Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Out With the Old

Of all years, 2003 wasn't the best for journalism. Remember that Blair fellow, the re-emergence of that Glass guy and too many plagiarists to list? The world continued to boil, but newspaper didn't always put the bubbling in context. The war in Iraq brought both decent work and some too-credulous reports.

This is my wish for 2004:

A forceful, vigorous news media. We need it now more than ever. Our country has undergone radical changes in the past two years. The challenge for journalists of all stripes has seldom been greater.

Some have risen to the challenge. Others have not -- or do not acknowledge the reshaping of our national landscape. Perhaps the preoccupations of the news business itself have obscured the national picture.

Reporters must ask tough questions. Newspapers must be willing to publish the answers and live with the consequences. Newspapers cannot sit by and watch the changes. They must interact with them.

But what about copy editors? What role does the desk play in this?

When every week brings more news of national and international import, the basics become crucial. The desk's bread-and-butter -- grammar, spelling, fact-checking -- must be done right.

Copy editors maintain a newspaper's credibility. We must pursue our jobs with the same force and vigor as every other department. If our newspapers print accurate, fair and comprehensive reports, we have done our jobs. And not before then.

Year-End Searches

How readers stumbled across Copy Massage of late.

copy editing code
headlines + massage
clay massage
how to edit picture massage
massage
massage icons

These weren't the most fascinating of referrals, I know. I just figured I would clear them out before 2004 hit.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

ACES Board Discussion

Enough of my rambling about Testy Copy Editors. How about some frolicking over at the American Copy Editors Society board?

The latest debate: "mic" or "mike" as an abbreviation for "microphone." (Thanks to a colleague for pointing me to this discussion.)

I like "mic" intellectually. It clearly derives from "microphone" in spelling. But we pronounce the shorter word "mike."

For clarity's sake, I would give "mike" the edge. But just barely. The larger question: Why use the abbreviation in the first place? I can think of few situations where one would absolutely require it.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Not Adding Up

Too many times, quotes are attributed with the word "added" or "adding."

I think this springs from reporters resentful about having to use "said" all the time as attribution. Thus, they pepper copy with "added"s.

An example:

"Justin Timberlake gracing the cover of Rolling Stone is outrageous," Wiggins said, adding that "his album is pretty good, though."

In this case, you don't even need the extra attribution. Folks believe, in a context like this, that it designates a comment as an aside. My belief: If we have to signpost a comment as an aside, it's not an especially effective one.

In this case:

"Justin Timberlake gracing the cover of Rolling Stone is outrageous," Wiggins said. "His album is pretty good, though."

The quote does the work. It changes the subject for you. The "adding" adds little.

One more:

"I enjoyed Christmas with my family," he said. "It was the best holiday ever."

He added, "My goldfish died and the house burned down."


"Added" drops by here to serve as a transition. The writer wants to jam two disparate quotes together. But the word works even less well here. "Added" has a jaunty air, which our speaker did not presumably share when talking about his holiday difficulties.

One option for a change: Cut the second quote and paraphrase.

"I enjoyed Christmas with my family," he said. "It was the best holiday ever."

But the day also challenged Perkins. His goldfish died, he said. To make matters worse, the house burned down.


My final objection to "added," is that it suggests the comment being added is the last one. The speaker has made his or her point and has just one more thing to toss into the mix. Few stories take this suggestion to heart. "Add" becomes a variant of "said."

Avoid this whenever possible.

I planned to end this gripe with an example of when "added" could be used appropriately. I couldn't think of one.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Proofing

This is why proofreading is important.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas and the happiest of holidays to you and yours.

Remember, Copy Massage cares.

Ranting will resume soon.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Ripped From Romenesko

A day late and several bits of change short, let me point folks to articles of interest.

Editor & Publisher denigrates blogs in its year-in-review section.

The point I'm concerned with reads:

"Blah, blah, Blogs: Probably the most hyped online development in 2003 (along with growth in site registration), but will these self-important online journals actually change the way newspapers do journalism on the Web?"

Does it matter? Blogging doesn't exist as a fixed thing. It's a medium. Like any medium, it benefits a certain type of communicator -- in this case those with time and words to spare.

But blogs won't succeed or fail based on whether they revolutionize newspapers, which are another medium altogether. They will succeed or fail based on people keeping them and networks forming around them.

In other happenings, a Naples Daily News columnist apologizes for his not-at-all-racially-charged column.

Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times writes about it. Key paragraph:

"For this black reader, seeing Batten's parody felt like watching an Amos and Andy routine. Forget about the tenuous connection between hip-hop slang and a failed concert; the story felt like a veiled racist joke, implying that the limited intelligence of people who talk a certain way was the real reason the concert failed."

Kudos to the newspaper, though, for keeping the column up on its Web site and linking to criticism.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The Holidays Cometh --

-- And with them, the usual holiday features and crowds of folk in newsrooms across the country taking vacations.

Some holiday tips for desk people who remain:

1.) Retain the sense of humor. At some point, actual news will begin to happen again.

2.) Keep the standards high. Folks might let the Christmas spirit inspire them to be a bit too free with the adjectives.

3.) Don't resent the rest of the world. Impress it. All those people lounging around at home will get the chance to read your headlines more closely than usual.

4.) Read up on your Christmas fact and fiction. Snopes, as usual, has the scoop. (You might want to turn off the music.)

5.) I find that wearing big, red, fuzzy Santa hat keeps the world in balance.

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Readers on the Lookout

The Tribune prints a column today that deals with the copy desk and assorted errors.

The lesson? We may look at our work carefully, but a huge audience will look at it even more carefully the day after.

Friday, December 19, 2003

More on Big News Heds

I'm torn.

On one hand, I like to think of newspapers moving the story along, especially when everyone has known the news for an entire day. Looking ahead suggests we're not just sitting on our hands waiting for others to break the news.

But one can make a persuasive argument about the importance of commemorating important events with a paper of record headline. No one would want to read, on Sept. 12, a newspaper front emblazoned with the words: "What's Next?"

I suspect we all have to make personal judgments about this. Saddam's capture, while important, certainly didn't have a Sept. 11 quality to me. Tweaking the headlines to suggest upcoming developments seems appropriate.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

More on Saddam heds ...

At this extensive Testy Copy Editors thread.

And as long as I'm linking to stuff over there, the board features a good discussion about Strom Thurmond's mixed-race daughter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Flooding the Zone

Let's start with a question. What's wrong with wall-to-wall Saddam coverage?

Nothing. And everything.

Newspapers have certainly printed a bountiful array of stories about the ex-Iraqi strongman. With the controversy about the war and the near-daily reports of violence from Iraq, Saddam's capture ranks.

I wonder if we miss something with this zone-flooding, though. As we devote pages and pages to Saddam, how much do we really say or explain? After a certain point, stories recycle the same facts. We only know so much. We can only speculate so far.

We overwhelm the pages (and possibly our readers) with one message: Capturing Saddam is important. You should know about it.

Thus, the context of the Saddam capture can be lost. We hop on the immediate event, but perhaps the media are less than excited about the long-term, research-heavy work that covering a complex world demands.

Those in the business can bemoan the fact that many in this country think Saddam launched the Sept. 11 attacks. But we should ask if news media contribute to such erroneous beliefs. We certainly covered Saddam's capture with fanfare to spare.

Newspapers should take care to educate their readers, not reinforce incorrect preconceptions.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Saddam Update

From a quick glance over at Newseum.

New York Daily News: We Bag The Bum!
Miami Herald: Facing Justice
Houston Chronicle: 1 Down, 1 To Go
Several papers: Caught or Captured
Several papers: 'Caught Like A Rat'

The clear favorite: 'We Got Him' or 'Got Him'

Interesting to see how these trends emerge in newsroom working independently. I like how the Chronicle sets the news in a broader context. The Caught headlines work too, especially if paired with big pictures of Saddam.

