NOTES ON EDITING AND HEADLINE WRITING
by Chit Estella
- Life as a reporter is exciting, but life in the newsroom can be just as so. Newsroom work, in fact, can even be more stressful because it involves: copy editing, headline writing, sometimes layouting.
- But work is mostly editing: an editor edits the copy (that is, the story submitted by the reporter), looks at the text once it is printed out, and then looks at it again when it appears in the newspapers the following day.
- Editing is a never-ending work of improving a story. A story is often never perfectly edited. It can only get better with each editing. But because of the time constraint imposed by deadlines (in the case of The Manila Times, 8p.m.), one has to do the best within a limited time.
- Who can edit? How does one edit? Not everyone can, and not everyone knows how.
- The editing process does not – should not – begin with the editor. It should begin with the reporter himself/herself. A reporter who submits a copy (i.e. story) with corrections gives the impression that he/she has looked at her story before submitting this. It means, that just like a person who is about to leave the house, he/she first checks if he/she looks alright. If he/she sees that something is amiss (like a thread dangling from one’s shirt, a lock of hair out of place, an unbuttoned shirt, or an unzipped zipper, etc.) he/she does something about it.
Submitting a story without editing it is like leaving home without looking at the mirror to see how you look. Just as leaving home without looking well-groomed gives a bad impression to people who see you, submitting an unedited story leaves a bad impression on your editor.
- Formal editing work happens, however, in the newsroom. First, by the desk persons, and then by the editors in charge of a particular page (front page, metro page, hometown, sports, opinion, business, entertainment and style).
- Editing involves two things: grammar and style.
- Grammar involves mostly what you have learned in school. A student who did not do well in his/her grammar classes should not enter journalism; he/she is not likely to be a good grammarian when she enters the newspaper. A good foundation in English is needed to be a good editor. The capacity to edit is developed over a long period; one cannot have a crash course in editing.
- How does one develop editing skills?
First, by reading broadly and well. Good readers get to hone their grammatical skills and develop an ear for the language. They become familiar with the many ways that a word can be used and the ways an idea can be expressed. It develops good vocabulary and superior spelling skills. Reading well also develops in a person the ability to learn the nuances of a word or a phrase. One finds out why using one word is preferable to another in a particular context. One doesn’t get stuck with the same words, day in and day out, for the rest of one’s life. (For example: when does one use the word ‘politician’ and when does he use ‘political leader’ or ‘statesman’? What is the difference between a girl and a woman; and a woman and a lady?)
Second, y writing as much as one could. Writing is a good exercise; it gives you a feel for the work; and it makes you empathize with people who write. Chances are, it will make you a more sensitive editor.
Third, by developing patience. Good writers do not always make good editors, if only for the fact that writers are not always known to be patient people. One must be willing to go through details and to let a person look better, more intelligent, and more interesting than he/she actually is — and have no credit at all for doing these. (Many reporters are able to build careers on the skills of the unknown deskmen and editors. Only after employers have hired these reporters do they realize how well – or badly – the famous reporters actually write.)
- One also edits for purposes of style. By ‘style’, we mean the newspaper’s style. All newspapers have their own styles which they develop according to their own notions of brevity and accuracy.
Questions of style involve, for example, the way that the titles and positions of officials are written. Do you spell out President in President Ramos? Do you still mention his first name? When referring to him, do you capitalize it or not?
An editor must be familiar with the style of his newspaper. Otherwise, the newspaper will suffer from inconsistency and cause confusion among its readers.
In a way, style means rules. It tells you which way to go and how to go about it.
- Problems in Editing
For an overwhelming number of Filipinos, English is but a second language. We need to study to be familiar with it, to know the rules and develop, as what was said earlier, an ear for it.
The way we say things in Pilipino is different from the way we say these in English. In fact, some Pilipino expressions can never be translated into English and retain the flavor of the original form.
While both languages have some similarities in their rules, there are just as many differences. Very often, you would find in English newspapers in the Philippines mistakes such as : her wife, his husband, simply because in Pilipino or Tagalog, we simply say, kanyang asawa or asawa niya.
Subject and verb agreements also become a problem in English when one thinks with a Pilipino or Tagalog frame of mind. For example, ‘is’ and ‘are’ are often interchanged, overlooked or misused; in Pilipino there is no problem because we simply say ‘ay’ .
- Editing, while done sitting down, can be a very exhausting, tedious job. Ater some time, one becomes less alert, less sharp. It is for this reason that editing is best done by at least two persons.
- Headlines are the first things that attract us to a newspaper. The banner headline, more than the picture, makes us decide whether to buy a newspaper or not.
- What is a good headline?
*It is attractive because:
– it is immediate
– readers easily relate to it
– using very few words, it says what the story is all about.
* It is accurate because:
– it delivers exactly what it promises: no sensationalism, no exaggeration
– it is free of misinterpretation or double meanings.
- It takes time before one becomes very skilled in writing a good headline. And even with sufficient experience, there are just some occasions when writing the perfect headline becomes impossible.
- The length of the headline depends on a newspaper’s layout. Its appearance must blend with that of the overall design. A two-deck headline, for example, must be of equal length or proportions: one cannot have the first deck much too longer or short compared to the second deck.
Editor’s Note: This was written by Chit Estella when she was the
Managing Editor of The Manila Times from 1997-2001.