A lexicon from the newsroom, about life and writing


By Mo Conlan

I love words. I especially love words and phrases specific to an industry. Here are some words and phrases I've gleaned from a lifetime working on a daily newspaper.

“Head help?”: Shouted out to editors on the copy desk (where the daily newspaper is designed and edited) - meaning, at minutes to deadline, do you need help writing that last headline so we can get this “effing” edition in on time and not incur the wrath of Big Guy in the corner office.

In real life, I have always needed “head help” - that is getting my head to jibe with the world’s. I do not care a whit about sports, for instance, but the world I live in cares a great deal. (Not sure who needs the head help.)

In my writing life, my head is scattered, unfocussed. Why can’t I get that novel finished? Oh, I need “head help” all right.

“I got a fatal!” - police reporter shouts out in the newsroom so every editor in earshot will know to re-juggle priorities on news pages for that day’s paper. Could be a big murder story, could be a wreck on 1-71. A story with a dead body will be bumped up.

In real life, the fatals pile up - parents, friends, ideals.

My biggest fear in my writing life is that I will have to shout, finally, about my novel: “I got a fatal!”

Another fear is for my poet’s voice, the one that always rang true even when my life seemed like something crumpled at the bottom of a dark closet. I’ve long since opened the closet door, but in my freedom I may neglect that voice at the heart of my writing.

“How much space you need?” - Barked question to a reporter with a late-breaking story being written right up to deadline. The layout editor will have to pre-assign a depth for the story and leave a hole for it as he or she designs a news page.

The nightmare is when you as editor assign a story, say 12 inches, and, with only minutes to deadline, it comes in at eight.

If a story is only a little short, you can “graph it out” - make each sentence a new, indented paragraph. You can also “air it out,” insert coding that adds more space between the lines. You can slap on a sub-head to go above or below the main head to gain added depth. But it’s pretty hard to eat four inches. Easier when it comes in long - you can just whack it - as carefully as you have time for.

In real life I’ve always needed plenty of space. But too much space sends me reeling and looking for coziness and connection.

I have created a writing space for myself in a little porch room at the back of my house. Dusky rose plush chair that swivels and rocks, a scarf with moon and stars pattern thrown over it, my artwork on the wall, cat snoozing, his snores a little song. It overlooks my backyard garden.

There is nothing to keep me from this serene writing space - yet often I avoid it. When I do enter it, I never want to leave.

My novel - stretches on endlessly in time and space. I need an editor to shout, “This is all the space, all the time you get and it’s 5 minutes to deadline!”

“You up?”- Are you editing a story on deadline, in which case you are not up. If you are not working on one, you are up - available for a last-minute task, a story to fix, a headline to write.

I have spent many days being not up - stuck in some old place, something festering, missing the next thing. I want to be up for more writing. Sometimes, though, I am just not up in any sense of the word.

Point 5 - The amount of space, a half inch, you figure for certain overlines that go above stories and photos. Story widths are measured in picas - 6 picas to an inch, 12 points to a pica - and story depth in inches. You have 21.2 inches down on each news page, 69 picas, 6 points across. (Used to be wider, but most newspapers went to slightly smaller pages to save on increasingly expensive newsprint.) This math can drive me nuts.

I don’t care about picas and points. It's the words I came here for. Give me words! Words that brought the cave man and woman out of the cave! Richly layered, textured, emotion-laden, magical words.

Sometimes I feel my novel has become as tedious to me as picas and points. I have let it take up too much space - spinning on endlessly, me dawdling after it.

I need to rediscover the magic of my words, to find that editor in me demanding that I turn over the story: “It’s 5 minutes to deadline and this sucker is due in 4 and a half!”

OK, the writer in me grudgingly accepts. I'm up.

(Mo Conlan spent more than 30 years as a reporter and editor on a daily newspaper.)