On such days, though, quotes often double as display headlines. The last two clearly resonated.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Saddam Nabbed

Let's keep a watch out for the headlines used tomorrow.

I'm out of the office today, so I have no idea what people will use. I expect, as is usual with such large stories, that certain themes will pop up regularly.

Let's not forget, though, that any headline used to describe the capture of Saddam will pale next to the photos of the actual, bedraggled man. The photos tell so much.

We can debate headlines, but certain images overshadow any words.

Friday, December 12, 2003

The Most Basic Basic

Warning: Prepare for ranting, dear readers. Nothing annoys me more than this. Nothing.

"It's" versus "Its."

Let's hit them one by one. The apostrophe only shows up after an "it" when you are making a contraction of "it" and "is." Sometimes "has" can pinch hit for "is."

Thus --

"It is a wonderful day," can be contracted to "It's a wonderful day."

"It has been somewhat fun," can become "It's been somewhat fun."

Now, if the "it" works as a pronoun, and you need to make it possessive, add the "s" but don't add the apostrophe. This seems to violate what some folks dimly remember from school, I know. But this is a special case.

Please. It doesn't need the apostrophe to be possessive.

"The house's paint peeled from the sun," should therefore be "Its paint peeled from the sun."

"The sweater's colors ran in the wash," should switch to "Its colors ran in the wash."

I know, I know. It looks a little funky. But resist that apostrophe. Take it out only for contractions. You will show people who know and love the language that you know and love it too. And you can dismiss my bitter mumbles.

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Ah, Columnists

Some warmed-over blog fodder, as I haven't been keeping up.

Tom and the Testy Copyfolk are busy linking to this example of modern newspaper column-writing.

What can I say?

Bad taste? Yep. Not that funny? Yep. Playing too loose with the race thing? Yep. Unforgivable? Not quite. But someone should have mentioned it was a bad idea. And then yelled about it if people didn't listen.

Meanwhile -- The same folk don't like NY Times ombudsguy Daniel Okrent's comment that his "copy will not be edited, except for grammar, spelling, and the like."

Does it come across as a slap at copy editors? To a point. But I read it as him underlining the fact his column will be independent of the Times hierarchy. Given the people out there that want to watch the newspaper bleed, that's a distinction worth making.

As long as he stays away from writing in dialect.

Sunday, December 7, 2003

Times Public Editor Makes Debut

Daniel Okrent writes his first column for The New York Times (registration required).

Best bit: "Journalistic misfeasance that results from what one might broadly consider working conditions may be explainable, but it isn't excusable. And misfeasance becomes felony when the presentation of news is corrupted by bias, willful manipulation of evidence, unacknowledged conflict of interest — or by a self-protective unwillingness to admit error. That's where you and I come in. As public editor, I plan on doing what I've done for 37 years, reading the paper every day as if I, like you, were asking it to be my primary source of news and commentary (and ruefully expecting it to enrage me every so often as only a loved one can)."

Sounds good to me.

Paging Readers

If you enjoy Copy Massage, and want to contribute by asking a question or sharing a gripe, use the comments feature or send me an e-mail (just click on my name above). This Web thing is about community, after all. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Picking a Dictionary

Slate hands out some advice.

I wish they had included some slightly larger dictionaries. You can get the unabridged American Heritage (a better book than its condensed offspring) for only about twice the price.

Still, the article outlines the modern collegiate dictionary wars pretty well. My advice: Just buy them all.

Saturday, December 6, 2003

The Simplest Advice

The simplest advice you can give to a copy editor (or a writer, or anyone who hopes to make a living wrestling with this beast we call the "English language) is this:

Read.

So much in copy editing becomes apparent simply through close reading. Yes, you can memorize a style guide. But if you truly want to make stories the best they can be (and teach yourself when to bend the rules), I advise reading. It's that basic.

You can read anything, but it helps to read what you're interested in. It also helps to read things radically different than what you're interested in. You should strive for perspective.

We just do our jobs best when we interact with the language all the time. That means we constantly learn and discover. Such interaction, such discovery, keeps us alert and ready to wrestle.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Too Good to be True

A little holiday lesson --

Drudge links to a story that casts some doubts on that widely circulated "woman trampled at wale-Mart" story.

A similar case popped up during the summer. A too-popular story about a little girl forced to close her lemonade stand was more complex than it appeared.

Whoops. On both counts.

Let's use the same discernment on a "colorful" wire item that we would on a local news story. Don't let that color obscure what could really be going on.

Thursday, December 4, 2003

What Do Those Young People Want?

The news industry obsesses about people like me. Or so I gather.

The whims of "youth" seemingly occupy news executives. Commuter-oriented tabloids have popped up. Broadsheets ask: "How can we attract them?" Tabloids ask: "How much more titillation do you want?" Advertisers ask: "Will you please give us money?"

An older generation -- the boomers' parents -- is passing on, and with it some of the most dedicated print readers. As the boomers move into geezerhood, an obsession with finding the next audience is natural.

Everyone should calm down. Listen carefully to one of those youthful people you crave. Those under the age of 30 will read a paper.

How do you make them do that? Give them a quality product. Every newspaper that thirsts after younger readers should devote serious space to quality news and photography, and ensure that it has the resources to cover news effectively. Not just local news, but national and international news as well.

My university had a newspaper readership program. Copies of the Lawrence Journal-World, The Kansas City Star, USA Today and The New York Times were shipped in Monday through Friday. If you had a student ID card, you could get a free copy of each paper.

Guess which paper was read the most. Hint: It wasn't one of the first three.

University kids (who had access to a weekly alternative tabloid and the campus newspaper along with all those others) chose the Times. And not because they all love William Safire.

They read it because it's a great newspaper, featuring interesting articles and quality writing. It helps put the world in perspective. It did not feature reviews of local bands. It didn't print a sex advice column. It did tell the news. Well.

Young people will read newspapers if they think the newspapers are worth their time and energy. It really is that simple. A clumsy piece of pandering won't help, especially if it bulges with the same tired wire copy you can find on a dozen Web sites.

Make it good. Make it fresh. Make it relevant.

Guess what -- young readers won't be the only ones who respond to that. Everyone will.

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Watch Out for Mr. Dictionary

For copy editors, the problem with dictionaries is that the books describe usage, rather than prescribe it. This makes sense for a book that tries to reflect most meanings of most words.

In newspapers, though, we want to use the most accurate and most easily understood meaning. Just because a dictionary says a few people use the word in another way doesn't give the writer a pass.

Case in point: Gantlet/Gauntlet. In comments to my quibbles post below, a reader pointed out that a dictionary included one of those words as an alternate spelling of the other. That's fair for the dictionary to do, I suppose. Many people misuse those words.

But they come from entirely different sources, and they mean entirely different things.

In my reply, I pointed to the late John Bremner's "Words on Words."

He writes: "Gantlet comes from the Spanish gatlopp, a running down a lane, from gata, street, lane, and lopp, course, running, wherefore a gantlet is (1) a lane between two lines of men who beat some unfortunate as he tries to run through it, as in 'run the gantlet,' ...

"Gauntlet comes from French gantelet, diminutive of gant, glove, wherefore a gauntlet is (1) a protective glove and (2) a challenge."

Spelling the words differently in a newspaper setting, therefore, has a purpose. There's a reason to do it. We want to preserve the separate senses.

I love dictionaries. I collect them. But they can't edit for us.

Don't Do It

A reader made a comment below about use of the word "fag" in a newsroom. Folks, I know newsrooms are full of good-humored, sometimes-obscene fun. That's cool.

But we can't let homophobia infect them. If newspapers are to be open, valuable forums for news and opinion in this next century, we must make it clear that all views and speakers are respected.

