Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Efficacy of Editing Practices: Literature Review

Yvonne Teems

In addition to printing a newspaper every week or every day, an editor has many demands on his or her time and energy. Marketing managers are placing increasing pressure on editors to include content that will increase sales; publishers are nagging editors to organize or chair newspaper-sponsored events; and reporter positions need to be filled with trained writers who will keep the paper running while the editor tackles these responsibilities elsewhere. But hiring trained reporters is not always a task that can be crossed off of the to-do list with ease. Editors of small- to medium-sized papers often must hire novices right out of college, and those novices come with writing backgrounds that aren’t in sync with the newspaper environment. The editor must be aware of where the novice comes from and what the novice needs to learn in order to help the novice adapt to the new workplace.

The Novice Writer
The recent literacy history of the novice reporter in most cases will consist of his time at a university. The way the writer writes and learns in a university is very different from how the writer operates in the workplace. Editors, in trying to adapt novice writers to the workplace, must understand the environment from which writers are coming in order to help them adapt. Students in a university are accustomed to a type of learning called “guided participation,” in which students function in a system where the purpose is student learning (Dias et. al. 186). Students understand that the activities in which they engage – assignments, lectures, presentations – are all created for the purpose of their education. Because students can easily recognize opportunities for learning, they will – when properly motivated – be able to learn to the best of their abilities (Dias et. al.) The fact that students recognize that every activity in which they engage is created for their learning might lead students to adopt an ego-centric way of thinking about all tasks, or what is called “an individualist ethos” (Dias et. al. 198) This “individualist ethos” is supported in the university because often individual students can adapt assignments to themselves. That is, if a student completes the task in his own way, but the task does not conform completely to assigned standards, as long as he learns something, he still is successful (Adam). What further reinforces this “individualist ethos” is the fact that often a professor’s comments on student work are not taken into a revision process because most students are not asked to revise. This leads students to believe that they can take or leave the professor’s opinion on how to create the best text. In other words, students adapt assignments to themselves, as opposed to adapting themselves to assignments, or to someone else’s goals (Adam).

The above details describe the novice on his first day in the newsroom: Ego-minded, theory-laden and unaware of how to adapt to his first new writing environment. The editor wants to help the novice transition into a person who is a contributing member of the team that will help produce a newspaper every day or week. This means the writer has to be aware that he is part of an organization, and his work is a contribution to that organization (Dias et. al.). The writer also must acquire practical skills that build on the theory he learned in school so that he can become a productive member of the team who can also stand on his own two feet. In order to help the novice writer transition from where he is upon entering the workplace to where he needs to be, the editor needs to help the writer socialize; help the writer find new ways to learn; and help the writer gain practical skills.

One of the biggest tasks the novice must complete in order to adapt to his new writing environment is adapt well to his new work environment. That is, the novice writer must be socialized into his new community so that he can understand and adapt to the community’s culture, politics and workplace norms (Katz). The better the writer adapts to the new community, the more easily he will adapt to the new writing requirements of his job (Katz, MacKinnon, Dias et. al.). Indeed, it is not just a matter of accepting writing requirements, but also the writer must understand the culture of the organization so that he can write to further its specialized goals.

New Ways of Learning
Socializing into a new writing environment involves adapting to the new learning methods of that environment. In the workplace environment, novices must adapt to the “legitimate peripheral participation” learning environment, which means he must figure out how to learn when learning is not the ultimate goal of the exercise (Dias et. al. 187). The novice simply has to join in the work and learn as he goes along, trying to pick up new pieces of knowledge on the way. The purpose of his work is not to learn from it, but it is to complete the work. Even though the purpose of the work is not to learn from it, he still can learn by doing it (Dias et. al.) Because the novice is accustomed to the academic, “guided participation” way of learning in which learning is the ultimate goal, the novice may not recognize new ways to learn (Dias et. al. 186). The novice may not recognize all the available mentors to learn from or the opportunities in which the writer can learn, such as in conversations with defined or undefined mentors (Dias et. al.)

Because the novice writer may not be aware of potential learning opportunities or may be accustomed to academic-styled opportunities, the editor may employ several tactics to ensure the writer socializes into the new workplace and improves as a writer. Many suggest a “coaching” or “review” style of teaching writing, in which the editor sits down with the novice to go over the first attempt at the writing task (Adam; Katz 61; Wiist 70). The coaching style does several things to help the novice adapt and learn: It first offers an opportunity for the “coach” to socialize the writer into the new community by mentioning here and there details about the workplace culture, politics and norms (Katz 61). The one-on-one session also allows the editor to help the novice adjust his attitude if he’s thinking like a student: that his writing is for him, and not the organization; or that an editor’s revisions are just suggestions, and not requirements (Adam).

Helping Novices Gain Practical Skills
Managers also can employ several other tips to help novice writers adapt: Provide novice writers with good feedback in addition to critical comments; avoid placing too much input on a draft; allow novice writers opportunities to observe senior writers because they are good mentors; require novices to read other newspapers and older copies of that newspaper in order to better adjust to the new discourse community; and start novice writers out with smaller tasks and allow them to build up to more responsibility (Beaufort).

In the newsroom, there are some specific things editors can do to help new reporters adapt to the workplace and new writing environment. Just as the novice worker enters the workplace with a university-influenced background, the reporter often enters the newsroom with a journalism school-influenced background. The journalism student is conditioned to write in a way that is not precisely in sync with what is demanded of the novice reporter in the newsroom. Journalism students who come from most journalism schools will have a deep background in journalism theory, but not necessarily a lot of training in practical skills (Arwood, Hickey). The practical skills journalism students do obtain can be narrow-minded: Journalism schools often place a heavy emphasis on the inverted pyramid style of journalism writing. In addition, while journalism students will know communications history, they may not know much about how a newspaper functions as a business (Arwood). Unlike journalism novices in the past, students coming out of journalism schools today will have less of a focus on their duty to serve the community, have less basic knowledge in subjects such as history and economics and have less of a grasp of current events (Hickey). In addition to the deficiencies in necessary general knowledge novices will have upon entering the newsroom, journalism school graduates also will be accustomed to a different editing style than that of the newsroom. Journalism school graduates have been edited in the news writing classroom in a similar way to how they’ve been “corrected” in the composition classroom: with markings on a paper that’s handed back to the student with no requirement for revision (Wiist). Additionally, the journalism classroom has forced students to focus on writing a rhetorical lead, instead of writing the lead in order to direct the rest of the story (Pitts).

Need for Further Research

While many have made conclusions about how best to help writers adapt to their new workplaces and become better writers, little work has been done that explores the best ways to help novice reporters adapt to newsrooms and become better writers. Editors seem to know what they want, and the differences between what they want and what they’re getting in the classes graduating from journalism schools have been defined. But little research has been done to explore what editing methods are the most common in newsrooms and which of those methods work best to help novice writers improve. How effective are common newsroom editing practices today? The answer to this question will help the editor cultivate productive reporters, discourage turnover and save time and money in the long run.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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