Maybe they could try to teach editing

Howard Finberg of the Poynter Institute has published a thoughtful and provocative article on the future of journalism education, which I commend to you. I myself have no overarching framework or plan to suggest, but I have one small suggestion: Teach editing.

I see hands raised in the back of the room. "What?" you say. "Isn't editing a basic skill for journalists? What do you mean, start teaching it?"


Ah, we have civilians present. I should explain.

Journalism schools teach reporting and feature writing and editorial writing and things like that. But, as I pointed out yesterday, writing and editing are not identical skill sets. In many journalism programs, there is one course devoted to news editing or copy editing, usually limited to grammar and usage and headline writing, with admonitions against committing libel, often combined with instruction in design. (It's as if you signed up for a class in which the composition of verse and plein air painting were taught together.)


The need for a basic course, a micro-editing course focused on grammar and usage and syntax, is unmistakable. Students, and I am talking about university students aspiring to careers in writing and editing, are shockingly uninstructed in the mechanics of standard written English. Geoffrey Pullum scorns the traditional teaching of grammar, and I'm sure he's right, but my students don't even have that. They have some half-understood superstitions about the passive voice and a few other shibboleths. It's as if their teachers sent them off with Strunk and White and the good sense God gave them to carry them forward in the world.

But competent editing also requires macro-editing, analytical editing, structural editing. A few schools do that. Andy Bechtel at Chapel Hill, for one, teaches an advanced editing class that has an impressive syllabus. And macro-editing requires a particular kind of attention. Editing is a craft to which you apprentice yourself. Grammar and usage can probably be taught effectively online, but to learn editing, you have to work with an editor, going over texts to analyze structure and organization, focus, clarity, tone.

Barbara Epler points to the approach in an article at The Threepenny Review: "One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they're right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What's the difference between ignorance and arrogance? 'I don't know and I don't care.') Editing doesn't seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can." That insistent asking by a competent editor is not just about the fine points and details, but about the big questions as well.

Mind you, I do not mean to scorn other courses. Manipulation of databases and electronic records, for example, has become an important skill, the current version of I.F. Stone's patient examination of public documents to expose misconduct. Journalism schools must teach the skills the times require.

But no skills are more fundamental to journalism than writing and editing. Once the information has been gathered, it must be selected and shaped, presented in a form that will be clear and meaningful to the reader. Without competent editing, that outcome is doubtful. And if you want competent editing, you have to teach it. It doesn't spring up in the wild.