This goes for inside the newsroom too. There is no excuse for a paper to abide a hateful atmosphere toward gay people, in offhand comments or anything else. If you take the mission of a newspaper seriously, you will not put up with such things. In yourself or in others.

Yes, freedom of speech is indescribably important. But there is a difference between an individual's right to print up little "burn the gay people" tracts at home and that same individual's right to bring that attitude into a place that tries to encourage civic engagement and discussion.

Some words to the straight newspaper folk out there: You probably already know a gay person. You will probably attend a gay wedding someday. You will someday probably do all this inside and outside the work environment.
You may have done all this decades ago.

How you -- and we as a business -- deal with such a world says a lot about us. Your political beliefs have nothing to do with it. The gay people are here now. As the old pride march saying goes, get used to it.

Monday, December 1, 2003

The Winner Returns...

...Or something. I wrote more than 50,000 words in November for a novel. That's right, National Novel Writing Month has wrapped up, and I succeeded.

I succeeded at the word count, at least. The novel still has a few chapters to go. But with the month over, I'm going to take it easier on the fiction. That means more time for this precious blog, as well as eating and bathing.

A few notes while I have you all here:

Folks actually added comments on a few items over the past two to three weeks. I have responded, sometimes at length.

The old comments will be entirely restored at some point. Honest. I just need a few spare moments.

Copy editing? Oh that's right. I do that too. Well, more about that soon as well.

Monday, November 24, 2003

The Basics

Let's cover some simple points:

Exclamation points = bad
Active voice = good
Buried lede = bad
Short paragraphs = good
Cliche-based headlines = bad
Pithy headlines = good
Attribution other than "said" = bad
Accurate reproduction of quotes = good
Dashing out profanity = bad
Wide array of pertinent sources = good
No attribution = bad
Carefully written captions = good
Simple-minded lists = bad

Those Dropping By...

...this humble site lately wanted to know about:

"judy garland cigarette break wizard of oz"
"cat in the hat movie reviews"
"bob hope massage"
"basic back massage"
"massage steps"
"lawrence massage"

And a host of other massage-related searches. Just think -- if I actually wrote a blog about massage, I might be on to something.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Cat in the Ugh

Despite critics' and copy editors' yearnings to do so, it is not clever to rhyme in "Cat in the Hat" movie reviews.

Some offenders here, here and here. The Christian Science Monitor goes the dignified way, and quotes Dr. Seuss directly.

Why isn't it clever to rhyme?
Because people do it time
and again, bringing out the cliche,
Thinking to themselves, "Hey,
that's a clever way to write.
It would make me look bright."
But do such reviews do that,
When about "Cat in the Hat?"
Do they have the knack?
No. They're writing like hacks.

Anybody can rhyme, as I show
right here, and writers should know
when they're assaulting our ears. But
if they don't do that, please go and cut
Out the rhymes. At least you get it,
And that's why you copy edit.

If the preceding doesn't show why the rhyming is a bad idea, I don't know what does.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Good to Know

... That when the Massachusetts gay marriage decision gets tossed into the culture wars, we have ongoing Michael Jackson news to soothe us.

Speaking of which, if writers try to make cracks connecting gay marriage to the charges against Michael Jackson, flog them. Mercilessly.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I'm Sure Everyone Else Will Link to This...

...But The Onion proves itself an astute media critic as well.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Why Do I Have To Explain This?

Just take a peek at Romenesko.

Plagiarism stories are everywhere. Reporters of papers large and small can be heard crying, "I had my notes mixed up. I forgot it was someone elseÂ’s work."

Shame on them. Shame on us.

Why do people dislike and distrust the media? Could it be because we expect exemplary behavior from our civic leaders yet employ and elevate folks who cut and paste the words of others? Just a thought.

Copy editors see plagiarism more than readers do. We sometimes catch it and rectify it. (Piece of advice: If the phrase seems too good to be true, do a Google search with it.) But we canÂ’t be counted on all the time, of course. No one can.

Cheaters make their way through. And we deal with thconsequenceses. Newsroom leaders can fire people. They can publish notes to the readers. But trust has been damaged.

Look. Why do we do journalism?

To tell the truth.

How can we tell the truth if the stories we print are ripped off from someone else? How can anyone toss in a paragraph from another source and feel right about it? Who are these people? Why did they ever consider journalism a career?

Harsh, yes. The media community, after all, tends to reserve its angriest judgments for those who manufacture quotes wholesale. These folks, it is argued, strike at the callingÂ’s very core. True, I suppose. Stephen Glass and his ilk did high-profile damage to the industry.

But these sociopaths don't pop up often. The garden-variety plagiarist infests more newspapers than we care to know. Every time another reader (or editor) catches a reporter spinning off words not her own, we must ask: Do we expect enough of ourselves?

Clearly not.

Thursday, November 6, 2003

Bonus Quibble

If you're loath to do something, you're reluctant to do it.

If you loathe something, you really hate it.

That "e" packs a lot of punch.

Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Stealing from TCE, Again

A Testy Copy Editors thread turns to an interesting subject: Should aspiring copy editors learn how to design?

It doesn't hurt. But I find myself agreeing with the folks who advise working on copy editing skills if you want to be a copy editor. Knowing how to design will make you more marketable. No question there.

It all depends on your priorities, though.

If you need a job above all else, you're better off knowing more. That's obvious. But if you have the luxury of some time, and words interest and excite you above all else, be selective.

I'm not in the business because I'm a designer. I'm there because I enjoy working with the language. If I had to learn design, I would do it. Probably even enjoy it. But it's not my motivation for the job.

Mangan Tackles Poynter

And comes out the winner, I think.

Monday, November 3, 2003

More About Our Visitors

Copy Massage attracts the great and near-great regularly, of course.

But what of the others? I refer to the everyday folks who accidentally walk into the lobby of this sumptuous blog, look around and say: "Gosh. This looks bizarre."

The search-engine queries that brought them here in the last 10 days:

copy massage
style of massage report
who claims to be a pulitzer nominee?
Bob Hope Quote Massage
bob hope's quote on massage
picture of a person having a massage
massage icons
HOW TO MASSAGE WOMAN
stolen copy of the ged test

I hope they all found what they were looking for. Most of them, anyway.

Sunday, November 2, 2003

Festival of Nitpicks

Part of the great fun of copy editing is correcting people for mistakes they don’t know are mistakes.

Here are three favorites:

Flak/Flack

The first is the military term, related to bursting shells. The second is a derisive term for a press agent, spokesman, or some other such public-relations “professional.”

Gauntlet/Gantlet

The first is a glove. You throw it down if you’re annoyed with someone and showing defiance. The second refers to, in the words of John Bremner, “a lane between two lines of men who beat some unfortunate as he tried to run through it.”

This, you run a gantlet. Not a gauntlet. That’s what you throw down.

Momma/Mama

I never saw this mistake until I moved to Florida. The latter spelling is preferred by both Webster’s New World and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.

I suppose the first spelling has some use, if one regularly refers to women as “hot mommas.” I wouldn’t want to use “mama” in that construction. I don’t know who would use that description in a general-circulation newspaper, though.

Saturday, November 1, 2003

I Do Not Agree

Pet peeve: Reporters writing that people agree with other people just to make a transition. Happens all the time.

"Dr. Lawrence agreed with Professor Plum that black is white."

In the cases I'm griping about, Dr. Lawrence lives across the country from Professor Plum, and the two don't know each other from Adam. Yet they're both sources that made the same point in an interview.

Thus, magically, they agree!

In most cases, this smacks of dishonesty. I doubt the reporter read Professor Plum's comments to Dr. Lawrence and said "So, do you agree with that?" More likely, the reporter asked the same question to each person and got similar answers.

In stories about contentious issues, this pops up often. Reporters like to group people, one side against the other. All the agreeing makes it easy for rushed writers to distinguish liberals from conservatives and so on.

