The fool in the room

As the Singapore Writers Festival draws to a close, a veteran newspaper editor reflects on a lifetime of writing and editing.

If you asked me to name one thing I did more than everything else over a lifetime of doing journalism, I'd say it was copyediting, being a rewrite guy. I started early on, and never stopped till the day I left The Straits Times in September 2015. No matter what my main job was, I stayed a copyeditor because if a story crossed my screen and it needed fixing, I fixed it myself.

Every writer needs an editor and mostly, copyeditors ask questions. What is this story about, for heaven's sake? What does this horrible jargon mean? Isn't there a simpler way to say this? Where's the background to help the reader understand where this story is coming from? Where are the voices?

The Straits Times started a rewrite desk in 1981 and I was assigned to it. The first lesson I learnt was that there was no question too stupid to ask if it might help improve a story for the reader who would pay for the paper the next morning.

I found out soon enough that writers rarely appreciated having their stories queried, changed or rewritten.

I once laboured through a High Court reporter's story, removing legalese as I went. Then I had to call her to say I'd changed the story substantially and read my version over the telephone. This was way before the Internet allowed writers to check the edited versions of their stories online.

She listened in silence, and all she said when I finished was: "You can change at your own peril."

Nothing went wrong after my version of her story appeared in the paper. But another time I killed a High Court judge accidentally while rewriting another jargon-riddled story. My only excuse was that I had arrived in Singapore fairly recently and was not yet familiar with the names of sitting judges. I suffered seeing a correction in print and being aware that for some reporters, it was a happy day because the idiot judge-killing copyeditor had got what he deserved.

That experience prepared me to face many more copyediting situations over the years that followed.

There was that new junior editor at the business section who was incensed that I'd asked for some hard-to-grasp economics terms in a story to be simplified. He barged over to say he didn't see why anything needed changing and added: "Any fool would know what it means."

"Not this fool," I replied.

I would choose the legwork reporter any day over the fine writer who does not like getting his hands dirty, or bristles at being asked to leave the office. It is so much harder to help the reporter who stays rooted to his desk, expecting answers to questions to fall like manna via e-mail. Some have driven me close to committing murder at 10.30pm.

He made the changes after he returned to his desk and his colleagues told him if the story wasn't fixed, it wouldn't run.

I can't tell you how many times I've sat on interview panels for recruits and scholarship hopefuls and heard bright young men and women say they longed to be journalists for one reason: "I've always loved to write."

Loving to write can be a terrible thing for those who come to journalism, particularly graduates of English literature and especially those who compose poetry or write fiction in their free time.

Journalism demands a certain straightforward style of writing most of the time. You tell the story fast and short, avoid words of three syllables or more, and worry if your sentences run longer than 30 words. "If you read a sentence aloud and find you must pause to breathe, you've failed." We've all had that piece of advice drummed into us countless times.

Many new reporters are shaken to find that everything they were praised for in school - the fancy introductions, unusual words and fat paragraphs, among other things - get changed or deleted right away and they are told to please write clean and plain.

I confess I always liked some writers more than others. I never complained about reporters who weren't the best story-tellers, if they did their legwork and kept a full notebook. The reporter who talked to the right people, asked good questions and recorded it all is the best kind of writer to work with. You ask a question, she has the answer, it plugs a gap and her story becomes better.

I would choose the legwork reporter any day over the fine writer who does not like getting his hands dirty, or bristles at being asked to leave the office. It is so much harder to help the reporter who stays rooted to his desk, expecting answers to questions to fall like manna via e-mail. Some have driven me close to committing murder at 10.30pm.

The most senior and expert writers need editors too, though some can be the hardest to help because they know their beats and their expert newsmakers so well that the technical lingo and acronyms trip off their tongues ever so naturally and spill into their stories as well.

"Any fool would know what that means."

"Not this fool."

FIXING THE BOSS' STORY

Editors who write need their work checked too. It takes a brave soul to go to the boss and point out an error or a flaw that needs fixing. I always appreciated the sub-editor who came back to say he'd spotted a number in my story that was wrong, or the grammar nazi chief sub-editor who would rearrange one of my sentences and inform me why her way was better.

Don Fry was a respected American writing coach who visited The Straits Times regularly for a number of years from the early 1990s as a consultant. He recommended writing for the Man From Mars, saying: "If a spaceship landed in Singapore and the Man from Mars picked up The Straits Times and started reading it, would he understand every story? Would he know why it was news, where it was coming from and who cared about it?"

