Thursday, October 13, 2011

On the Editorial Process

(Daniel Bakken, Bonni Suval and Flynn de Marco in the Thrillpeddlers' annual extravaganza. Note that classic film noir lighting. Photo by David Allen.)

A few errors (which have since been fixed) that appeared late in the editing of my latest review, of the Thrillpeddlers’ Shocktoberfest 12: Fear over Frisco, got me thinking about the editorial process. I’m still quite new to it, but I’m guessing that most of the publications I’ve worked for would gladly have a more in-depth and team-oriented method of editing articles but just don’t have the time or the money.

Or the set-up. All my journalism work has been coordinated exclusively through e-mail. Never have I sat down in a newsroom to hash out, with a team, the evolution of an article from draft to finished product. Instead, we all sign off on a piece one by one, on our own time. I’m first, my editor’s next (and we usually have a back and forth before he passes it on, which has been a really satisfying part of working for SF Weekly), and then, I can only assume, copy editor(s) and/or online editor(s) have a go at it.

This system has its virtues. The hierarchy is clear-cut. It avoids costly meetings and minimizes quibbling. You always know when a piece is ready for posting, and the same person or group always has the final say, ensuring consistency.

But it also has its drawbacks. The system does not allow the most informed fact-checker, the writer, to make sure the finished product is accurate. (I’m assuming here that a publication can’t afford real fact checkers.) More generally, it means the writer doesn’t know what, exactly, his or her name will be on until a piece is published.

These concerns obviously come from the writer’s point of view. I’d love to know what editors think about the process.

And of course, some errors are inevitable. Every day the New York Times posts a whole column of corrections.

But I wonder if the system couldn’t be improved. What if, instead of never getting to see the draft again once you’ve passed it on, the draft remained accessible to all parties throughout the editing process, in the form of a wiki or a Google doc? Yes, that would make things messier, but it would also make all parties more accountable for their actions. And as long as there were some basic behavioral guidelines, you could still limit the bickering over revisions.

In the end, everyone involved in the editing wants the same thing: to publish the best work possible. So if there’s a chance another system would create fewer errors—even if it would depart radically from the status quo—it’s worth considering.

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