I think we can trust the reader here. Honest. Let people say what they say. Don't force them to agree with people they have never met.

If the story absolutely requires a transition, use something like this:

"Dr. Lawrence made a similar point."

Friday, October 31, 2003

Vocabulary Aside

The phrase is "take a different tack."

Not "Take a different tact."

In this context, tack refers to (according to Merriam-Webster's) changing "the direction of (a sailing ship) when sailing close-hauled by turning the bow to the wind and shifting the sails so as to fall off on the other side at about the same angle as before."

In other words, to change direction.

Tact mostly means you're sensitive and skillful in dealing with others.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Hmmm...

Meanwhile on the ACES board, Bill Walsh questions replacing "got" in stories.

Questioning and Answering

Pardon me while I jump on the Testy Copy Editors bandwagon. Debate erupted on that board about “question” and “answer” features. One side says the device is lazy. Another says, hey, readers like it.

I admit: I have put together a Q&A, many years ago now. At the time, I thought it novel and a way out of having to write a coherent story.

Today, I think it clichéd. It remains a way to avoid coherency.

The problem: Most people can’t say enough interesting things to justify the format. If you interview someone for 30 minutes and distill their comments to a couple of quotes, you have a shot at pithiness.

Use that interview as the sole material for a block of text and you’re asking for problems. In the trenchant phrase of Phillip Blanchard:

“Q&As are more stenography than journalism.”

Blunt, yes. True, also.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Passion for Editing...

Is a passion for truth. Sure, the "t" word might be subjective to some folks. But copy editors work under the assumption that a "best" exists. We might even reach it if the deadline weren't so damned close.

For the "best" version of a story is the one that tells the truth, to the best of our knowledge. We strive to depict the world as it exists around us, in the most proper grammar possible.

No culture war positioning here. Just constant, curmudgeonly striving for accuracy.

How Many Reads?

A horrid question for a young copy editor. How many times should I go through this story? When will it be ready?

I've answered the question several ways. In school, professors, etc. taught the five-step editing method. I don't recall the steps, but I recall each involved reading the story a separate time.

Such a methodical approach doesn't translate perfectly to the 8-hour shift. An editor has more time for some things, less time for others. And the newspaper itself determines the volume of work.

My general approach:

1.) A quick skim through to determine length and form. I see if subheds have already been added, where it jumps, stiff like that.

2.) A paragraph-by-paragraph slog. I try to fix the most fixable issues. I smooth sentences, check work choice and so on.

3.) I take a stab at the headline and other display type. I make calls, if needed, about bigger questions in the text.

4.) I check through the story again, making sure my changes flow. An ideal time to spot check for other errors and do a spell check.

5.) I proofread my display type.

Just the basics there. Depending on time, it helps to read through the story carefully between steps 1 and 2, not touching a word. It also helps to read through the story carefully after step 4.

Quick restatement: How many times do I read the story?

1.) The bare minimum: Twice. One to edit and two to check your changes.

2.) The maximum: As many times as you have time for.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Changes Ahead for November

I'll participate in National Novel Writing Month during November. The task: 50,000 words in 30 days.

As such, this lovely spot for copy editing gripes may take a hit. I expect to continue with updates, but they may not be as lovingly detailed as those of Sept. and Oct. Bear with me. Once the novel (featuring a hard-boiled college newspaper reporter) has wrapped up, Copy Massage will once again be fully committed to soothing the aches and pains of cramped text.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Five Quick Headline Tips

1.) Accurately tell what is going on in the story.
2.) Use memorable, precise words.
3.) Use the active voice. Mostly.
4.) Avoid headlinese -- Nab, etc.
5.) Don't repeat words.

Notes on the Previous Entry

1.) "Basket Case" amused me greatly. Read it.

2.) I am a gay guy, as noted below. My perspective on stories about gay issues is different from many other folks. For example, I hate the term "gays," used as a noun. I always change it to "gay people." The same goes for "blacks." I bring my experiences to the editing process. While my decisions can always be questioned, the perspective serves me well. The more perspectives we have on stories in the newsroom, the better off we are.

3.) I don't mean to dismiss diversity workshops. But they are a piece of a much larger, much more difficult solution to a large, difficult problem.

4.) I really hate the word "homosexual." "Gay" is far better. But that's a debate for another time.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Notes on Diversity in Editing

Problem is, no handout really bores down into people's souls and makes them "sensitive." We can make people more pleasant to deal with on a daily basis (a plus in any case). We can raise awareness of sticky issues. But a snazzy list does a disservice to the concept.

Look, I finished reading Carl Hiaasen's "Basket Case" this evening. Toward the end, he makes a funny quip about a newsroom diversity committee. The group's single recommendation, he writes, was always that the paper hire fewer white people.

The point sticks. Until papers in this country have newsrooms -- and copy desks -- that reflect the populations covered, all the diversity training in the world won't solve our problems.

I mean no disrespect to the efforts under way across the country, at newspapers big and small. But much of ensuring diversity boils down to finding the stories and having the people who can tell them effectively. That is, news judgment. What papers do every day.

We can write lists. We can argue about "queer" versus "gay" versus "homosexual." We can argue about "black" and "African-American."

But the lists don't solve the problem. They barely address it.

In the 'Too Short' Department

This only begins to cover it.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Welcome, visitors

How do Copy Massage viewers wind up at this page? Some use search engines, of course.

What do they type into those search engines? See below.

texas heat and frying a egg on the sidewalk can it be done?
Niger religious Symbol
britney spears a the tattoo parlor
grumpy kansan
massage icons
copy editing "past tense" "present tense" headlines
weird passive voice

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Notes on the Whole Journalism Thing

Purchased an anthology of journalism pieces a week or so ago. "The Mammoth Book of Journalism," edited by Jon E. Lewis. It consists of reporting from the 1800s to today.

What struck me about the book was the number of pieces coming from the first-person perspective. War correspondents sweating it out on the front lines. Gloria Steinem working as a Playboy bunny. The writing gained from specific, identifiable voices.

What do newspapers print today? Not many individual voices. The ideal is a story written in grand, Godlike third person, all-knowing and all-seeing.

I don't mean to start on the "objective" vs. "not objective" debate. Others chew on that more frequently and perceptively than I could.

Journalism gains verve from vivid voices, though. The much-heralded "new" journalism of the 1960s consisted of writing in which the reporter became part of the story. See Hunter S. Thompson. Blogging has become popular in the past couple of years because we know an actual person produces the content.

People don't frequent this blog because they assume I'm an all-knowing, all-seeing copy editing expert. They come because I have a voice and opinions about the craft. They read one person's take.

People relate to other people. When journalism presents voices that people recognize, they want to read. "New journalism" and "blogs" and "narrative journalism" are variants of the same thing. They're attempts to break from the coldness of the everyday into writing bursting with color, excitement and snarkiness.

We need the basics, obviously. The city council meeting needs 10 inches. The zoning board needs a brief. And so on. These serve readers.

History suggests, however, that the personal voices survive.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Trap of "Assume"

Nothing causes as much trouble as assuming.

We blink our eyes as the story passes in front of us on the computer screen. We glance quickly at the photos we write captions for. We yawn as we spellcheck.

And as we do these dismissive things, the errors creep into the pages, chuckling all the while.

What's the worst assumption copy editors make?

"No one could be dumb enough to do that."

Ha ha! Oh yes they could. And we could be dumb enough to wave it through, grinning and preoccupied with our belly button lint. That name that's spelled two different ways in the story? That "there" for "their"? That missing "not" in front of the guilty?

Don't pass them through. Seize them. Shake them down. Send them on their way.

A couple of bonus points here: Study the results of your spell check. It contains wonders. Yes, it might flag all the names as being misspelled. But that could highlight a name spelled different ways. Depending on how attuned the program is with newspaper style, you could make bonus catches in the nuts-and-bolts editing.

