— This article appeared in the April-June 2012 issue of Vidura, a quarterly journal of the Press Institute of India: http://pressinstitute.in —
A well-edited report has no factual, grammatical and stylistic errors. Accuracy, brevity and clarity help readers or listeners to quickly get the news and remember the key points. Unlike Rudyard Kipling’s elephant, people may not have insatiable curiosity unless they are told who-what-when-where-why (5Ws) and how (1H) in a language that obeys the principles of clear writing. An understanding of the news values of timeliness, prominence, proximity, conflict and human interest is essential for sub-editors to choose news stories and suitably edit them for different media.
The single act of processing news copy may be divided into what may be called the seven Rs of sub-editing: 1. Read 2. Remove 3. Rectify 4. Replace 5. Reorder 6. Rewrite and 7. Revise. But this division is arbitrary and is not without overlaps. Sub-editors usually skip some of the Rs when they sprint against the clock to meet deadlines. This perhaps explains why there are more mistakes in the first editions of newspapers. Later, the night editors and their team settle down to tackle the errors with the help of the seven Rs. Consequently, the later editions are more reader-friendly.
Any raw report must be read twice. A casual first reading would tell us the sense of the story. This should be followed by a second critical reading, which would reveal the copy’s merits and faults. Some reporters turn in such fine self-edited reports that the other six Rs become unnecessary; and the sub-editors have nothing more to do than write some effective headlines for such stories.
Philip A. Yaffe, in his book titled The Gettysburg Approach To Writing & Speaking Like A Professional, says: “Nothing in a text is neutral. Whatever doesn’t add to the text, subtracts from it.” It is, therefore, the sub-editor’s job to remove from a report anything that does not enrich it. This could be a superfluous word or phrase, a libelous sentence or an optional paragraph. The reporter may not like it, but it is a job that must be done in the interest of the readers. Some examples may help clarify this point:
The panda eats, shoots and leaves
(The comma changes the meaning)
(Major is a superfluous word. But water crisis makes sense)
The ship will arrive in the month of May
(The phrase the month of is superfluous)
The secretary and the treasurer
(One must be careful here. If the phrase refers to two persons, then it is correct. But if one person holds both these posts, then the correct phrase is the secretary and treasurer)
Spot and correct all spelling and capitalization errors. Insert appropriate honorifics such as Mr or Ms or Dr before names of persons. Wrong dates and figures must also be rectified. Yaffe says that long sentences should be checked for logical coherence and short ones for logical linkage. A long sentence with unrelated ideas must be split up into shorter sentences; and short sentences comprising related ideas must be fused into a longer sentence.
The fourth R replaces unfamiliar words with the familiar; the long with the short; and the ambiguous with the precise. Malapropisms, as in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Rivals) must be spotted and replaced with the right words. Here are some fourth R examples:
Wend one’s way to the market
(Go to the market)
Dismount from a bus
(Get down from a bus)
Released from hospital
(Discharged from hospital)
To illiterate him
(To obliterate him)
A news report must have the inverted pyramid structure. This means that events are arranged in the order of diminishing significance. So there is a need to reorder the paragraphs of news stories written in the chronological order.
The order of words may alter the meaning of a sentence. In some cases it can improve the rhythm. Thomas Elliott Berry, in his book titled The Most Common Mistakes In English Usage, says: “Whenever possible, modifiers should be arranged according to length, with the shortest preceding the others.” He suggests that the sentence He was disheveled, dirty, and untidy should be reordered as He was dirty, untidy and disheveled. Berry also says that modifiers should always be arranged in a logical sequence. The same is true of verbs too. Here are some fifth R examples:
to go boldly
(to boldly go is rhythmic though the infinitive is split)
A policeman misbehaved with a woman in a drunken state
(A policeman in a drunken state misbehaved with a woman)
She ate, dressed and bathed
(She bathed, dressed and ate)
Inexperienced sub-editors with remarkable linguistic skills have the irresistible urge to rewrite every report. This urge must be resisted for it is the job of the reporters to rewrite their stories. However, sub-editors may rewrite for the following reasons: 1. Merging different stories on the same topic; 2. Summarizing a story for want of space; 3. Highlighting the news point; and 4. Simplifying the copy for average readers. But a rewriter should as far as possible use the original words of the reporter.
Revise the edited report to check whether the changes are justified. The revision may help either fix hitherto unspotted errors or fine-tune the report so that the readers get a newsy copy that is easy to read and easy to remember.