Editing your columns, your words

In a perfect world, everyone would be able to say exactly what they wanted.

by Molly Moker

When it comes to your opinion, no one can say it better than you. Or can they? Devora Shapiro submitted a column about poverty and inequality in New Orleans. The column was more than the 850-word limit, so Editorial and Opinions Editor Karl Noyes sent it back so Shapiro could trim it. Shapiro submitted a shorter version, and “Exploring New Orleans and the delayed emotions” was published Sept. 8. Another reader wrote a response in a letter published Sept. 14. Shapiro felt the response was derogatory and missed her point. She submitted another column. Noyes contacted Shapiro to confirm she wrote the column. The next thing she knew, it was in the paper. Sort of. Shapiro said she was embarrassed to have her name on the published column because it was edited so much that it changed the way she wanted to come across. Shapiro is a philosophy graduate student and instructor at the University and said the philosophical structure was taken out of her column. The column was printed in a style that goes against what she teaches in her writing-intensive class.

“I don’t want people to think I write like that,” she said.

As the editor, Noyes is responsible for filling the editorial page by deadline. Often submitted pieces do not fit in the allotted space, so Noyes edits them.

“(People) will say something that can be said in one sentence but they’ll take three sentences to get there,” he said. “If I can edit that down and make it concise and make it clear so it can actually be run in the Daily because of spacing issues, I’ll probably do that.”

Noyes said he felt he had the authority to edit Shapiro’s column and didn’t think it was necessary for her to approve.

“Maybe I changed her voice, but I didn’t change her message,” he said. “I admit that sometimes it comes at a sacrifice – voice for clarity and space.”

Because of this incident, the Daily is taking steps to change its editorial editing process. Editor in Chief Britt Johnsen said the only policy the Daily currently has on editing submitted columns is what’s stated on the editorial page.

“It’s pretty vague … ,” Johnsen said. “It really doesn’t say very much what can and can’t be done, so it’s kind of subjective.”

Under this policy, editing decisions are left to the editor, she said. But after speaking with Shapiro, Johnsen said she realized every person has a right to know what their name is attached to. The Daily will now send people their letters and columns if major changes are made. Sending changed work back has not gone into official policy, but Johnsen said it is a step she is considering. For now, she said she trusts Noyes will OK major changes with the author. Although the action is not concrete, it’s a step in the right direction. In a perfect world, everyone would be able to say exactly what they wanted, exactly how they wanted. There is not space in the Daily to do that. Editors need to be sensitive to submitted work. To ensure fewer changes are made to submitted columns, writers should obey the required word limits. If writers respect the space limitations, editors have an easier time. If something is changed that could affect the perception of the column, the author should know about it before it’s published. Any questions? Let me know.

Molly Moker welcomes comments at [email protected].