We shouldn't be trapped by assume in the copy we write. Check, check, check to ensure every fact in a headline, deck or caption rests upon a solid foundation of facts from the story.

"I couldn't be dumb enough to do that," you might say.

Ha ha! Yes you could. So could most of us.

Extra effort, whatever that may be, pays handsomely. Read the story one more time. Tweak the headline one more time. Do one more spellcheck. Don't surrender to assumptions.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

The S--- Conundrum

The Testy Copy Editors debated it. Will posted about it.

And now I weigh in. Yes folks, time for another enlightening contribution to the “suck” debate, brought to you by Emmanuel’s Steak House, where the steak tastes great and the service doesn’t blow.

Anyway. I know that “suck” offended delicate sensibilities back in the Pleistocene. I know that it (gasp!) tangentially refers to oral sex. I know that adolescents (double gasp!) once used it to cast aspersions on others’ masculinity.

Point taken.

Obscene or vulgar terms shouldn’t be used regularly or without thought in a newspaper. Many people read our product, and we do tailor it to them. Littering the pages with George Carlin’s seven favorite words doesn’t solve any problems. It creates a few.

But if someone uses the term in a newsworthy or particularly effective way, use the damn word. This goes for any profanity.

For those of my generation, “suck” is a mild term of derogation, most often used to describe a situation. As in:

This fraternity party sucks.

This six-hour-long Academy Awards telecast sucks.

The word has changed. The world has changed. Change happens. “Suck” does not mean any of the horrific things the elderly among us fear it does. The claim from TCE that it equals “gay” as a putdown is dubious.

I’m a gay guy, and I never thought of “suck” as being a sexual insult. “Gay” certainly has that air. Even if applied negatively to a situation, not a human, “gay” stings. “Sucks” tells the truth.

If the speaker or writer doesn’t mean the word in an offensive way, if the word isn’t read as being offensive, then why do we fret about it? Folks will always find something to be offended about in a daily newspaper. Don’t smother them in the name of decency.

Necessary repetition of earlier point: Don’t use these words often. Don’t use these words often. Don’t suck unless you have to.

This is the Clay test:

1.) Is it in a quote?
If it show up in the text proper, ask why. We shouldn’t have the newspaper’s voice using such language often.

2.) Is it newsworthy?
President Bush calling a reporter from The New York Times an “asshole” was a story. The word should be printed in such cases.

3.) Are we merely printing it to shock?
If so, take it out.

If it makes the story better, if it helps the reader understand the story, use the word. Come on. Do it. I dare you.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

The Trap of Expectations

No one manages perfection all day, every day.

Basic? Obvious? Not to the copy editor. The editor strives for perfection. The editor wants to ensure that every word, every comma, every headline fits into the newspaper exactly.

How does this happen? It doesn't. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of copy editing gods. Putting out a newspaper seven days a week means compromise. Perhaps the story takes a skim rather than an in-depth read. Perhaps we don't fix the questionable "fact" so much as fuzz it up. Perhaps we close our eyes, press the "send" key and pray for the best.

As I've learned the job, I've learned how important it is to retain realistic expectations. I want to do my best on every story. But other considerations -- time being the biggest -- intrude.

Copy editing effectively translates to doing the most we can with the resources we have. The finished product might not be perfection. But the newspaper has to be printed. It has to be delivered.

Temper the goals with a bit of reality, folks (and by folks, I mean me). And keep on rolling.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Irritant of the Day

The proofreading side of copy editing is one we don't talk about much. The grammar and content questions keep us entertained.

But we're responsible for making sure the words are spelled correctly. And spell checking programs -- you've heard it umpty-million times -- can't do it all. Case in point:

where / were

This little doozy shows up often. It's not flagged by most spell checkers and it's quite easy to read over it while editing. I should amend that: It's quite easy to read over it while racing through the last few grafs of a lengthy wire story. And that's where it likes to hide, of course.

Lesson? Read carefully and try to read the story more than once.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Speaking of Dictionaries

I mention below that I collect dictionaries and style guides.

I wish more copy editors did. We work with words every day. It stands to reason that knowing more about words (just knowing more words, for that matter) would make us better at our jobs.

Owning at least two dictionaries should be a requirement for a copy editor. You can't find everything you need in one. Webster's New World is often standard, as it's the Associated Press dictionary of choice. I don't care for it, but it highlights Americanisms. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate is very good (lots of words in a compact package). The American Heritage Dictionary was used at my college paper, and I'm fond of it too.

The actual dictionary brands don't matter as much as the frame of reference. The more information you have, the better choices you can make.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Woe, Dude

Beware when headline slang migrates south.

Words such as "woe," "probe" and "nab" all serve (or served) a purpose in headlines. They are shorter ways of saying something. "Woe" for "problem." "Probe" for "investigation." "Nab" for "Catch." When you have to shoehorn meaning into a tight line, short words come in handy.

The problem: These words turn silly quickly. They aren't the way people talk or (usually) write. "Nab" is the worst offender of the three mentioned. Thankfully, few use it. "Woe," "probe" and their more respectable brethren still make it into headlines now and then. Until designers start allocating space more freely, we make do with what we have.

Keep them out of the stories, though. Please. The reason they should be regarded with caution in headlines is the reason they should be avoided in stories. In stories, headline length requirements don't apply. We're not trying to summarize "Cryptonomicon" for a fortune cookie.

Studies show that newspaper readers skim the headlines first. If they don't go through the story, the headline is all they read. Let's say those headlines are full of "woes" and "probes." Those readers turn into reporters. And those reporters then bedevil copy editors with our own condensed slang. It's newspaper style, right? A vicious circle.

Break the circle, folks. Use the headline words sparingly in headlines. Keep them out of the stories.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Now, Now

So many stories, so many nows.

The three little letters supposedly juice up the story with a stirring sense of immediacy. Maybe. If a contrast needs to be made between historical events and the present, go ahead and use the "now." It does bring us bang up to date.

But otherwise -- why? It's a newspaper. We assume the news is new. We assume that, in general, everything we report is "now." If not, why put it in the paper?

"With Madonna's book available, the world is now a better place."

Why not --

"With Madonna's book available, the world is a better place."

The same goes for "recently." It's another vague word used to bring fake immediacy to an article. Look here, if the story needs placed in the present so badly, give me specifics. When is now? When is recently?

Even better (and with punchier verbs) --

"When Madonna's book came out Sunday, the world became a better place."

Friday, October 10, 2003

Copy Editor Code, Part Two

A quick couple of additions.

4.) I will respect those who entrust their work to me.

I planned to pen the usual "do right by the reporter" kind of thing here. Then my journalistic conscience spoke up. "Um, Clay," it said, "The work of many other people besides reporters passes through the hands of a copy editor. Why don't you mention them?"

The little devil had a point. Photographers. Designers. Graphics artists. Assigning editors. We handle their creations too. And we sometimes take it too lightly in the rush of the evening. We should consider the reporter's intent. We should consider the photographer's intent. We should look at the page layout and consider what the designer meant to do.

These folks all started the process. Now it's up to us to finish it with aplomb.

5.) I will know and use my newspaper's style rules.

Low on the list for a copy editing blog, I know. Perhaps we should think of the numbering system as separate from entries' importance. Whew. That's a relief.

Anyway. You should know the style before you use the style. Rules and guidelines are seldom absolute. They can be bent, broken or changed. But we should know when that happens and why.

As Will would tell you, style ensures consistency and readability. It differentiates a newspaper from a collection of stories thrown together. It is the voice of the paper.

Perhaps not its voice. Maybe its accent.

Comment-O-Rama

Folks have added interesting comments to entries here. I just spent a few minutes adding replies and otherwise muddying the waters.

