International Writers Magazine:On
Learning to be a Better Writer
Down and Start Editing
told me to sit down and start editing. It was on one of those old
Apple Macintoshs and said hed give me one month trial
period. If it didnt work out, it was goodbye, as if none of
us had ever spoke to one another.
This is how I got
into the hectic, tiring, mind-boggling world of journalism: All I knew
was the ability to speak and write English and use the computer which
I started long ago, but other than that my educational training was
furthest from a career in print.
After two weeks, he called me back into his office and welcomed me as
"valuable member of the team" and told me welcome aboard."
It was January 1993, it was cold and dreary, I was ecstatic having at
last found a job that I can bury my eyes, thoughts and senses into.
Initially I was required to put whatever I had in front of me into plain
simple English what ever that meant having been trained to write academically,
what was plain and simple for me may have been jargon from a journalistic
point of view.
However, my editing appeared to be satisfactory to my chief editor.
What I didnt understand I tried to change in the way I knew how.
Trying to write English in another tongue can be an intensely difficult
exercise. So first thing first, the English needed to be tidied up and
then there was another stage of editing.
But trying to put things simply can be quite complicated as the process
requires a hands-on approach of ticking on the computer board and one
that requires lots of experience, accumulated on a daily, weekly and
In my first editing assignment I began by blankly looking at the screen,
reading the text in front of me, and then start the process of "re-writing"
rather than editing in the conventional sense of the term that really
involves very little change if you are a professional journalist.
But even me I had to face the axe, and the chop. I would edit an article
only to see it changed and made more dynamic and punchy through using
different words, sentence construction and sometimes grammatical change.
Thats ok I told myself, since I needed time to be trained in editing
journalistically. So I persisted despite the frustration of working
long hours at the copy in front of me.
In those early years I was only required to change the text of the story
or article to make it readable. The next stage, which I learned sometime
afterward was, to make it more flamboyant linguistically, add color
and interest to what was being said.
To tell the truth, I was rather confused. Being in journalism was a
big thing and I thought I was in the wrong shoes or the shoes were too
big for me. As well as editing I was required to give directions to
reporters; I needed to tell them to write stories and to give them angles.
And imagine me the cub managing editor, turned editor and a journalist,
a Mr know it all, who really had to rely on himself and do everything
from scratch and upwards.
Since I had no experience in that, I, quite rightly left it to the chief
editor who was the big boss with the experience. At least for the first
few months he continued the job of giving assignments to reporters and
telling them what he wanted from a particular story, what to concentrate
on and who to talk to and for.
This was very important in journalism editing since I was told a story
is only as good as the quotes it had and indeed had to be based on those
quotes that give it credibility. Ours is not to pontificate and drive
our point of view forward, but we had to provide straight facts and
nothing but facts as we are in the business of providing information
and interest through information.
I learnt latter still that when you are reading an article, it should
be as it were your voice on paper, as if you are talking in the black
text. However, this depends on how good of an editor you are to make
the words appear as if they are dancing with scintillating voice on
At first I didnt understand this nor thought of it. However it
was only latter, and through my own editing I realized I was talking
on the paper. I had hoped that I was talking to readers as subsequent
textbooks on editing pointed out that you should be "talking with"
readers rather than "talking unto them" as if you were involved
in a process of lecturing to them; readers dont like that and
your copy sounds pompous.
I had to experience this but first I needed to get started on another
vital aspect of the work process which is to assign stories. My chief
told me it was vital to read the different daily newspapers the first
thing you do as you come into the office. And this was to be done on
a daily basis to keep abreast with the news.
I had to become a news junkie, a new jargon which I came to learn latter,
to mean journalists, reporters, editors whose life revolves around consuming
news, dissecting it and even breathing it. I never considered myself
par excellence news junky although on some days I would spend 14 hours
in the news-room.
We were an English weekly newspaper so that the daily battering of news
didnt affect us, but we were more interested in the features/analytical/opinionated
angle of the current news and in the reporting of different news items
that have direct impact on society and are of interest to readers.
This is why I had to read judiciously the daily newspapers since they
were the source of ideas and angles, they clarified our heads, straightened
our thoughts, and allowed me at least to hand out angled assignments.
This was of course easier said than done coming from some one who had
been academically trained in political science, and hadnt yet
neither discovered nor appreciated the fact, in journalism, you need
to have a "good nose" for a story that an editor thinks will
usually sell your newspaper but getting the maximum readership since
this is our bottom-line.
In journalism you need to become inquisitive, and if you are not naturally
inquisitive then you need to develop this particular aspect of your
character that will eventually allow you to keep digging and focusing
on different story.
Although we may not realize it as journalists running newspapers our
inquisitiveness may be manifested in the fact that we all publish similar
news at the same time and then go on to the next item making the headlines
and concentrate on that for a while.
I was told our weekly tries to be different, our news features try to
dig deeperwe are not just involved in scratching the surface,
but we want to scratch below it to see what we can come up with. We
dont want just to report the news, and then move on to something
else, but stay with it for a while at least.
In the early days, something which continued with me through out my
journalism career, I read daily newspapers, news from weeklies like
ours because we were told and got to enjoy the fact they were juicy,
saucy, provocative and said things which are controversial, eye-catching
and sometimes downright facetious and I looked at television news more
often and take notes.
I had to train myself to do this but sometimes, and with the desire
to get on with the editing, I would forget to look at newspapers, and
inevitably lose valuable news items. Unfortunately, and because the
pace of the days moved fast, I never managed to conquer these aspects
of losing news. There was never enough time in the day!
However, the chief editor was nearly always in the background to help
in the balancing act of news-making, reporting, commentating and editorializing
so after I joined the newspaper, he started a weekly column called "People
and Politics" that talked about the in-goings and out-goings of
people in the political world.
With this column, others appeared like "Middle East Beat"
that started in 1993 and continued on a weekly basis, week in, week
out till 2007, a total of 14 years non-stop. Of course other columns
were developed and expanded on business and culture as well as those
involved in editorializing local news and one called "Press Cocktail"
that dealt with the weeklies that were beginning to sprout up like bananas.
In addition to the features, analysis and opinions, many started to
tell us because we are weekly, people wanted editorialized news and
commentary, they wanted a different twist to what they were hearing
on a daily basis through conventional news reporting.
Indeed by the time we were out on Thursday morning, they would have
heard it all, and therefore they wanted commentary on the past week
news and unconventional views.
Our weekly became our world. We commented in so far as the political
culture allowed us. Although a weekly, with the danger of it being stereotyped
as yellow press, because this is what the weeklies are, starting with
their tabloid-sized character, we regarded ourselves as a serious newspaper
that is not interested in trivialization and sensationalism nor in what
we called gutter journalism.
We liked to think our weekly as taking middle-of-the-road stances with
strong editorials because the chief always said that since it is in
English, the weekly was always read by foreign diplomats and ambassadors
who had a certain amount of influence on the political processes of
It was always put thus: "The American ambassador (or the French,
Canadian, British and German) would want to read something that is logical
and rational rather than diatribe," the chief would always say.
And he was right, of course, a young editor-in-chief who was liberal
in his approach. Our newspaper was pro-government, pro-monarchy but
politically liberal that wants to put forward the establishment view
as well as of the other. We were open, critical when we needed to be,
but fair at the same time.
My early days were hectic but exciting, there was a learning process.
I wanted to learn everything from knowing whats a good story,
to assigning it to some one and editing it to proof-reading it.
I wanted to be a good managing-editor in the Jordanian sense of the
© Marwan Asmar
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