5 things I learned rewriting a textbook that might be helpful to your writing students

As Yogi Berra said on a day celebrating his career, I want to thank you all for making this necessary. Enough people found the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” worth buying that SAGE thought it was worth updating. The second edition is coming out in January, and it’s got some neat new features like a whole section on freelancing and some great help from additional pros.

My only real regret is that I’m losing my favorite cover of all time. That thing was beautiful. Still, this one is pretty cool and doesn’t have that polyester 1970s, this-won’t-age-well vibe of some other books:

I learned a lot writing the book initially, like how to fit 10 pounds of stuff into a 5-pound bag, what the phrase “implied agreement on ancillaries” meant and that I still can’t figure out the “affect/effect” distinction. In basically rewriting it, I discovered some different things that might be valuable to students who have to read this thing when it comes out. Here are five things I picked up in the rewrite:

Keeping up with social media is impossible: One of the things I remember most about the first edition of the book was that we were literally on the press (and I do mean LITERALLY) when Twitter decided to up its character count from 140 to 280. After a mild panic (read: complete and total mental breakdown), I begged and pleaded enough to get SAGE to pull the book back and let me rework some stuff. If you read the chapter, you might notice that some of the sentences sound like they were translated from English to Sanskrit to German and then back to English. That’s what happens when you’re trying to exchange content in a character-for-character basis.

That was the fourth critical revision of the social media chapter in less than two years since I wrote that draft. The reason for all those changes was twofold: 1) SAGE wanted to showcase that the book HAD a social media chapter, so the editor at the time asked me to write it first. That allowed SAGE to put it out as part of a review package to see if anyone would be interested in ever using this book in a classroom before SAGE invested any time or money into me writing it. 2) Social media changes platforms and approaches as much as Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.

Here is a list of stuff that no longer exists (or is on life support) that made the cut for the first version of the original social media chapter:

  • YikYak
  • Storify
  • Vine
  • Periscope
  • Ping
  • Google Buzz
  • Meerkat
  • Digg

(I brought up YikYak to students in my writing class last week, and you’d have thought I asked them, “Are you old enough to remember the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?”)

This, of course, doesn’t count the changes on various platforms, like Twitter’s shift to more characters and visual options and Instagram’s movement to more text-based storytelling. Trying to be “up-to-date” on a book you update every three years is like trying to catch yesterday’s rainstorm.

However, what I did learn in looking back at this graveyard of social media is that the approaches I took in the book as to how best to employ social media still holds. In addition, elements of these dead-stick platforms continue to have value in new incarnations. (Vine begat TikTok in a way, while Storify’s approach to storytelling is now everywhere, even though the platform itself is dead.)

You can always count on the consistency of people’s stupidity: One of the big risks when it comes to including timely examples is that they’ll go stale. The other is that you’ll never find another example of that “one thing” so you’ll have to rewrite a ton of content and change your position entirely on a topic.

These risks are overstated when it comes to journalism textbooks, primarily because people continue to do dumb things in ways that mirror the dumb things people did in previous eras.

Case in point, the issue of “Twibel,” also known as libeling someone on Twitter, took on particular significance in the mid-2010s, as courts were deciding what was or wasn’t legal. Singer/actress/person-I’d-least-like-to-run-into-in-a-dark-alley Courtney Love was at the center of a crucial case that brought this issue to a head and demonstrated that, yes, people can sue you for stupid things you say on Twitter.

Love won, and the appeals court upheld her victory, so that made the first edition, but I was worried about finding a decent update. Fortunately, Love not only repeated some of social media misbehavior, but billionaire Elon Musk put himself in the middle of a similar situation when he referred to a cave explorer as a “pedo guy” during a social media post. The lawsuit’s resolution timed up nicely with the new edition…

Sex scandals, criminal actions, stupid behavior and other forms of entropy will always come around again, much in the way the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west. If nothing else, that should be helpful to those of you wondering why you’re learning the legalese associated with covering crime as part of your reporting education.

