Young writers need room to grow

March 04, 2002|BY GINNY FITE

An editor is a little like a mother, a little like a cheerleader and a little like Ayatollah Khomeini.

OK, so you're laughing.

My reporters agree with the Khomeini part. They think they're suppressed, repressed and oppressed - at least once a week. I consider that part of my job.

Very soon, my young interns, right now like small ducklings quacking behind me on the way to the pond, will think so, too. We're just in the honeymoon stage. I let them write what they want to write, the way they want to write it - for now. The point is just to get them in the water.

You gotta have a sense of humor in this job. Sometimes you actually edit copy. Most of the time you're coaching, training, listening, organizing, managing, persuading, sometimes demanding and apologizing.


Writing for publication is like learning to walk. If you're lucky as an editor, you get medal-winning sprinters and marathon runners (I have two). But you also have to do your time as a mentor and trainer for the newbies.

When you have an intern, you can't stand there and demonstrate for that young person the art of putting one foot - or one word - in front of the other. Even if you did, he wouldn't pay attention. He has to figure it out for himself, with a lot of stumbles, tumbles, and flat-on-his-face pratfalls. He also has to figure out how to get up after he falls.

Learning to walk takes a great deal of stubbornness. And it's pretty funny - and sometimes breathtaking - to watch. Still, it's the doing that counts.

You can't be theoretical about walking - or writing - and have something to show for it. In the case of interns, the product of trying out your legs shows up in the newspaper. Sometimes you fall on your face, sometimes you don't.

Young writers learn nothing if you rewrite their stuff. They need some freedom to experiment.

At a newspaper, we're always practicing freedom of speech, that freedom granted to us by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Freedom is heady stuff. It's easy to get carried away.

And it's way too easy to suppress it, to box it in with rules about what can and what cannot go in the paper - the way the governments do in Russia and China.

So we walk a fine line between freedom and license.

One of the things we try to do at a newspaper is write the way people talk. We try to avoid highfalutin' words like supercilious or potentiate. Why use a $25 word nobody understands when you can use a perfectly good 25-cent word no one has to look up in a dictionary?

So sometimes young writers in hot pursuit of a statement use slang, as a test of freedom and because that's the way they talk.

Slang is the cheapest form of language, "outside conventional or standard usage," the AP Stylebook says (I'll just point out here that the word "stylebook" as one word was probably coined by AP and at one point was considered slang).

Slang is the language of a neighborhood, a region, a culture. It includes words for which we have vivid mind-pictures. It includes words everybody knows.

Like the s___ word. No, not that S word, and not salubrious, serendipitous or salutation. The s___ word followed by "real bad" (See, I can't use this particular s___ word because it might be offensive to some people and freedom of the press doesn't extend that far).

But I can write about it this way. So that's the trick my young interns have to learn, building word bridges to march their ideas and observations across. And most of the time you have to learn by doing.

So bear with us. It's your freedom, too.

Ginny Fite is Lifestyle editor at The Herald-Mail. You can reach her at 301-733-5131, extension 2340, or by e-mail at

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