Monday, January 19, 2009

What It Takes

Tools of my trade:
AP Manual of Style, laptop, reading glasses, water and
Everlasting Gobstoppers.

Here is what it takes to get through a deadline day, a workday that lasts (for me) from 11 a.m. until midnight and sometimes much later. Last night I got done at midnight. I should mention that my boss, Jack, is still working away when I leave.

My Typical Workday
Mack Press Office Building.
If I've gone to church that morning, I arrive to work refreshed and humming under my breath as I climb the dark stairs to our little office with its sloping ceiling. I tidy up my desk first thing, because Jack often uses its wide open space for projects during the week, and I like to start fresh.

Mapping it Out
Kind of like this
I erase last week's planning board and create a new chart of stories for the latest issue. There is a column for the "slug" (one-word title for the story) and columns for checking whether the story is in (If it isn't, it means I or Jack still has to write it), whether it has been edited and whether it's been placed into the layout. Jack didn't use this system before I arrived, but I like to be able to look up and get a visual representation of our progress. And it feels good to check things off.

Shooting the Breeze
First we dress like cowboys
After this is done, Jack and I always spend an inordinate amount of time laughing, talking and catching up. He is one of the funniest people I know, a kindred spirit, and his lively personality is what make the long hours ahead enjoyable.

My Morale Boosted
The things I need
Then he asks me, "Do you need anything?" It is, apparently, part of my compensation in this job that I get all my earthly needs met while I work. Jack runs out frequently for coffee, food, water and sugar, adjusts the temperature of the office, and pays attention to my sighs, which apparently indicate frustration with whatever I'm working on. In short, I feel very valued while I'm at work.

When Jack hands me one of his own stories to edit, he says, "Will you work your magic on this?" It's nice to feel needed and to feel as if I'm good at something.

My Many Hats
I wear this one when working on the the senior news column
There are so many job titles in the great world of newspaper editing: managing editor, city editor, copy editor, line editor, editor-in-chief. Imagine the luxury of having only one of these jobs. My job title at the McKinleyville Press is Assistant Editor. What does that mean? It means I take off one hat and put on another about 10 times in the course of a single work shift.

Young and Old
Optical illusion, do you see young or old?
I type in one column sent in to us every week by a little old lady who writes it by hand. I interpret her spidery little-old-lady handwriting, make the fragments into full sentences, organize it and add transitions, while preserving its comfortable, grandmotherly tone.

Similarly, some teenage students send us stories, and it is my job to reorganize their work so that readers get the basic information, while still preserving the charming, schoolgirlish tones of the writing. These "developing writers" are my domain because it gives me pleasure to work with their ideas. One is very, very young and has a city-girl-in-the-country approach. Another is a high school drama student who buries her facts under dozens of adjectives, adverbs and modifiers, with everything magnified to mythical proportions. Remember being like that? I do.

I type in the week's birth announcements and marvel aloud at the interesting, ponderous names these tiny new humans have been given. Stories rise off the page at me from every line: new life, changed lives. Recently, I convinced my boss we should add a note of welcome and congratulations to the end of the plain list of new arrivals.

My most gentle editing is on obituaries. I repair mistakes and don't allow any indignities to sneak in. I'm aware these are tributes to loved ones. I'm aware that, like birth announcements, these are likely to be clipped out and kept until the newsprint turns yellow, pasted into a scrapbook perhaps, read again and again. Like with birth announcements, whole stories unfold before me. Lives well lived, lives cut short, lives that touched others, lists of accomplishments and of names of survivors whose hearts now ache with loss.

Advocating for the Reader
He is my muse.
Press releases, and I use the term loosely, come in from all parts, written by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. I have to rework them so that readers get the who-what-when, etc. Sometimes all I have to work with is a poster with a couple of facts on it.

I sometimes feel impatient with the inconsistencies of the writing, but in working with these press releases, I think of myself as the Readers' Advocate. What does the reader want to know about? What information will readers need? The readers' needs are my guiding principles--those and the AP Manual of Style. So I rework things as much as necessary in service to our readers.

Sighing and Grumbling
You don't want to piss me off
Then come the stories from reporters and regular columnists. This is where the sighing happens usually, and the grumbling.