Take a look through them. I'm impressed with the thought people bring to these matters. Editing can be isolating work -- your feedback spices it up.

And if I seem to contradict myself in spots, I have. Goes with having all the alternate personalities.

Thursday, October 9, 2003

Copy Editor Code, Part One

What should a newspaper copy editor try to do? What are the basics of the job? Why is this important, anyway?

I know. These questions gnaw at us all. That's why I'll try to answer them. Not all at once, not exhaustively and perhaps not accurately. But the basics are important -- and easily lost in the thicket of style quibbles.

1.) I will be a reader.

It's the most important factor of all. The newspaper begins and ends with the people reading it. A copy editor stands in for the reader at a critical point in the process. We can change things if they don't make sense.

2.) I will strive for accuracy and clarity.

The two must go together. They fight sometimes, but it makes their relationship stronger in the end. The newspaper must be as accurate as it can be. It must put that information across in crystal-clear prose.

3.) I will express my concerns.
Copy editors do their job toward the end of the production process. Their concerns, therefore, can be dismissed in the headlong rush to print. We have to be heard. Not all battles can be won, of course. Not all battles are worth fighting. But we have a job. We must do it.

More of these as I think of them. Suggestions?

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Time Travels

I collect dictionaries and style and grammar books. I started toward the end of college. The entire collection did not make its way to Florida, but the books still pile up.

The old ones can date badly. Here's an entry from The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual -- the 1977 edition.

Negro, Negroes Use black or Negro, appropriate in the context, for both men and women. Do not use Negress.

Good to know the AP was so progressive, eh? One can understand an entry like this from the '60s. But the late '70s?

(We'll come to the Merriam-Webster's Second New International definition of "homosexuality" at a later date.)

Monday, October 6, 2003

Fine But Important Distinctions

1.) President Bush has not declared the war in Iraq "over." According to a CNN transcript he said "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

The intent of the speech can be debated, of course. But Bush definitely did not make such a broad statement.

2.) In his State of the Union address, Bush did not say that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger. He said, according to the White House transcript, that the "British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Another ideological football. But the misstatement about Niger has been showing up lately, including in Newsweek, which reported:

"In his January ’03 State of the Union address, President Bush, citing British intelligence reports, repeated the charge that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from Niger."

This does not have to do with political ideology. This has to do with getting it right.

Postscript

The second point was suggested by the carping of politically conservative commentators, including Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew predictably suggests that overlooking the Africa/Niger distinction is evidence of bias. Amusing as that assumption may be, a clear-brained copy editor could have made the difference.

And Repeat And

“And” is a great word. It’s the all-purpose glue of writing, slapping sections of a sentence together without a second thought. It’s inoffensive. Three letters long, clear in meaning and intent.

And yet.

When “And” starts off a sentence, matters change. I don’t argue for the archaic trope that no sentence should start with a conjunction. Some sentences clearly benefit from an “and” or “but” to kick them off.

Of the two conjunctions, “but” is easier to defend. It serves as a nifty way to turn a train of thought without much effort. Sure, you can overuse it. How many nifty turns can you take before getting trainsick?

But writers too often bolt on the “and” with the assumption that it automatically provides a smooth transition. It doesn’t. It seems repetitive and forced. In many of these cases, readers can make the transition by themselves.

I’m guilty too. Scan through these past entries and count the “ands.” You will find many at the beginnings of sentences. I didn’t say this was easy.

To slam it home: If an article depends on “ands” to bring the reader through it, the article needs more thoughtful transitions. If a writer constructs an article to flow smoothly and naturally from one concept to another, the “ands” can take a cigarette break.

I’ll need them later.

Sunday, October 5, 2003

Instructions, Continued

My difficulty with "prior to" and "via" isn't that the expressions are without meaning. Contexts exist in which each can be used effectively. My difficulty is that they are often used as simple synonyms for "before" and "by."

"He served as president prior to Jenkins."

"He conducted the survey via e-mail."

Neither of these sentences violates our essential mission of clarity. In a rush, they could go through without serious qualms. Yet they have a jargony, snooty quality that grates.

"He served as president before Jenkins."

"He conducted the survey by e-mail."

At this point, some protest. Such tinkering robs sentences of their life, they say. Why flatten the bumps of living, breathing prose into grey flatness?

Newspapers don't exist to give novelists a start. They don't exist to foster a future generation of prose stylists. They may do these things. But they tell the news. Communication is the job. Not artistic expression.

Anything that proves an obstacle to telling the news is fair game for the "delete" key.

Saturday, October 4, 2003

Instructions

See that "prior to"? Change it to "before." (Sometimes "earlier.")

See that "via"? Change it to "by." (Sometimes "through.")

Damnable Latin.

And yes, I know the issue has further nuances. They always pop up when dealing with word choice. More on this crucial issue tomorrow, when I'm awake.

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Vocabulary Lesson

Icon -- Originally, a religious symbol of one kind or another. It's since also come to mean an emblem or symbol.

Iconoclast -- A person who attacks the established order of things. It can also mean someone who attacks religious images -- or icons. It's east to see how the word attains its current wide usage, generally referring to someone out of the mainstream.

Thus, if someone says a painting or song is iconic, she means that the work of art has come to be symbolic -- representative or an era or a standard. If something is described as iconoclastic, that means its something that goes against the icons of a culture. That "oclast" puts the two words in opposition.

It pained me to hear a radio host refer to a song as being "iconoclastic" awhile back. He was speaking about "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the song by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg that came to represent both the movie it came from -- The Wizard of Oz -- and the performer who sang it -- Judy Garland. The song could thus be called "iconic."

That's that.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Duly Noted

The post about attribution down yonder (its title playing off Will's Stylin' and Smilin' site) oversimplified Will's views on the subject.

The post has been revised. I still think he's wrong.

And the world rolls along.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Garbage Words

Sentences, at their best, contain a logical beauty. Their phrases and clauses lock together, expressing the writer’s thought in an orderly way.

That’s the theory.

Why so many writers for newspapers insist on cluttering their sentences with garbage words – utter claptrap masquerading as content – remains a mystery. Reporters presumably want to let people know what’s going on. So why the mess?

“He was driving to the tattoo parlor.” Turn it into “He drove to the tattoo parlor.”

“The council decided to approve the vitally important measure, absolutely essential to the town attracting Britney Spears for a charity benefit concert.” Turn it into: “The council approved the Britney Spears concert measure, which some members said was important for the town.” (Don’t let the sources determine importance without attributing it to them.)

“News of the report caused Jones to turn red, snort and pound the table while spluttering.” Turn it into: “The report angered Jones.”

Simplicity itself.

Friday, September 26, 2003

The 'J' Word

Editing — besides reinserting first references and deleting adverbs — involves making distinctions. All stories don’t hail from the same ZIP code.

All stories don’t hail from the same universe.

The usual differences apply. Some writers can’t string clauses together to save their souls but do admirable reporting. Some writers produce polished prose in which the president’s name is spelled incorrectly.

But the judgments we’re called to make can be subtler. For instance, is that colorful phrase evidence of a.) the reporter’s winning way with the language or b.) egregious overwriting? Both?

At times, no editing can be the best editing. Sometimes those peculiar words that scream out to be cut have a reason for being. Few reporters dump their notebooks into a computer file and run. (Relatively few.)

We can’t check every change we make, of course. But we have to know why we’re editing, and we need to know that the changes we make will improve the story.

Judgment, judgment, judgment.

That’s the first and only word when writing about these distinctions. That big project a team has slaved over for half-a-year differs from a crime brief written in 15 minutes by a night cops reporter.

Such distinctions, such needs for judgment never stop. We have to make them every day, and we have to make them in tight situations. We shouldn’t be afraid. We’re paid to read through school lunch menus and city council stories and features about basket weavers.