Grammar still makes no sense: As part of the writing process, the book goes through a copy editor who picks everything apart to make sure I don’t sound like an idiot. Jim Kelly (not the hall-of-fame quarterback, but he’s a hall-of-famer in my book, anyway) is the guy who always gets my books and he’s been a lifesaver every time. What’s funny, though, is that since we’ve been working together, we find that we’re going back and forth on things that there should be rules for, but there apparently aren’t.

Jim’s a grammar guru, so he’ll pick at something in a paragraph that needs a comma or something, and I’ll pretty much go along with him. Occasionally, though, I’ll look back at what we did in the previous edition and ask, “Wait, we went the other way last time. I’m fine with whatever, but what’s the rule?” Jim and I then spend about five emails trying to figure out why we did what we did the last time and why it is that we are trying to do something different this time. In the end, it kind of comes down to, “Hell… I don’t know either…”

A lot of what we do together, he can explain to me in perfect and simple ways that help me remember it. (He’s gotten the closest of anyone ever to helping me figure out “affect/effect.” When I screw it up, I feel like I’m failing him… Catholic guilt, I know…) However, even people who take on grammar, style and punctuation as a career can occasionally become befuddled.

I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse.

Nothing you write will ever be perfect: I get a goodly amount of notes from folks when I post on the blog, most of which let me know when I spelled something wrong, a link is dead, a word is missing or I did something else that looks like a random mishap. I’m always grateful for that, because everyone needs an editor (or 12) and basically on the blog, it’s just me.

With books, it’s a completely different story. I have multiple editors, copy editors, query specialists, production specialists and more. Here’s a simple walk through of a chapter from draft to book:

  • I write a draft.
  • It goes to my editor, who sends it back to me with notes.
  • I rewrite the chapter.
  • It goes to my editor, who sends it back to me with notes.
  • I finish rewriting the chapter.
  • It goes back to my editor, who edits it and sends it to the copy editor.
  • The copy editor sends it to me with notes and suggestions.
  • I edit it and send it back to the copy editor with changes and questions.
  • The copy editor sends it back to me with answers so I can make additional changes.
  • I make the changes and send it back to the copy editor.
  • The copy editor moves it to production, which edits it some more and lays it out.
  • I then get a first proof set, where I try to fix anything else I missed the first 12 times.
  • I send it back to production, which fixes the issues and sends it back to me with additional queries.
  • I answer the queries and check the fixes before sending it back to production.
  • They send any final queries and suggestions on a final proof set.
  • I answer the queries, do a pencil edit on the entire book and send it back.
  • It gets published as is, presuming Twitter doesn’t try to screw me over again.

Now, realize that even after ALL THAT, mistakes still get through and none of us has any idea how the hell that happened. Case in point, a professor in New Mexico offered his students extra credit if they could find any errors in the text and then email them to me. At least one person did and it was a stupid typo (theie instead of their) and I went back about six generations into the edits and have no idea where we screwed that up.

No matter what we do or how hard we work, nothing is ever perfect, so enjoy whatever level of “pretty good” you can get based on the amount of time you have to work and the general expectations of the people for whom you work.

“Done” matters the most: Steve Lorenzo, the first journalism instructor I ever had in college, used to yell at me when I was dinking around with something in lab, trying to get five more minutes out of him before I had to send the final version of whatever I was writing.

“Journalism is never done,” he’d say. “It’s just due.”

He was right about that and he was right about basically everything else in life as well. I could torture myself for hours and hours about making a mistake or missing something important or puttering around with commas and nothing would ever get done. Instead, you put the bat on the ball, make the damned deadline and good stuff will happen.

Fear of failure can paralyze the hell out of anyone. So can the desire to be perfect to the detriment of the “it’s as good as it’s gonna get.” I also find that if I persist and just getting something out of my head and on to the screen, I can always improve it later. The harder I work at just moving forward toward a goal, the more likely it is I’ll make the goal with room to spare.

In typing that, I realized there’s some truth in something I told my kid recently:

“You will never be the smartest, the fastest, the strongest or the whatever -est out there. There will always be someone smarter, faster, stronger or whatever, so you have to kind of get over that. What makes the difference and what will help you succeed more than anyone else is your work ethic and your level of commitment to getting the job done.

“Just outwork the bastards. Good stuff will happen when you do.”

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