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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Mar. 8, 2005
Updated, Mar. 8, 2005

QuickLink: A78554

Writing Tool #47: Collaboration
Help others in their crafts so they can help you.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Take an interest in all crafts that support your work.

The central act of journalism is reporting, the gathering, verifying and rendering of important information. But don't stifle your imagination. If you think of reporting as only a writer's act, you're missing the big play. A graphic artist who researches a diagram of how a new vaccine works is a reporter. A photographer who captures images from a war zone is a reporter. The designer is a reporter.

That last declaration may surprise some myopic writers who think of designers as decorators, the artistic fringe of the news or publishing operation. But consider this definition: Design is the form of journalism that renders each element of news in its most interesting and accessible form, and combines them in the most coherent way. Design frames editorial decisions about what matters on the page, on the screen, and in the world.

If you aspire to great things as a writer, begin with your self-interest: If your story is well-designed, it will look more important and more people will read it. You would be a fool to ignore or belittle that power.

In fact, you will never be able to reach your potential as a writer unless you take an interest in all the associated news and literary crafts. Cultivate this habit: ask questions about the crafts of copy-editing, photojournalism, illustration, graphics, design, and new media. You need not become an expert in these fields, but it's your duty to be curious and engaged. Eventually you will be able to talk about these crafts without an accent.


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1. Copy editors: Ignore the traditional antagonism that leads writers to believe that copy editors are vampires who work at night and suck the life out of stories. Think, instead, of copy editors as the champions of standards, as invaluable test readers, as your last line of defense. I once wrote a story about two brothers with terrible physical handicaps. The boys had been separated for several years. I described the wonderful reunion of the brothers, how they watched cartoons and fed each other "Fruit Loops." A copy editor, Ed Merrick, called me to check on the story. He offered his praise for a job well done, but said he had sent a news clerk down to the supermarket (this was before the convenience of the Internet) to check on the spelling of "Fruit Loops." Sure enough, the correct spelling was "Froot Loops." Nice catch. The last thing I wanted was for the reader to notice this mistake, especially at a high point in the story. Years later, I would see Ed and give him the thumbs-up sign in gratitude for his Froot Loops fix. Talk to copy editors. Learn their names. Embrace them as fellow writers and lovers of language.

2. Never refer to a photojournalist as "my photographer." Make sure photo assignments are considered early in the process, not as an afterthought. Using television journalism as a model, look for opportunities for you and the photographer to be at a scene at the same time. Help the photographer understand your vision of the story. Ask questions about what the photographer is seeing. Use the work of the photographer to document the story. Let the photographer teach you about focus, framing, composition, and lighting. Ask the photographer what you can do to help.

3. Talk to all the visual journalists in the shop and let them know what you are working on. As a story develops, make sure they are included in the conversation early in the process. Learn from them what you need to see and bring back from a scene, material that can be converted into powerful visual and design elements. Ask your editor and visual journalists how you can help them while you are reporting or doing research. 

Remember that good work takes time, not just for you. Learn to organize your time and meet your deadlines in a way that gives others time to do their jobs. Even if you lack the authority to convene conversations, encourage early planning that includes all the key players.

I learned these strategies while working on the series "Three Little Words." The story was so unusual in its conception and execution -- a month-long serial narrative with short chapters -- that it required planning and intense collaboration. Here are some of the conversations that were required:

  • I worked closely with photographer Joanna Pinneo and stood beside her as we selected a signature photo of the main character that would run as a logo for the story.
  • I consulted with designer Mario Garcia, who thought that each individual section could be designed to look more like a book chapter than a newspaper column.
  • I spent many hours with editor Richard Bockman, reviewing language choices, copy editing changes, and writing headlines and summaries.
  • I worked with editors of the St. Pete Times Web site since this would be the first series that would also be made available in an electronic archive.
  • I worked with clerks at the paper to figure out how to respond to folks who missed a chapter or tuned in late.
  • I was asked to help the promotion department develop in-house ads that would match in tone and language the voice of the story.
  • I recorded summaries of the chapters that could be accessed via the telephone.

I did all that work in 1995 at the front edge of a media revolution in which news and information are now communicated across media platforms. Since 2001, I have written about 500 columns and essays for the Poynter Institute Web site. I am by no means an expert on how to produce a story using numerous platforms or multimedia approaches. But I am trying to adapt my writing tools and habits to a brave new world of media technology. The opportunity to write in different voices, the chance to interact with the audience, the adventure of crossing many old boundaries -- all these require a richer imagination and greater collaboration than ever before.

If you work hard at your cross-disciplinary education, supporting the marriage of words and visuals, you will be preparing yourself for a future of collaboration, innovation and creativity. And you can do this without sacrificing the enduring values of your craft and profession. This requires not just the Golden Rule, but what my old colleague Bill Boyd calls the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way that they want to be treated. How does the copy editor want to be treated? And what does the photographer need to do her best work? And what makes the designer deeply satisfied in his work? The only way to know for sure is to ask.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. If you work in a news organization or for a publishing house, if you are writing a film documentary or a nonfiction narrative, if you write for a Web site or a newsletter, you are dependent upon a lot of people to get your best work accomplished. Begin by making a list of the names of these people. Make sure you have their phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

2. Develop a schedule of conversations with each of the people who are on your list. Apply the Platinum Rule. Find out what they need to do their best work.

3. Look for opportunities to praise the kind of support you desire. Do not just show up at the copy desk or the design desk with a complaint. If someone has written a good headline or saved you from a mistake, reward that good work with praise.

4. Do a little reading about the associated crafts. Find a good book on photojournalism. Read some design magazines. Start listening in to conversations about these crafts and try to develop a lexicon so that you can chime in.  
Editor's Note: This essay borrows from an earlier one, "Why Designers Matter."

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