But we should think before we hack.

Irksome Comments

Read the column.

Then read the comments.

Our job is not to create a more literate society. Our job is to tell the news.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

An Annoyance, Detailed in a Few Piquant Paragraphs

GED is an abbreviation for General Educational Development. It is the name of a test. If you pass the test, you receive a high school diploma.

GED does not stand for General Education Diploma. It is not a degree of any kind. Let me state it again: GED is the name of the test.

While people might call the degree earned with a GED an “equivalency diploma” or some other such nonsense, there is virtually no difference between it and a run-of-the-mill high school diploma.

If you pass the GED, you get a high school diploma. Don't call it anything else. And whatever you do, don't say someone "got his GED." Please.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Basic Instinct (Minus Sharon Stone)

The most important bits of copy editing – journalism, really – can’t be reduced to an instruction manual. Or a pithy blog essay.

Case in point: Instinct. Why do I feel the need to check out a certain name or date used in a story? Why do I hunt down a piece of information that seems trivial?

I feel it. I feel as though the information should be checked. How? I feel it.

Deadline pressures mean I can’t check everything. In a fantasy newsroom, I could spend hours fine-tuning every story. In a real newsroom, I might have a half-hour or less.

Instinct!

Thus, I scan through the story and pick up on the issues that seem weird. That’s what I check. Different aspects seem weird to different people. That’s why more than one person reads the story after the writer. We catch different things.

Instinct can be developed, of course. A thorough grounding in arcane trivia helps. So does keeping up on the news. A certain amount comes from reading the story closely. (How many wire stories find their way into the paper with a cursory skim? Too many.)

It boils down to this: Trust yourself. You know what seems odd to you. That’s a perspective that no other editor can bring to the story. Make it count.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Stylin’ and Full of Hooey

I think Will is mistaken in his views about newspaper attribution. I follow his reasoning -- present tense can only be used if the statement is something someone says all the time or paraphrased. Indeed, such a system works in virtually all news stories. But his rule deprives features-type writers of a valuable tool.

I remember when I wrote in the form, and the present tense came in very handy a couple of times. Some stories, particularly ones heavy on description, gain from the immediacy of the present tense.

This goes back my statement about “guidelines calcifying into edicts.” Most stories should stay in the past tense, no doubt. But I don’t want to be in the position of telling a writer “you can’t tell this story in the most compelling way.”

Saturday, September 20, 2003

An Award-Winning Entry

Can a newspaper publish a more worthless adjectival phrase than “award-winning”?

Oh, it probably can. But not by much.

I was counting it up today. I’m an award-winning writer, editor, poet, cartoonist and thespian. Does it give my work any great merit? Does it give me any great merit? Does it mean diddly?

Nope.

Some of those awards date to high school, for one thing. And I haven’t identified any of them. For all you know, I awarded them to myself.

Know what the award is before honoring someone in text for having one.

Friday, September 19, 2003

The Elements Of ...

Copy editors obsess about it. We want to ensure stories follow it. We attempt to memorize it.

Yet style is ultimately, what it is. A style. A way of doing things. It's not the only way. Most importantly, perhaps, it's not even the only clear way.

Imagine: A story that breaks every AP style rule in sight yet still makes sense. Not a stretch.

Style gives us something to do, but it shouldn't be the only thing we do. We slide into "search and replace" editing too easily. We all do it. "Where is 'avenue' spelled out with a specific address?" we ask. We abbreviate the sucker, and our job is done.

Such work is part of our job, true. Style has a place. But our central concern should be, should always be:

Does this story make sense?

All the style in the world doesn't help if a story doesn't make sense. Nothing frustrates me more in going through a newspaper than having to read a paragraph over. And then read the paragraph over. And over again.

What's wrong? The story has slid off the rails. A connection hasn't been made. A first reference has been deleted. A phrase has slipped away to have a drink somewhere and jilted the rest of the sentence.

This is our basic responsibility to readers and ourselves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Captions Part Three Or: When the Tough Gets Going, Clay Meanders

We come to directional indicators.

Yes, the entries about estimating readers’ brainpower and avoiding the blindingly obvious in captions leads to directional indicators. (Snore.) I originally meant to post about this topic alone. But then I started writing -- and here I am, nearly a week later. I still haven’t said what I meant to.

But that will change. Soon. As in the next paragraph.

To the point. Why all the "right"s and "left"s and "center"s? Look at the captions supplied by wire services and photographers. These captions brim with lefts, rights, centers, standings, sittings, gesturings and on and on and on. The writers can't name someone without supplying his or her longitute and latitude.

Newspapers need facts, right? We want to bring accurate information to readers, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But we don't tell readers that the sun rises every day. And we shouldn't tell readers person No. 2 is to the right if we've already said person No. 1 is to the left.

If a photo has a woman and man in it, each person with a gender-specific name, why even use a directional?

Can they figure out that Sally is the woman in the picture and Dan is the man? I trust readers on this one. They will assume Sally is the woman – and they will be right. We need not bang them over the head with superfluities.

If the man is named Stacy and the woman Pat, we should tell where they are.

Use this logic for pictures featuring famous folk. If there are three people in a photo, and the one in the middle is the president, we needn't say:

“Tom Dickinson, left, shakes hands with President Bush, center, while George Remmick, right, looks on.”

I would slash the “center” and the “right.”

This expands into the issues I covered in the two previous posts. We have to make assumptions about newspaper readers and their brains. They depend on us to relay timely coverage that explains the world around them.

If readers need gender explained to them, however, I suggest they look elsewhere. If they don't know what the president looks like -- I suppose they can guess.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Five Quick Gripes

Don't use these words, and I won't post about them.

1.) "Very." Or intensifiers in general.
2.) "Over" to mean anything other than a spatial relationship.
3.) "Utilize." Ever. God, please.
4.) "--ing" on most things. Active voice good. Passive voice bad.
5.) Any adverb.

Simple, huh?

Cliché Watch

In the great headline debate, played out with passion on ACES and Testy Copy Editors message boards, I tend to side with the curmudgeons. It’s true!

I believe that witless, vapid wordplay is far too easy an option in headline-writing, and we allow it far too often. Cliché is a crutch we've come to believe is an extra leg.

However. (This is the point at which some grit their teeth.)

I don’t think it’s viable to ban this kind of headline. Ban anything, and you’ll soon see myriad ways it could be used. See my earlier post, in which I defended headlines that are somewhat obvious, but fitting.

An excerpt:

“We should avoid cliché. I agree. But the terms are ultimately part of our language, part of the day-to-day discourse of millions of people. When push comes to shove, then, we shouldn't act like robots.”

“Acting like robots,” meaning that we automatically toss a headline because it seems a trifle threadbare or likely to be used by someone else. My example at the time was “Thanks for the memory/memories” on the Bob Hope obit.

Likewise, many papers used “Fade to black” as the headline on Johnny Cash’s obituary. Not incredible, but it works. (I don’t think it works as well as “Thanks for the memory.” That phrase isn’t wordplay -- just a song title that serves a couple of contexts. “Fade to black” is more confused.)

We could argue about these individual examples forever. But we’re ill-served by turning our backs on any form of expression. When a guideline calcifies into an edict, we lose a bit of our pure and shining souls.

Or something.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Readers? Huh?

Over at Stylin' and Smilin', Will has stolen my thunder by posting an entry about captions that neatly summarizes several of the points I would have made today.

Condensed:

1.) Copy editors spend too little time writing captions.
2.) Copy editors too often write mind crunchingly dull captions.
3.) Captions should actually tell us something interesting.

If we followed these three points, not only would newspapers be better, but we would be more engaged in the editing process. After all, it’s easy to write: “Perez, wearing a shirt with a happy face on it, smiles as he looks at the camera.”

