It's often said that the brains of human beings have two very distinct sides, with the left side being responsible for language, logic, and math, while the right handles spatial abilities, face recognition and processing music.
Editing is also very much a two-sided process, one that we divvy up as micro- and macro-editing. Micro-editing deals with the technical, nuts-and-bolts aspects of news writing. Macro-editing deals with the content of stories.
Here's a checklist of micro- and macro-editing:
• AP Style
• The lede - does it make sense, is it supported by the rest of the story, is it in the first graf?
• The story - is it fair, balanced and objective?
• Libel - are there any statements that might be considered libelous?
• Substance - is the story thorough and complete? Are there any "holes" in the story?
• Writing - is the story well-written? Is it clear and understandable?
Personality Type and Editing
As you can imagine, certain personality types are probably better at one type of editing or the other. Precise, detail-oriented people are probably best at micro-editing, while big-picture types probably excel at macro-editing.
Small Details vs. Content of Stories
And in a typical newsroom, especially at larger news outlets, there is a kind of micro-macro division of labor. Copy desk editors generally focus on the small details - grammar, AP Style, punctuation and so on. Assignment editors who run the various sections of a paper - city news, sports, arts and entertainment and so on - generally focus more on the macro side of things, the content of stories.
But here's the rub - a good editor has to be able to do both micro- and macro-editing, and to do both well. This is especially true at smaller publications and student newspapers, which typically have fewer staffers.
Not Getting Caught up in Small Details to Lose the Big Picture
In other words, you must have the patience to correct bad grammar, misspelled words and punctuation problems. But you can't let yourself get so caught up in the small details that you lose sight of the big picture, i.e., does the lede of the story make sense? Is the content well-written and objective? Does it cover all the bases and answer all the questions a reader would likely have?
Both Are Equally Important
The larger point is this - both micro- and macro-editing are equally important. You can have the most wonderfully written story in the world, but if it's filled with AP Style errors and misspelled words then those things will detract from the story itself.
Likewise, you can fix all the bad grammar and misplaced punctuation but if a story makes no sense, or if the lede is buried in the eighth paragraph, or if the story is biased or contains libelous content, then all the fixes you made won't amount to much.
To see what we mean, take a look at these sentences:
Police said they confiscated three point two million dollars of cocain in what was a massiv drug bust.
The CEO of Exon estimated that 5% of the company's profits would be plouwed back into resarch and development.
I'm sure you've figured out that these sentences primarily involve micro-editing. In the first sentence, "cocaine" and "massive" are spelled wrong and the dollar amount doesn't follow AP Style. In the second sentence, "Exxon," "plowed" and "research" are misspelled, the percentage doesn't follow AP Style, and "company's" needs an apostrophe.
Now, look at these sentences. The first example is meant to be a lede:
There was a fire at a house last night. It was on Main Street. The fire burned the house to the ground and three children inside were killed.
The CEO, who is known for his money-grubbing personality, said he would close the factory if it lost money.
Here we see macro-editing problems. The first example is three sentences long when it should be one, and it buries the most important aspect of the story - the death of three children. The second sentence includes a potentially libelous bias - the "money-grubbing CEO."
As you can see, whether it's micro- or macro-editing, a good editor has to catch every mistake in every story. As editors will tell you, there's no room for error.