It was the simplest advice to make sure every story served the reader, but it proved a tall order and although we tried, we failed to deliver many times.

Cheong Yip Seng, our long-time editor-in-chief, would send senior editors a photostated page with a big circle drawn over the top third of a story and just two words in his trademark scrawl: "So what?"

If a reader went five paragraphs into a story and could not see its significance - why it was news, who it mattered to, or why it deserved the play it received - the story failed Cheong's test of readability. He tortured us regularly with examples of published stories that did not answer his question: "So what?"

How would the Man from Mars understand the story? Any fool would know?

Few stories appear in the paper entirely the way writers write them. If they do, quite a number of people in the newsroom are focusing too hard on work-life balance.

Copyeditors, sub-editors and senior editors who look at stories before they go to print are the paper's first readers. If something in a story does not make sense to anyone in the newsroom, chances are, other readers will trip over the same thing as well. Each day there are just a few hours before deadline to spot the flaws and fix them.

Few stories land in the paper without being trimmed, tightened or slashed quite brutally. Unlike online, space is finite in print. Even long-form feature stories have a maximum length.

The best writers always gather far more information than they can put into their stories. Even after crafting a splendidly told story, they will have a huge amount of wasted details, interesting anecdotes and vivid descriptions that will go unused.

One reason I stayed so long in journalism is that I worked with many of the paper's finest reporters, writers and photojournalists on superb work that won awards in Singapore and internationally too. Yet every one of them will tell you how cruelly I deleted beautifully composed lines and heartlessly removed chunks of riveting details saying no more than: "The story is just too long!"

Don Fry liked to tell the story of a brilliant profile writer he coached after her editors told him she made them want to pull their hair every time she delivered a story because it always arrived much, much longer than the magazine could run. The editing process was hell because each time an editor attempted to remove a line or a paragraph, she would wail: "You can't cut that!"

When Don started working with her, he discovered how much of her heart and soul went into every feature she wrote. She interviewed her newsmakers thoroughly. She took detailed notes. She would write her observations and her subjects' best quotes on cards that she kept catalogued in a shoebox. Then, when she began writing, she would refer to those cards and assemble her magnificent prose.

As she described her writing process, she hugged a shoebox of cards to her bosom and told Don: "These are my babies." And he realised that each time an editor tried to remove a sentence or a quote from her story, it struck the writer deeply because the editor was about to kill one of her babies.

Don's takeaway for writers and editors everywhere was simply this: "Sometimes, you've got to kill some babies."

It's a powerful lesson, and it reflects how hard it is to be a writer who gives her all and an editor trying to do the best he can in the time and space available.

I've repeated that story countless times. The best people I've worked with understood it and, as I grumbled at having to cut a story that was much too long, they would tell me: "I know, I know, I've got to kill some babies. But it's so hard."

Over the years I had to work occasionally with contributions from non-journalists. It's not always easy to explain to expert outsiders that editing for an inexpert audience means asking for changes, rejecting jargon and making cuts.

Some who bristle initially eventually appreciate the effort when their stories appear in print and readers respond positively. Others worry that they would appear stupid to their peers if they simplify technical language.

You tell them: "If I don't understand this, many readers won't either."

Some get it. Others don't.

If you're an editor, you decide on the story that crosses your screen. You do that several times a day, every day. A fact of newsroom life is that no two editors ever decide exactly the same way.

I've been called a few choice names for asking too many questions late in the night, for cutting, slashing, holding over and killing stories. Along the way I also worked with some wonderful writers, and sometimes I let them break the very rules I enforced so strictly on countless others.

I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to pick up a story and find nothing at all to change and plenty to enjoy. It may disregard the rules about multisyllabic words, and contain long sentences with too many commas, yet it reads so exquisitely with fresh turns of phrase that surprise, delight and sometimes make me laugh out loud.

I don't have to name the writers but every one of them knows their stories made me pause to write a quick message saying: "Good stuff! Thank you for reminding me why I've loved journalism for so long."

• The writer is the former deputy editor of The Straits Times. He is the author of a collection of personal columns, Good Grief! Everything I Know About Love, Life & Loss I Wish Somebody Had Told Me Sooner. This article will also be published on his website alanjohn.net

• Hear from four Straits Times journalists - Toh Yong Chuan, Carolyn Khew, Irene Tham and Salma Khalik - at the panel discussion ST Conversations: The Inside Scoop. Today, 10 am to 11 am, at The Arts House.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'The fool in the room'. Print Edition | Subscribe