This is another Training Tracks blog post from the archive of No Train, No Gain, originally published Sept. 6, 2004:
I started out in training by playing to my strengths. I had spent most of my career as an assigning editor, a department head, top editor and reporter. So my early workshops taught reporting, writing and leadership skills.
A little over three years ago, Joe Hight, managing editor of the Daily Oklahoman, invited me to Oklahoma City to present some workshops for his staff. He ordered a few workshops from my menu, then asked for something for the copy desk.
Well, I have copy editing experience. In fact, I was a pretty good copy editor. But that was 17 years ago (when Joe was asking; 20 years ago now). And perhaps no job has faced more changes and pressures as technology and economics have changed newsrooms. I balked, but Joe can be pretty persuasive, so I agreed to present a workshop for copy editors.
To my surprise, the workshop went really well, perhaps better than the others I presented that day from my areas of strength. To my further surprise, other editors have asked for the workshop. I’ve presented it 10 more times now to newsrooms across North America. I hope the copy editors are learning something, but I know I’ve learned a lot about training. Maybe these tips can help if you have to train sometime in an area where you lack confidence:
- Acknowledge your weakness, or at least your lack of confidence. I didn’t say I was a bad copy editor, just a rusty one. If you fake it, people will notice. Journalists are a skeptical enough audience as it is. On the other hand, journalists by and large are pretty decent and if you admit you’re a little uneasy on this topic, they will cut you some slack.
- Lead a discussion, rather than lecturing. Since my experience is mostly in reporting, I usually start out asking the copy editors about their communication with reporters. Since most newspapers don’t have effective communication between copy editors and reporters, they warm quickly to the topic and we’re rolling. When the discussion moves to copy editing matters where I’m not sure of answers, I toss the issue out to the group (training consultant Alan Weiss calls this presentation technique “volleyball”). Someone always has good advice, is pleased to share the advice and all I have to do is help the copy editors learn from each other.
- Steal “promiscuously,” as Roy Peter Clark says. For each of my workshops, I’ve developed a handout of tips on the subject, mostly from me. My list of copy editing tips ran out pretty quickly. So I asked Merrill Perlman, a colleague on the Des Moines Register’s copy desk in the late 1970s and now the copy desk chief at the New York Times. She sent me some great advice. I went to the American Copy Editors Society website and cribbed more tips (with credit and permission) from tip sheets developed by John Schlander of the St. Petersburg Times and Joel Pisetzner of the Newark Star-Ledger. Omaha World-Herald colleague Roger Buddenberg provided more tips. I think it’s one of my weakest handouts. I tried to cover the copy-editing waterfront, as if I’d tried to do a single tip sheet covering reporting and writing (I have 27). Still, I get plenty of feedback from people who find the handout helpful because I stole lots of helpful advice.
- Steal training ideas, not just content. Last fall I was doing a presentation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with Canadian writing coach Don Gibb of Ryerson University. Don led a lively exercise in which he distributed copies of stories with headlines cut out, then directed a contest in which groups wrote headlines and picked the best, discussing what made them the best. Don never had to lecture about how to write better heads, but he helped the participants improve their headline writing. And I copied the exercise this summer when I presented my copy editing workshop for papers in California, Nevada and Iowa.
- Keep going. I developed a workshop for reporters on tightening their copy, called “Make Every Word Count.” I adapted that workshop fairly easily to work for copy editors, too. Now I’m one of three people planning a regional Mid-America Press Institute seminar for copy editors Nov. 12-14 in St. Louis. (Don’t worry, we’re recruiting several speakers who are actual copy editors.)
With this experience, I didn’t hesitate this spring when Steve Frederick, editor of The Star-Herald in Scottsbluff, Neb., asked if I could do a workshop to help reporters “layer” stories by breaking information out into graphics, fact boxes and such devices. My editors could tell you this isn’t a particular strength of mine. I’m the visual equivalent of tone deaf.
But I followed the same techniques. I stole liberally from Josh Awtry of the Grand Island Independent (since moved to the Salt Lake Tribune) and led the Star-Herald’s staff in analyzing pages from their own paper to find opportunities to catch the reader’s eye by adding layers to a package.
By all means, train primarily from strength. But don’t back down from training in an area where you’re not so strong. Not only did I develop successful presentations, I scraped some of the rust off my copy editing skills. And I’m proposing more ways for editors to layer my stories.
Update: I led at least three copy editing seminars for the American Press Institute after publishing this blog post, always collaborating with people who had stronger, fresher copy editing skills and always getting good reviews from participants. I developed some better and more specialized copy-editing handouts and learned that people were using them to teach and train copy editors. I led a workshop on multimedia storytelling at the 2009 ACES conference in Minneapolis.
Some of the people cited in the blog post have moved on from their 2004 positions. I did not rewrite the 2004 post, but the links provide updates on what they are doing now.