It’s more difficult to engage with the story and write: “Perez was ‘delighted with life,’ his wife says, before he began robbing banks and impersonating Ethel Merman.”

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Readers? What Readers?

Part of the balancing act of editing is estimating the aptitude of your audience. We can’t assume they will pick their way through a thorny patch of grammar. But we shouldn’t barrage them with bland and obvious “information” either. (Governor Jeb Bush of Florida is President Bush's brother? Really?)

This subject takes up a lot of ground. It’s something copy editors and writers spend serious time wondering about. What is obvious? What is complicated? How can I make this clear without being condescending?

Lest we forget, copy editors and writers are people too. We’re our first audiences, and our first testing grounds for these questions. If we can't understand who the personal pronouns are referring to, that's a problem. If we can't follow a transition, we should think about revising the story.

As I said: Lots of ground to cover on this topic. I'll deal with how it affects caption-writing next.

Monday, September 8, 2003

Quoth the Copy Editor: "Going To"

Sadly, words inside quote marks can have as many problems as the ones reporters create on their own. The problems often boil down to one question: Is the quote accurate?

But in dealing with dialectical spellings, that question becomes more nuanced. Reporters enjoy "writing how people talk," which means the occasional story reads like a vaudeville routine.

My employers (past and present) in the Tampa Bay area frown on expressions such as "gotta" or "gonna." That's good. Yet powerful pressures exist that make copy editors wary of changing quotes. That's good too. The desk shouldn't make everyone sound like William Safire.

But I've edited too many stories in which the writers valued quirkiness over clarity. Using substandard spellings, even on a limited basis, causes problems. Almost everyone says "gonna" or "gotta." That's the way we talk. We also pause a lot and say "um" and "er" and "well."

Most times, reporters don't reproduce such things. As sacrilegious as it sounds, I expect they often tweak what people say. Not to a great extent, and not harmfully. But they omit pauses. They take out the "ums." They pick and choose the phrases they use.

Thus, regionalisms should be suspect. Yes, that homeless man on the street may speak in a colorful manner. But if the reporter quotes him accurately in terms of syntax and content, what's gained by "gottas" and "gonnas" and "ol's"?

If an esteemed member of the city's elite grants that same reporter an interview, will the reporter then write a story containing all the idiosyncrasies of the source's speech? Probably not. Reporters don't quote George W. Bush as speaking about "new-ku-lar" weapons when he means nuclear ones.

There's a possibility of abuse. Reporters, under the guise of being descriptive, can perpetuate stereotypes. I doubt they would go so far as quoting some African-Americans as saying "axe" for "ask," though that's what the regionalism sounds like. But what's so different from using "axe" on one hand and "gonna" for a homeless man on the other?

Copy editors should challenge this. Quotes should be accurate but not discriminate based on class or race. If an important feature contains some abnormal spellings, has the protection of an assigning editor, and gains a dash of flavor from the dialect, leave the quotes alone. But otherwise, be watchful.

There are limits. "Ain't," for example, isn't a regional pronunciation for anything. It's a less-than-formal word. It would be dishonest to change such a word in a quote to "am not" or "is not." Twisting quoted grammar into more formal positions shouldn't be tolerated either.

Ultimately, it's not our job to make people look foolish by manipulating their speech. They have enough ways to look foolish already.

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Elaborating on Yesterday -- Literally!

Here's the money definition from Merriam-Webster's: "adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression."

In other words, it's what we do in the news business. We are literalists. We try to tell the facts and to use the most direct language in doing so.

But still, the word turns up. Over and over.

"The mayor arrived in downtown, literally the heart of the city."

"Wednesday was so hot you could literally fry an egg on the sidewalk."

Writers love "literally," despite their inability to use it correctly. They often want to emphasize a play on words or tired expression. In our first example, it's enough to say the mayor came downtown. The city isn't a living being. It has no organs. I once had an argument about this issue with a reporter. Sadly, she won.

In the second example, our reporter apparently spent the afternoon at a ballgame, or playing Tetris in the office. When the deadline loomed, he or she spewed out a story about the heat. It's doubtful egg-frying tests were conducted on local sidewalks. I hear this can really be done in Texas. But in most states, it's lazy writing. And not literal.

On a few stories, the word can be used accurately.

"Being struck by lightning was a hair-raising experience for Bernice -- literally!"

The word serves a purpose here. It tells us that the common expression and real life intersected for a brief, shocking moment. Such stories are thankfully rare.

Bottom line. Newspapers and writers should be literal. We want to tell readers the truth. "Literal" is implied in our job descriptions and the product we create. We don't have to say it.

Friday, September 5, 2003

Peeved, Late at Night

Anyone who uses any form of the word "literal" should be shot. End of story.

Except me, of course.

Thursday, September 4, 2003

No Shame. Repeat. No Shame.

A newspaper consultant mentioned this point in a workshop I attended a month or three ago. I think it's a good one for people who work with words to remember.

Just because someone else says the same thing doesn't mean it's not worth saying.

This was applied specifically to headlines in the workshop. If many newspapers use the a similar headline, that doesn't make the headline automatically bad.

Many invoke the copy editing monster of "cliché" on such occasions. We should avoid cliché. I agree. But the terms are ultimately part of our language, part of the day-to-day discourse of millions of people. When push comes to shove, then, we shouldn't act like robots. Take it on a case-by-case basis. (I know. I used two clichés in this paragraph. I think they worked.)

Thus, "Thanks for the Memories" as a headline for Bob Hope's obituary is not necessarily bad. Yes, the phrase is a cliché. Yes, lots and lots and lots and lots of newspapers used it. But I bet readers liked it. I doubt a significant number looked at A-1 and said "Too bad my newspaper is so unoriginal."

We should watch and know every time a significant cliché is used in a story or a headline. We should have an excellent reason to use it. But if the reason exists, and if the cliché (or its brother, the "obvious" headline) is apt, run the headline.

We have nothing to be ashamed of.

I Decline

Newspaper writers too often lean on tired, stereotypical language.

An annoyance to me is using the word “decline” to mean “wouldn’t.” The usage will be familiar to anyone who has read a news article about the police or politicians.

“The detective declined comment about the allegations.”

“The governor’s aides declined to elaborate on his remarks.”

The reporter softens the blow by using “decline.” There is something wanly elegant suggested, as if a hack politician’s aides told the reporter: “Sorry, old chap, but I have to decline to answer your frightfully on-point query.”

People (except for those in P.G. Wodehouse novels) don’t talk that way. They certainly don’t talk that way to nosy reporters. The aides probably said “no comment,” or “are you out of your *bleepin’* mind? I’m not answering that!”

These people are refusing our requests. They are turning down reporter’s questions. They don’t want to tell readers what’s going on. Don’t allow them to hide behind the fussy “decline.” Tell it like it is:

“The detective wouldn’t comment on the allegation.”

“The governor’s aides wouldn't elaborate.”

When I first wrote up this gripe, I suggested "refuse" as a word editors could substitute for "decline." After chats with peers and much deep meditation, I retract that suggestion. "Refuse" has a negative, forceful connotation that we can't be sure of most of the time.

If you are certain the source refused to comment (let's say, in the *bleepin’* way I imagined above), go ahead and say that. But as editors, we seldom know such context. "Wouldn't" is value-neutral and still more straightforward than "decline."

Copy editing

It's what I do. Rephrase: It's what I try to do. The English language can be a difficult beast to control.

Here, I'll try to give some advice on taming the beast.

"English, mind!" I'll say. It probably won't listen, but if it does you can read about it here.

Rephrase, without awkward animal-training comparison: I'll write about my gripes as a copy editor. I'll write about my successes and failures. I'll detail the philosophy that has landed me a spot at a Tampa Bay-area newspaper looking over news stories and messing them up completely.

It should be fun. Follow along, and be sure to tell me when I've lost my mind.