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Former Times editor offers advice on style, working with writers

Caricature of Bill Connolly

By Asha Anchan
University of Nebraska- Lincoln

Bill Connolly worked at The New York Times for 30 years: It was the paper where he spent most of his journalistic career and the publication from which he retired. Yet, Connolly said the best advice he received as a young Times copy boy was not to stick around.

‘Don’t stay around here, go get a job as a real journalist and learn your trade and then come back’ was the advice from one of his adjunct professors at Columbia.

And that’s what Connolly did.

He worked as a reporter and editor at The Minneapolis Tribune, The Houston Chronicle and The Detroit Free Press.  After striking out on his own, he returned to The Times as a copy editor on the foreign desk and other sections, but left again from 1979 to 1983 to work as the managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot.

Eventually, Connolly returned to The Times as a senior editor in charge of hiring and training copy editors. He wrote the book on style for The Times, literally, publishing “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” in 1999.

Retiring from The Times in 2001, Connolly now serves as a board member of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) and enjoys spending time delving in to his passion for art.

While he is no longer working in a newsroom, Connolly said his 45 years of experience has allowed him to see how journalism has changed. He said some elements of journalism will never change and others he isn’t excited to see change, but it’s all part of the evolution of the industry.

In a phone interview, he offered the following tips on style and working with reporters:

1. “There’s no such thing as useless information to a journalist because you never know what’s going to come up tomorrow.”

2. “Journalists ought to be observant and pay attention to the little things.”

3. “Things go up online long before they get in to print…. To some degree it’s a bad thing, in the sense that some things get published, I think, before they’re sufficiently edited and things get posted on the Web before they get the care and attention that traditionally things got before they went in to print.”

4. “There’s a logic to English grammar and you should understand the logic and be able to use it and therefore you should be able to write well.”

5. “You should discipline yourself to think fast and write fast.  I guess that’s even more true in this digital age then it used to; you have to do it in a hurry.”

6. “I think one of the changes is the editing isn’t as careful as it used to be, and that’s because staffs aren’t as big as they used to be.”

7. “An editor’s job is to improve the work while allowing the writer to save face.”

8.  “As an editor you have to understand the situation of the writer. Writing is an emotional process as well as an intellectual process. A writer makes a thousand tiny decisions…. That’s a pretty big emotional commitment and then the reporter has to turn the whole thing over to an editor…”

9. “I’ve always thought the world would be a better place if every reporter had to work a year as an editor and every editor had to work a year as a reporter, so that each side would understand the frustrations of the other side.”

10. “It seems to me that the world hungers for accurate information and that’s probably more and more true as the world shrinks. So it seems to me that there’s always going to be a place for good journalists, thoughtful ones.”

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