Rumpelstiltskin Is My Name, Polishing Stories Is My Game

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:

  1. run the submission through an online plagiarism checker
  2. 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)
  3. correct spelling, AP style errors, grammatical mistakes, and
  4. verify claims and add attributions when needed
  5. rearrange information for clarity and flow; most important information at the top, expanded details toward the end
  6. add or subtract content to fill the space required
  7. 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!

via Daily Prompt: Polish

 

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