magazines simply means transforming badly written copy into something that can make basic sense. That's because we find that just about anyone tries to get into journalism with no real knowledge of either the subject or the language. As for any intellectual thought, well, that's just a wish that mostly never comes true in most of the copies.

Huned Contractor (One who has truly suffered the process of re-writing at his last job with a so-called reputed publishing house).

Joe Pinto said...

Huned - my colleague from the old Maharashtra Herald days - thanks for sharing your experiences of suffering. Who would have thought subs suffered!

feddabonn said...

@joe: i have rarely given very much thought to 'how' i write, though i try to make it as tight as i can. thank you for making us think about the 'how' of writing. good stuff especially for bloggers, who often dash off things without a thought!

@huned: i initially celebrated the rise of the bloggers, especially on sites like in a validation of your experience, the writing is often mediocre. the lack of thought in those who comment and respond is even worse. possibly we are part of some great dumbing down!

Joe Pinto said...

baruk feddabonn - re: the great dumbing down - my suspicion is that the teaching of language itself has been devalued. I suffer its consquences whenever I teach post-grad mass comm classes.

Look at what CBSE is telling our school-children about spelling: that as long you communicate it does not matter how you spell.

From that position of indiscipline, the decline and fall into confusion is fast but imperceptible.

A senior mass comm student of mine spells "fought" as "fot" rhyming it with "cot". That would have delighted GBS (George Bernard Shaw) and will thrill the simple Americans.

It's a silly example, but it illustrates the throes of language. Not just English, all languages are in crisis.

My reason for getting back to basics in this post is to anchor my students and friends, like you, so that the storm does not overwhelm the few of us who still care and bother.

Gauri Gharpure said...

an immensely helpful article.. i remember once you had said that reporters have so much to say, and are so flooded with information that you cannot expect them to tidy up everything in place. That is the job of the sub..

however, what to do of those mofussil reporters who ramble on and on.. and the way they pile up a series of news in each single line, changing from past to present, errant grammar, etc makes the head spin.. another thing is laxness in collecting basic info-- messing up names and age. and if you point these things out, you appearing nagging..

abd said...

Dear Sir,
After attending your lectures (and now, after reading your blog-posts), editing has become a part of our thinking process.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Gauri,

For starters, let us see what happens if we were to take your own writing as an example of the confusion, emanating from the mofussil areas:

Here is your original piece:

"however, what to do of those mofussil reporters who ramble on and on.. and the way they pile up a series of news in each single line, changing from past to present, errant grammar, etc makes the head spin.. another thing is laxness in collecting basic info-- messing up names and age. and if you point these things out, you appearing nagging.."

Now this, Gauri, has been "dashed off", typing whatever came out of your head. In this sense, you are behaving more or less like a mofussil stringer.

See how I "iron out" your piece. Compare it to (with?) the original work of art.

"However, what do I do with mofussil stringers who ramble; who pile up bits and pieces of news in a single sentence; switching between the past and present tenses; and with grammatical errors too? It makes my head spin.

"Another thing: they are lax in collecting basic info: messing up names and ages.

"And if you point these mistakes out to them, you appear to be nagging ..."

Notice how I have "ironed out" your piece.


Now my suggestions about what you may do. Firstly, don't bother if you appear to be nagging.

Looking back at the period (1983-90 and 1993-96) when I was a chief sub-editor in Maharashtra Herald (MH) Pune, my colleague at MH, Manmohan Sinha, who rose to become NE at HT, Lucknow, and is currently a Regular Visiting Faculty at SIMC and other mass comm places in Pune, says the subs used to call Joe Pinto a mother-in-law, because of the way he used to nag them.

So Gauri, if a mofussil stringer accuses you of "nagging", take it as a compliment.

Secondly, do not crib: "they ramble on and on.. and the way they pile up a series of news in each single line, changing from past to present, errant grammar, etc."

If your head spins, good. That is what you are paid for, as a sub: to clean the "mess" mofussil stringers make.

Even the big circulation ad-packed national brands, that pass themselves off as newspapers, are so full of mistakes because:

1. The sub desk will not do the job of "nagging" that they're paid for, OR
2. The editorial managers (NOT editors) have devalued subs to such a low level that reporters, (who are great at fact-gathering!!!) aspire to masquerade as word-smiths.

Gauri, call regular meetings of mofussil reporters and tell them that you are paid to clean up the mess they make. If they choose to call it "nagging", tell them you accept it humbly as a compliment.

