Reprinted with the permission of Cape Cod Times
The Poynter Institute, January 1998

Reprinted from Workbench: The Bulletin of the National Writers' Workshop, Vol. 4

I need editors. Editors allow me to be more daring, to attempt to write what I have not written before in ways that may not work. If my assigned editors are not adequate, I develop colleague/editors who can help me keep learning to write.

I recognize the time pressures on newspaper editors. I am not describing long psychiatric sessions but professional conversations designed to improve a specifc piece of writing and the overall performance of individual writers. I realize I am describing the kind of editing you may only be able to do once a day or less, but in the long run this will save time because it places primary responsibility for clear, lively, signifcant writing where it belongs--on the writer. It may break the cycle of dependency--"If they are going to write my stories I'll let 'em" It may also create writer/editor relationships in which each person can speak in a shorthand when on deadline. They may have a context to which they can refer as they need.

  • Assignment. Most writers will produce better work if they are asked how they think a story should be covered. Writers may propose what the editor could have said, but if writers suggest the approach themselves, the writer will be more committed to it than if they are executing a command. The writer may need a few minutes to think and then respond, perhaps in writing. When writers are listened to, they may surprise themselves by what they say. I also need editors who give me a specific length and a firm deadline--and hold to it.

  • Change. When the focus or approach changes during the research or writing of a story, I appreciate an editor who will listen and consult on the implications for the final draft.

  • Response. Silence always means rejection. I need acknowledgment that my work and I exist, just the good waiter's acknowledgment, "I have that large party to serve, but I'll get to you in a moment."

  • Encouragement. The better the writer, the more seriously the writer takes his or her craft, and the more encouragement the writer needs. Talent and concern do not equal confidence, they equal insecurity. But the encouragement should not be vague praise--"great story"--but specific--"I learned from the way you turned those quotes into a dialogue." And it must be honest.

  • Understanding. It helps when editors say in a sentence or so specifically what they think the draft says. If the writer agrees, then they can move forward to other issues. If not, the misunderstanding needs to be resolved immediately, before going on. If they do go on, they will be talking about two different drafts on the same page. They will not understand each other.

  • An appropriate reading. Most serious conflicts between writers and editors occur when the writer expects one kind of editing and receives another. For example, the writer wants to know if the editor will allow the writer to try the approach the writer has sketched out in a rough first draft and editor responds with a line-by-line final draft editing. The writer should tell the editor what kind of reading the writer needs, a quick scan to check the lead, focus, voice, form, order, documentation. A macro reading for pace, proportion, and structure. A micro, line-by-line reading for voice, diction, syntax, accuracy, usage, mechanics, and spelling.

  • What works. Writing is more often improved by identifying and extending what works than by correcting error. I often know what doesn't work but I'm not sure about what works. I need an editor to tell me so I can play from my strength--which will often eliminate a great deal of error.

  • What needs work. I need to know what my editor thinks does not work in specific terms--and why. Many times I begin to see solutions as soon as the problem is identified and do not need to be told how to solve it. Suggestions can be helpful but they also can limit the writer's involvement. The writer should know more about the subject, the history of the story's writing, than the editor, and the solution should rise from the story not from the editor's experience with other stories. I need room--10 minutes, 15 minutes on a column; a day, a week, a month on a book--to design, attempt, and respond to solutions.

  • Collaboration. I work best if the editor allows me to collaborate on a story, suggesting what needs to be done and expressing confidence I can do it rather than telling precisely what to do. That may be necessary on some deadline stories but it is a failure of the writer/editor relationship. When an editor trusts me, I may be able to trust the editor. The boss/worker, officer/enlisted person relationship between editor and writer rarely produces good writing and even more rarely encourages a writer to improve.


[Editor's note: Donald M. Murray has won a number of journalism awards including the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on The Boston Herald in 1954. He was a writer for Time magazine before free-lancing as a magazine writer in New York City for seven years. He has served as writing coach for The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and other newspapers. His weekly column, "Over Sixty," for The Boston Globe was selected as the best column in Boston in 1991 by Boston magazine.

He is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire where he inaugurated a journalism program. He twice won awards for his teaching and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of New Hampshire in 1990 and another by Fitchburg State College in 1992.

Murray has published two novels, and his poems have appeared in many journals. In addition to writing his column, Murray is working on a novel and a collection of poems. He lives in Durham, N.H., with his wife and first reader, Minnie Mae.]