I never expected to identify more easily with an ornery dwarf than a fairytale princess, but here I am spinning straw into gold professionally. Line by line, straw by straw, I feed words into my figurative spinning wheel to produce an end product that is polished and bright. Before I work my magic, the straw was bland and plain, littered with debris (or worse!). After, the room full of straw is transfigured and the words gleam like polished gold.
I currently freelance as a remote copyeditor for a digital media site (plug: check out LadyFreethinker.org for eco-friendly, pro-human and pro-animal stories; I edit and publish on Friday mornings) but I’ve been spinning straw for years.
I started my professional editing career while working as Content Editor for my campus newspaper a few years back. I was the quality and control curator of our weekly 24-page paper. All students were welcome to submit pieces, and I read every submission–usually between 60 and 100 per week. Sometimes, I was granted the luxury of selecting the most quality, timely articles to print. Other weeks, I had to fill space.
Our paper was entirely student-run, meaning no class was obligated to report for us, nor was any professor teaching the basics of journalism. We had a great student staff that submitted well-researched, supported articles for the news and opinion sections. We had fantastic regular contributors to write on lifestyle (such as a student fashion column) and sporting events or athlete profiles. These submissions were easy to feed into my editing wheel with a spin here, tweak there, and voilà: golden. Other submissions took quite a bit of picking through and a dash of magic on the editors’ part. As you may have heard, you can’t polish a turd.
Here are some examples of the “you-know-what” mixed in with the good, clean straw:
- listicles clearly cut and copied from BuzzFeed
- submissions apparently typed on a phone in text-speak (“r u ready for summer? here is how 2 stay cool…”)
- wildly inaccurate claims with no sources
- full-on essays that rambled on for pages about politics or campus complaints (seriously, bro, just get a blog)
Luckily these submissions were few and far between. Other than the first bullet point, which is blatant plagiarism, I can forgive the authors for not knowing how to write for a newspaper because the campus did not (and still does not) have a journalism program. Still, these messes were necessary to fill our space as well as report on that week’s news and events. Since we allowed our writers to submit up to 5 p.m. on the day before the newspaper was printer, there wasn’t always time to send a draft back for rewrites. As the 11th hour approached, heaps of straw fell on my shoulders. I stretched my fingers, poured the coffee, and started spinning.
Here are the steps I took as an editor:
- run the submission through an online plagiarism checker
- scan through and highlight claims that were unsupported, sentences that could be improved, and facts that needed confirmation (i.e. proper name spellings and graduation years for alumni)
- correct spelling, AP style errors, grammatical mistakes, and
- verify claims and add attributions when needed
- rearrange information for clarity and flow; most important information at the top, expanded details toward the end
- add or subtract content to fill the space required
- read through the entire article until I get from start to finish without making any improvements
As you may guess, spinning straw is rather time consuming. I worked long past the chimes of midnight three or four times a month. This “part-time job” occasionally took more than 40 hours a week–mind you, I was still a full-time student trying to have a social life at the time. It sometimes seemed like a thankless task because in the end, the author got the byline. Despite the stress and lack of sleep, I took pride in my work. I know that my editing eye increased the caliber of the newspaper exponentially (and not just because my editor-in-chief told me so). I add value to the written word.
Like Rumpelstiltskin, I spin modest pay and little recognition. I enjoy the familiarity of editing as my fingers dance nimbly and the computer whirs softly. I am patient and precise at my practice. To edit is to take a raw story, plain and dull, and polish it here and there while maintaining the integrity of the message. It’s a delicate task but an invaluable skill.
For my next trick, I’d like to try my hand at being a magician, a word-wizard, a being who creates something out of empty air: an author!