Strategies & Tactics

Story Sculptor: A Washington Post Editor on Improving the Work of Nonprofessional Writers

February 1, 2018

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In her editorial role at The Washington Post, Jenny Rogers frequently works with nonprofessional writers who have limited backgrounds in both journalism and publishing.

Rogers’ domain is the Sunday Outlook section, which she describes as “an ideas section, distinct from the op-ed page.” Outlook articles can encompass everything from a piece on exercise myths by a professor in pediatrics to a personal essay by a former teenage Senate page.

She talked with Strategies & Tactics about how she coaxes the best stories out of these inexperienced writers without sullying the authenticity of their voice.


On working with nonprofessional writers versus experienced journalists:

What nonprofessional writers lack in formal training, they make up for in lived experience. They are unafraid to express opinions, which most professional journalists have been trained from day one to eliminate from their writing.

I find that nonprofessionals are not so different from seasoned journalists when it comes to editing — some take every single edit without complaint, others argue over every little change. It just depends on their personality.

I also don’t expect nonprofessionals to be familiar with journalistic standards, so we tread carefully with facts and sourcing on their pieces.


On her editing process:

For a nonprofessional writer, telling a personal story for publication can be exciting and frightening. We communicate constantly during edits, usually starting with a phone call in which I say why I liked the piece and what I think it needs next, and then we go through many rounds of edits. We try to protect writers — sometimes, if it’s something that could be personally damaging to them, I ask, “Are you sure you want to include that detail?”


On improving a piece without sacrificing a writer’s voice:

Sometimes a personal essay draft is just not quite there — not enough detail, not enough color, not enough insight. It’s not like a news story, where the editor can patch in facts and figures. Only the writer knows the information and anecdotes that can fill those holes.

In those cases, I often get on the phone and interview the writer, asking a ton of questions and then using their quotes to fill in the essay. Then I send the draft back to the writer for their tweaks and comments.

I’m always extremely careful to honor the voice of a writer, especially on a personal topic. Sacrificing a little elegance in the writing is worth it to publish real people talking about real things. An essay by a former convict, who has had her voting rights restored, might not have the polish of a professor, but I’m not asking her to write a scholarly analysis of voting rights. I’m asking her to write about her life and how a policy has affected her. A professor couldn’t write that. Only she can write that.


On what she looks for in a story pitch:

An argument, idea or takeaway is the No. 1 thing I look for. I get many pitches on topics that are musings rather than arguments. I also get a lot of pitches that ask a question and do not provide an answer, but the writer wants to explore some idea. Not good.

I look for ideas and arguments that I haven’t seen elsewhere. And I look to see if the writer matches the pitch. Some pieces are better suited for a trained journalist. Sometimes, the writer simply doesn’t have the background to pull off the piece. But if someone has a good idea that doesn’t require masterful investigative reporting skills, then I don’t mind if they’ve never written a piece of journalism before — especially if it’s a story that only they can tell, like a personal essay about marriage or parenting, or a unique experience they had that’s relevant to the news.


On how editors can coach amateur storytellers:

Just because they don’t write for a living doesn’t mean they can’t write. Push them! The best advice for any writer, professional or not, is: “Show, don’t tell.” I say it at least once a day. 

Dean Essner

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications. A former resident of Washington, D.C., he holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English from the University of Maryland. Email: dean.essner@prsa.org.

 

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