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


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 clich├ęd. 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.


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.


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


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.