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The International Writers Magazine:On Learning to be a Better Writer

Sit Down and Start Editing
Marwan Asmar

He told me to sit down and start editing. It was on one of those old Apple Macintosh’s and said he’d give me one month trial period. If it didn’t 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 didn’t 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 monthly basis.
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. That’s 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 paper.

At first I didn’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 deeper—we are not just involved in scratching the surface, but we want to scratch below it to see what we can come up with. We don’t 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 their country.

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 what’s 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 word.

© Marwan Asmar June 2008>

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