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.