I Thought I’d Always Be a Writer—Then I Saw the Other Side

From a Times Insider column by Marie Solis headlined “I Thought I Would Always Be a Writer. Then I Saw the Other Side.”:

It was late June, national news was breaking, and I was feeling slightly out of my depth.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, had just come down from the Supreme Court. Two reporters on The New York Times’s Business desk wanted to know: How should we cover companies’ responses in our live briefing? Should we use a list format? Were there any companies whose actions warranted a separate story?

I wasn’t used to answering these types of questions; I was used to asking them. Before I started my job as an editing resident at The Times last fall, I worked as a staff writer for six years at outlets such as Vice and Newsweek. As a writer, I was usually on the other side of interactions like these, frantically asking my editors questions and relying on their guidance and ability to stay composed when big news was breaking.

But the tables had suddenly turned. Uh oh, I thought. As the editor, I’m the one who has to keep a cool head.

When I applied to The Times’s editing residency, a new two-year program that places rising editors on different desks around the Times newsroom, it didn’t occur to me that I would work with reporters this closely. The residency is devised for those who have experience working in journalism but not necessarily in editing roles.

Of course, I wasn’t totally unprepared on that June day. Before I joined the Business desk, I trained on the Flexible Editing desk, a department staffed with 18 full-time editors who edit and fact-check articles, newsletters, social media captions, graphics and more for The Times. (Internally, we call it the Flex desk.)

To start the residency program, we took a 12-hour class taught over several days by Peter Blair, the desk’s editor, reviewing entries in The Times’s Stylebook, learning how to write headlines and photo captions and discussing the nuances of being a good editor, like how to identify holes in reporting (and what to do about them).

We edited as members of the Flex team for the first three months of the residency program. Every day, we fulfilled requests from editors across the newsroom, handling mainly “second” edits. (Every piece of text The Times publishes is edited by at least two people.) After we made changes to a piece, another editor on the Flex desk would review it with us, pointing out grammatical mistakes we had missed. I acquired increasingly esoteric knowledge of Times style — like the difference between compare with and compare to — that I tried to turn into cocktail party trivia. (For the uninitiated: Compare with is used to compare and contrast, or just to contrast; compare to means to liken things.) I sometimes had dreams about editing.

After my Flex training, I embedded with the Business desk, while others in my cohort went to Arts, Sports, Science, Graphics and Live. Many of us rotate through at least three desks; I’m now on Styles for six months. The crash course-like portion of the program is over, and most days I complete the same work as any other editor at The Times.

But I can always ask for help. On the day of the Dobbs decision, when I was working with reporters on Business, I sought out other editors on the desk for guidance on how to manage the live digital coverage.

Sometimes, though, I have to rely on my own judgment. As the 8 p.m. print deadline crept closer that day, the head of the Business desk asked me how we would weave together our smaller bits of reporting into a larger story for the print Business section. How would we frame the Supreme Court’s decision for Business readers? As we talked to the reporters, it seemed clear to us that while many companies had spoken out about the ruling, corporations were still largely hesitant to take a stance on abortion rights — that would be our angle. I wrote the headline: “Companies Are More Vocal Than Ever on Social Issues. Not on Abortion.”

I can admit now that I wasn’t always sure that editing was the right role for me. I didn’t know how I would feel working behind the scenes and not seeing my byline as often. I questioned whether I had the diligence to comb through many pages of companies’ earnings reports to check a single figure, or the unflappability to help a writer deal with a difficult source.

But as I floated between desks and assignments, I discovered something surprising in myself: a secret well of generosity and patience. Ensuring writers have covered all of their bases, helping them avoid potentially embarrassing errors and preserving their voices and styles — these are all things editors have done for me.

A really good edit, I realized, can be an act of care. Now I can only try my best to return it.

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