All stories benefit from editing; of course, I would say that. And nearly all stories benefit from actually being cut: if you take the low-value stuff off the bottom of a story, and move up the odd salient detail, a shorter story becomes a better story: more focused, more efficient, less diffuse. But sometimes you’ve got to cut even when you don’t want to. And sometimes a story changes slot, or changes purpose, so drastically that cutting from the bottom is no longer an option. Sometimes you’ve got to cut from the top.
It nearly always happens when something originally commissioned as a light-relief news feature – one of the most vulnerable kinds of story when agendas start changing – gets moved from its original page by a stronger piece, but still needs to appear somewhere in the paper. The typical place for a demoted story is as a short “news briefing” (known at the Tribune as a “nib” (news in brief) or a “mod”), where everything has to be (a) short and (b) straightforward.
That’s not too difficult to arrange for stories written as straight news in the classic “inverted pyramid” structure taught in journalism school, with all the important facts at the top. Then you can just trim everything off after the first three paragraphs. But that usually isn’t how light-relief news features are written. They start with quotes or teases or an offbeat hook. They keep you waiting for the core news item. They almost invariably employ what’s called a “dropped intro” – an intriguing piece of the puzzle, a little bait-and-switch designed to slow you down and keep you reading.
Many editors hate them. I don’t, always: one dropped-intro piece, with a nice picture, can provide a welcome change of pace in a relentlessly grim run of national pages or a sea of quarterly results stories in the business section. But there’s one place they’re never welcome: on the nibs page. There just isn’t space.
Here’s a good example. This is the decorously dropped opening of a lighter 600-word report filed by our Madrid correspondent last week and originally slated for a good spot in the foreign pages.
I liked it when I picked it up; I was going to leave it as it was. But then something changed on the newsdesk and, in front of my eyes, the feature detached itself from its original page and reappeared as the first of five nibs crammed in willy-nilly above a large advert.
Our nibs all used to be a standard length: 15 lines or (at best) 100 words, so that they could be completely interchangeable and modular (that’s why they were called mods). There’s a bit more flexibility now, but, still, 130-odd words is not very much space under any circumstances. It’s certainly not enough to accommodate a dropped intro that runs to nearly 50. So it had to go.
The Tribune is a “writer’s paper” and we are expected under most circumstances to preserve the writer’s voice and style, and cut and mend as invisibly as possible. But when you’re faced with a cut as drastic as this, that rule has to go out of the window. Come what may, you have to move the facts to the top and throw the rest away. You’ll be discarding a lot of actual news when you go down from 600 to 100; you can’t be too squeamish about losing the decorative bits too. So the introduction eventually ended up like this:
That moves the news to the first clause, gets the key quote into the first paragraph and makes more space further down for another fact or two.
It was what needed to be done, and I get the sub-editor’s satisfaction of solving a problem in a small space. But still, I didn’t really relish it.
The Madrid correspondent has to generate words and thought where there was nothing before, every day, to order, whether he feels like it or not. Writing for a living is difficult, and writing to daily deadlines especially so. Last week, having produced exactly what was asked for in good time, through no fault of his own his words were de-assigned, moved, squeezed, shortened and eventually largely replaced with mine. That’s not much of a reward for doing your job right.
So you feel bad about it. But you can do it. To anyone.
As originally filed:
“It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.
It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five.”
The news in brief:
It was 1775.