See Mila? That’s the look an editor gives to a reporter who said something to her he shouldn’t have. It’s the look that says, “I am angry with myself for being stupid enough to hire you.”
Inspired by this list of things never to say to graphic designers,* here is a list of things never to say to your editor. (Add yours in the comments and I’ll move them into the post.)
1. “I know you gave me 15 inches for the story, but I couldn’t tell it in less than 25. That’s close enough, isn’t it?”
No, it’s not. It’s basically saying that you can’t write concisely, and you want the editor to cut your story for you. While both of those things may be true, they indicate your incompetence for the job.
2. When an editor tells you the competition has a good story, and you say, “Oh, I knew about that.”
You may think you’re covering your ass, letting the editor know you’re on top of things. You’re actually telling her that you have the news judgment of a potato. She told you about the story, which likely means she thinks it’s worth something. By saying you knew about it but didn’t write it gives her another reason to wonder why she hired you.
3. “This story is too good to go online right now. Let’s hold it for the paper.”
Sadly, this 2007 sentiment still exists.
4. “Can we just have the photographer set up the photo. I’m too busy.”
It often gets to the point in which photographers prefer to set up the photo because reporters screw them up so badly. But this statement suggests that your time is more important than a photographer’s. Given that photographers carry heavy equipment around all day, it is likely they are stronger than you. And given that most photographers are just this side of Mad Max crazy, I wouldn’t push it.
5. “I didn’t have the time to edit it too closely, but that’s what the copy desk is for.”
What the editor hears is that your time is more important than hers because she is the one who is going to make the first pass through your story, fixing stupid style, punctuation and grammar mistakes that you should have learned in middle school. She also hears that you don’t care all that much about your own work. Bad idea.
6. “If I write that story it will burn a source and that source is more important to us than the story.”
No, that source is more important to you. But it’s likely the story is more important to your readers. Don’t let an editor know that you put your loyalty to your sources above your loyalty to readers. She may think your priorities are out of whack.
7. Related: “They’ll never talk to me about that.”
Andrew deGrandpre submitted this via Twitter. The “they” here are sources. Not only is it defeatist — why would you want to be defeatist? — but it says that you don’t want to try. If there is a top 10 list of reporter qualities, tenacity is in the top 5. Don’t show you don’t have tenacity.
8. “Twitter is a waste of time.”
Twitter has 302 million active users. How many do you have?
9. “Can’t someone else do the story? How about Jeff? He isn’t working on anything important.”
Want to be perceived as a work-sloughing diva? This’ll do it.
10. “Can someone else answer my phone? I’m too busy.”
Yeah, let’s ask Walter
is if he’ll answer it.
11. “My story has a minor error but I don’t think we need a correction.”
So you put information into your story — a story you couldn’t cut down to 15 inches — and that information wasn’t important…and you still got it wrong? Just fess up that you made a mistake — yes, we note the passive construction of “my story has a minor error” — and fix it.
12. “So you care about quantity, instead of quality.”
I love this one, suggested by Karen Ho on Twitter. It usually comes after the editor has set a deadline that the writer thinks doesn’t give him enough time to “polish” the story. Accusing an editor who cares deeply about quality that they don’t earns you a trip to the woodshed.
13. From Jason Foster on Twitter: “I once told a reporter to rewrite her lede because it was unclear. Her response: ‘Isn’t that what the headline’s for?’
Want to go work on the copy desk learning how to write headlines? Then go ahead and tell your editor that.
14. “That’s not opinion, it’s true”
Eric Riess, via Twitter explains: “In my experience, when I’m editing a reporter’s story, they slide easily from the factual to opinion and don’t realize it.
15. “It’s not my fucking job.”
The classic riposte when asked to cover a story off your beat or on a day. When journalists are losing their jobs every quarter, it may be worth swallowing this line and replacing it with, “Sure. Happy to.”
16. Andy Bechtel: “That’s what the editing/design hub in another state is for”?
17. RoMustGo: “Can you make a proof for me?”
18. RoMustGo: “Can you do some trick or something to make it fit on the page?”
19. My friend Rob Daniels, in the comments: “I’m out of hours for the week.” (Sadly, this is something every overworked reporter in his or her 60th hour should be able to say to an editor, but we all know how the game is played.)
20. A classic from Deborah Woodell: “I was never any good at math.”
21. Lex Alexander in the comments: “Readers will know what we mean by that.” So what you’re saying is that readers are both smarter and less distracted than you are. One out of two ain’t bad.
22. Jane Dough in the comments: “I don’t think anyone will really care about that.”
23. Mark Miller in the comments: “I put in a (cq)… That means somebody needs to look that up.
24. Becky Smith in the comments: When asked to clarify the meaning of a murky quote: “But that’s what he said.”
Someone else can do 15 things you should never say to a reporter.
* Hat tip to Ben Villarreal for the pointer.