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NYT memo highlights eternal struggle between editors and writers

By Russell Working | Posted: January 9, 2018

Every writer, whether a journalist or corporate communicator, knows the familiar dread we feel when a heavy-handed editor begins monkeying around with our copy. [Russell—that’s two clichés in one sentence.—ed.]

We can’t shake the secret conviction that our approach is best, no matter how many times editors save our bacon [now a third. And why bacon, come to think of it? Why not jelly beans or kumquats?—ed. ].

That sentiment is captured [passive—ed.] in a satirical memo making the rounds among New York Times staffers, as well as among readers chuckling over the sendup of the Gray Lady’s story-writing formula [awkward. Rewrite—ed.].

[FREE GUIDE: 10 ways to improve your writing today]

Apparently, the ink-stained wretches [please stop—ed.] at the Times have long been sulking over what they regard as editorial intrusiveness. Though I am fortunate to work for terrific editors at Ragan/PR Daily [enough with the flattery. You’re still not getting a raise this year—ed. ], I did recognize some editors from my past.

The memo, which purports to be instructions for Times editors, begins:

1. Your lead here. Write what you think you know about the subject, what you feel happened, what your gut tells you.

2. Move the reporter’s second graf down to the bottom where it can be bitten off in the composing room.

3. Fashion new second graf from material deep down in story, preferably with a mysterious second reference to someone not introduced yet.

4. For a quote, get the reporter to put into someone’s mouth what you believe or suspect happened.

The in-house commentary was clearly written by a frustrated reporter. It has been circulating since 1994, former Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert blogged last year.

The memo’s original author, Ralph Blumenthal, “was having fun with how newspaper space limitations cause all kinds of editing slight-of-hand,” Limpert writes. [Actual editor’s note: It’s sleight of hand. No hyphens.]

Oh, no, Jack. It’s not about space limitations. Not at all. But carry on.

Limpert adds, “But as a magazine editor, my first challenge often echoed Blumenthal’s first rule: ‘Your lede goes here.’ Plenty of times I cut the first 100 or more words of a story to find something—usually an anecdote—to use as a lede that would entice the reader to want to know more and to read on.”

[Same here.—ed.]

Now, hold your horses, Jack. [Cliché. And why horses? Why not chickens, or hogs?—ed.] This story is supposed to be about our gripes about editors. Don’t tell me writers are wordy and have trouble focusing. [Yes, you are and you do.—ed.]

As for that memo, it seems to have lasting power at the Times.

Let us hope that despite the anguish felt on both sides of the editorial desk, the relationship prospers. After all, we need each other. We should strive for a partnership that produces the best copy possible.

“I tell editors to think of themselves as symphony conductors,” Jill Geisler told the Columbia Journalism Review. “They don’t play every instrument; they have stars who do. It’s the leader’s job to get the best out of each one of them.”

[Russell, your last five grafs were repetitive. I’ve trimmed them.—ed.]

@byworking