And what are mofussil stringers paid for? To scrupulously collect all the facts: the 5Ws and 1H. Give them a lecture on precision and accuracy. (As a sub, can you tell the difference between precise and accurate?) If they cannot do that, they shall not be paid.

I'm sorry I have launched into a lecture. But you provoked me into this answer: fair and long.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Smita said...

I have a totally different query. the usage of punctuations like "--", ":" and "-". I have often struggled with them. Sir, Could you suggest a book?
regards, smita

Mohan said...

Hi Joe, Huned and all the rest of you who have spoken up for good English,

What I am going to post below will shock you to the core. This is a report by a young student of Mass Communication, which I had the great misfortune to edit.
Pardon all the cliches, but to say that I am appalled by the person's command over the language would be a gross understatement ! I am repeating the copy exactly as it was given to me with the heading. Not even a punctuation has been changed. If this the future of Indian journalism, I'm glad I got out in time. Enjoy!


The common thing in all accident i.e. all this accident happen due to only black street dog. Is there any connection between the black dog and the Sunday?

One bus collided to another bus on Sunday on highway near Lonavala. 10died and 26 injured. 5 peoples are very serious. The accident was very horrible. Driver died on spot. S.P. and police inspector came on the spot to watch situation. Police investigation has started.

One bus is coming from one side and second bus was coming from opposite side, suddenly one dog come in front to the one bus so to save dog’s life, bus driver turns steering to right side. The same time bus was coming from opposite side bus driver couldn’t stop bus. And accident was happen.

Second accident happened in Warje. One guy was going by his bick at MG Road. He was riding his bick speedily. Two three dogs came front on his bike so he confused and to save their life he apply break, the road was wet so his skidded of the road and he fallen down. One bike dashed another bike and due to this the bike rider also fallen down. Both bike rider wear died on the spot.

Third accident was happen at old Bangalore highway. Five people run over. A middle age person was driving his car. One black dog has sat on the road. That timing was night the time so the car driver couldn’t saw the dog early and when he went closed to the dog he saw that dog and to save that dog’s life he turned his steering to left side so the car went on footpath. On that footpath five people wear sleeping. Car was run over from those people and they died.

All accident happened on Sunday some are saying that there is one common thing i.e. there is one black dog. Is it any evil power who trying to kill the people. People are saying that is because in all accident the black dog was found. In one accident he was crossing the road and another accident he has sat on the road.

Second common thing i.e. this all accident happen on Sunday. Is there any specific reason to happen this accident? Is there any connection between Sunday and the black dog? Some astrologist are saying that ‘Kandoba’ God is unhappy with people so may be it is happen due to his unhappiness. So we have to pray him. We have to worship him.

Mohan said...

Hi Smita,
Try getting a book titled 'Common Embarrassing Mistakes in English and how to correct them' by Ann-Marie Lindstrom. It might be of help to you.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Wow! Enjoyed the lecture and more so the example. Will be more careful now on.

Smita said...

Thanks, Mohan.

Dr. Thanawala said...

This is an apt piece, at such times when we see innumerable errors creeping into the 'The Times of India'. At one time, this reputed newspaper was held in all reverence for the correct writing, proof-reading and editing. In my school days, we would rarely spot a mistake even on careful reading. Now, its most common to spot atleast one mistake everyday even on casual reading. SERIOUS, DONT YOU AGREE?
Standards of writing as well as editing need to be restored to some level. MORAL STANDARDS HAVE FALLEN GREATLY. Hope you have a practical solution to it.

I belong to the category of thinker, wanting to launch myself as a writer and blogger with your inspiration!!

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Smita,

THE suitable book that will answer such of your queries is, "The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage" first published in 1994.

Rajiv Beri of Macmillan India published the First Indian reprint in 1999 and priced it at a give-away Rs. 250.

The book has a section (pages 237-276) on "Punctuation" that answers your specific query about where the period as well other punctuation marks like the question mark, exclamation point, comma, semi-colon, colon and apostrophe should be placed with quotation marks.

Then a separate section (pgs. 276-279) on "Quotation Marks" compiles these rules in one place.

Except that it is in American English, the Guide should be a must on your reference shelf. It answers a host of other questions too, which you may not have known were questions in editing.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Smita said...

Thanks Sir. Have made a note and shall soon get them...