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Why news editing is important – and how you can become a better editor

By Zihan Zhang

Global Business Journalism reporter

“Editing is the hidden part of writing,” says Cyndi Hughes, the former copy chief at Texas Monthly magazine and the Austin American-Statesman’s Features section.

Over a three-decade career in journalism and publishing, Hughes' identity has shifted between editor and writer, journalist and publishing consultant. Her varied career has made her experienced in both news writing and self-editing.

Hughes, now CEO of Booktique Consulting in Austin, Texas, shared her unique understanding of editing and highlighted the importance of self-editing in story writing with Global Business Journalism students from Tsinghua University. Here are answers to three questions that will make you a better editor.

Why is editing important to a news outlet?

Hughes, the founding director of the Texas Book Festival, believes that editing is the foundation that a story is built on. Editing hones the message or theme that we want to convey. More importantly, for a journalist, editing is a test of her or his professional quality. It includes a hidden, agreed-upon set of rules for language that good writers master. Editing can remove distractions for readers that undercut the credibility of the writer. It is meant to ensure accuracy. And it makes sure the facts are organized in a highly readable way.

What are the basic steps for editing a news story?

Hughes considers editing as “the process we use to put all of the pieces of our story together." The most fundamental puzzle pieces in a news story are the “5Ws and H," that is, who, what, when, where and how.

Based on the fundamental pieces, there are several steps that editors should follow. The first draft, usually rough and often out of order, is rarely the final draft. We might just bang it out, get the facts we need in the story and then go through two steps of editing: big-picture editing and small-picture editing.

Big-picture editing, also known as substantive editing or developmental editing, centers around the story's theme, premise, structure, facts and accuracy. Small-picture editing includes copyediting and proofreading. Copyediting tends to focus on grammar, punctuation, and style guidelines, continuity, factual errors and missing information, while proofreading lays emphasis on the final check for grammatical errors and typography-based mistakes.

A story written without editing can be only called a draft, not a work.

How can we learn editing?

Hughes' first suggestion is to pay attention to your own inner reader. We are the ones who know ourselves and our work best. Put yourselves in the eyes of a reader. What do they want to learn from the story? Editors are best suited to providing a second set of eyes on the content.

Finding a mentor is a critical way to improve our writing, editing and overall skill set over time. We can create an apprenticeship by working with an experienced reporter and reading behind him or her (or having them review our work).

In addition, if we find an excellent story that we wish we would have written we can pick it apart to learn what makes it tick. In this way, we can take a free editing class by analyzing our favorite articles or books.

As Hughes concludes, “editing is not only the hidden part of writing, but also the other half of writing." Editing is a process in which a qualified journalist is responsible both to his “inner reader” and to the readers the readers all around the world who will read our work.

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