I have to do a lot of fact-checking. How in the world did fact-checkers work without the internet? I'm good at this part and enjoy it in a strange way. It involves research, which I like. During the course of this phase of my work shift, I become temporarily versed on all sorts of things, from tsunamis to the Brown Act.

I grumble about the necessity to apply AP style to the work of people who should already know it. I grumble about grammatical things, like subordination of ideas and clauses. I grumble about bias, objectivity, relevance, and the lack of front-loaded, reader-based prose.

My boss listens to the police-radio scanner and studiously ignores me.

Our Theme Song
The barking radio scanner is the soundtrack for our work. We hear firefighters, ambulances and deputies getting dispatched for fires, accidents, disturbances and domestic violence. Last night there were a lot of drunk drivers in McKinleyville. Announcements over the scanner are often followed by loud sirens and honking that drifts in on the night through our open window. The strangest part is that we hear the calls, the beginnings, the alarms, but we rarely find out how the smaller dramas end.

Writing Off the Cuff
What I wish I looked like when I write
Sometimes, I have to write a story, which from reading this blog you might think would be a pleasure. Actually it is an uncomfortable departure from the mindset of editing. It's quite difficult to go from editing to writing, especially if there is a time constraint.

Pick up the McKinleyville Press any time, and you will rarely see my byline on any stories. I'm invisible, but I'm there.

This has actually happened: I am handed an advance copy of a book I've never laid eyes on before, and within an hour or less, I have written a little preview of it. I never know, when I arrive, what or if I will be writing.

When I write, Jack edits me, because no writer in her right mind publishes without an editor. This is why blogging is kind of a wild, risky, renegade activity for a writer.

Really Looking
Last, after all this is done, comes page-proofing. Jack prints out the pages one by one, and I sit down with a pen to mark them up. The headlines and photo cutlines are the trouble spots, where type-os sneak in, so I check them carefully.

It is now that I see the photos for the first time. I fall in love with all the dogs and cats up for adoption at the animal shelter. I smile at the Girl Scouts and the wonderful holiday and community shots my boss has taken during the week: bingo games, quilting circles, trick-or-treaters, visits from Santa, and youthful athletes. These are the heart and soul of a community newspaper. It's fun for readers to see themselves or someone they know in the newspaper.

Until Next Time
When I finish, I tidy my desk, pack away my computer, and try to leave the place nice for the next deadline day.

My boss always sees me to my car, because he is an old-fashioned gentleman, and there is a rowdy bar just across the street, often with drunken revelers still hooting and hollering.

Jack always thanks me for my hard work as I wave goodbye and climb into my car.

See also: Rambling Jack's Laboratory: How we put out the McKinleyville Press

Thanks to all the sites from which I borrowed these fun illustrations.


Kristen said...

Wow, Indie: I don't think that I have EVER heard someone describe their job with such poetic attunement to its personal allure :)

In Joy,

Lucy said...

Sounds lovely! I agree with Kristen. If I tried to describe my job, it would not be nearly as nicely written.

Kym said...

Yah, what she said!

You made me want to apply for a job!

And I love what you said about blogger's being crazy not having an editor. I feel it every time I push send even on just a comment--let alone on a post!

Indie said...

Did you guys check out the link to Jack's post about how we make a paper? While I'm waxing poetic, Jack's over there making sausage. LOL!

Kato said...

A day in the life of a professional wordsmith...

Indie said...

I sure hope I like teaching as much as I like this.

Kato, that's the second time I've seen that term "wordsmith" today. I like it; thanks for applying it to me. Do you have a blog?

headwrapper said...

I really enjoyed this piece.

Indie said...

Thank you, Headwrapper. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, really cool post!
I'm addicted to reading newspapers. My husband laughs at how many I read, and my insistance that I get a local paper from every town we so much as stop for gas in. In all my years of reading them I never once thought about how they come together. Sonds like a wonderful job the way you tell it.
P.S. I always feel a little freaked out right after I push the button to post a new blog. I know I'm letting big mistakes make it through every time, but no one seems to mind. Still, I wish I had an editor!