Behind the Scene
by Randy Limbird
Editor & Publisher, El Paso Scene
I’ve written professionally for more than 35 years, but one title I’ve never bestowed on myself is that of “writer.” Even when I was working full-time as a reporter, writing took up less than a quarter of my time. As an editor, writing takes up even less of my time — I spend far more time working on others people’s writing than on my own.
However, if you add up all the time I’ve spent writing, all the time I’ve spent editing other writers and maybe toss into that all the time I’ve spent reading what others have written — then you come up with a total amount of time that surpasses almost any other waking activity of mine.
Like I said, I never refer to myself as a writer, simply as someone who writes. In school, writing seemed like a chore. I did well enough at it, but never focused on it as if it were my calling in life. Writing was more about technique for me.
Looking back, my best stories as a reporter weren’t the ones I spent the most time on writing. They were the ones I spent the most time on reporting.
As an intern at a major newspaper, I had rewritten a feature story several times but my editor kept handing it back as not good enough. Finally he told me, “Randy, most writing problems are really reporting problems.”
That piece of advice echoed throughout the rest of my newspaper writing career. If I invested enough time gathering information and interviewing sources, the writing was always easier. In fact, it felt more like editing than writing. I spent more time deciding on what to leave in or out than the actual crafting of words.
Bad writing usually results from not having enough to say, or not having thought about it long enough.
The hardest writing I ever did for a newspaper was just before I entered graduate school in journalism. A friend of mine was working as the arts and culture editor for a weekly paper and asked me if I wanted to do some reviews. Despite my utter lack of qualifications, I agreed.
I could fake my way doing reviews of community plays, but then I was given an assignment to review a Fourth of July concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Given my total lack of musical expertise, there was no way I could pretend to give an opinion on the performance.
Ultimately I gave up trying, and wrote a review extolling the overall ambience of the occasion. I wrote about the pre-concert tailgate picnics and fireworks finale, and threw in just enough details about the miusic performed that readers might overlook the obvious fact that I had no idea of what I was writing about.
I was never much of an investigative writer either, although I stumbled into some stories that turned into investigations. My favorite example was the case of Heritage Baptist University near Youngstown, Ohio. The college president and founder invited me to do a story on his school, which I happily accepted.
The school was a small Christian campus, hardly what I would call a university. So I had to wonder if there were any criteria required to label such a modest institution as a college or university. A few calls to state officials revealed that yes, there were, and this school did not meet any of them. In fact, the school’s founder had been threatened with legal action before, left town, then re-opened the school under a new name at a new location. My stories ultimately led to the school being shut down. The most amazing part of the story is that someone who called himself a university president was stupid enough to invite a reporter to do a story in the first place.
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Copyright 2018 by Cristo Rey Communications.