Monday, December 20, 2004

Uncharitable

My holiday wish this year is to not hear anyone's holiday wishes.

Newspapers play into charities' game these months toward the end of the year. Column inches are filled with heart-tugging stories and photos about poor little Billy who needs a train set and oh-so-sad Emma who wants a Barbie.

I understand this season sees more charitable donations than any others. I understand that many charities depend on it to make their budgets meet. But is it really the role of a newspaper to perpetuate this dysfunctional, cynical embarrassment?

Look, big cities (and the smaller ones, too) bulge with the needy. They stand on the street corners with shopping carts full of possessions. They wait in lines for soup. They ask pedestrians for change. And they do this 365 days a year.

I see these folks every day. In December, yes, but in January and February too. They don't just magically appear for this single 31-day span. Newspapers do them a disservice by acting as though they only exist for this. Yes, that little homeless boy would love toys this month. But he would also like to have a place to live, and food to eat, and other toys to play with, and a life worth living for the other 11 months of the year.

If those in the journalism profession want to spread the word about how their readers (and viewers) can help the less-fortunate, they should take a longer-term, more realistic approach. They should stop trying to assuage their guilt and focus on true solutions. Charities need help, of course, but their game is not ours.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Election Lessons

A few points spring to mind after the presidential elections of this month.

1.) Horse race coverage has sped up, but its importance dropped. I followed every step of this thing, from the primaries to the summer and into the fall. All the horse race knowledge in the world didn't affect the result. The election seems to have been decided by long-swirling forces.

2.) The echo chamber endangers online readers. We can become wrapped up in blogs and other assorted political sites that tell us exactly what we want to hear. Even an "objective" political journalist could find backing for whatever scroop he or she wanted to write. The problem? We lose a sense of who voters actually support.

3.) CBS News needs to -- oh, forget it.

4.) Let's not jump the gun afterward. Folks tried to attribute Bush's win to "values voters," but that theory evaporated within a few days. Many did vote on "values," of course, but that's not unusual. Fears about terrorism and leadership ended up pushing many toward the incumbent.

5.) The news media still has a job to do. Reporting accurately about the current administration or its challenger doesn't mean we're unpatriotic. Disseminating such information is the essence of patriotism. Political operatives would have the public believe otherwise. They're wrong.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Polite Recommendation ...

... I hope you all have been keeping up with A Capital Idea. Also known as the copy editing blog that updates regularly and deals with substantive issues. Not that I'm comparing it with anything!

Nicole, you rock our world.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Margin Of Wha -- ?

The Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk has a fantastic article about polls, and margins of error in particular.

Read it. It's quite important for these election-obsessed times.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Let's Get This Straight

John Kerry in a protective suit is not news.

His wife telling a reporter from a right-wing pub to "shove it" touches the outward periphery of news, but just barely.

The Democratic convention is news.

That's the lesson for today.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Daily Roundup

Yes, I know the Democratic convention begins today. No, I'm not going to write anything about it yet. I'm taking time to gather my thoughts.

Also, the folks at Romenesko are going nuts about the phrase: "It was as if an occult hand had ... " No, I don't understand it either, but it's supposed to be funny. I'm not linking to the Chicago Tribune story because it requires registration, and I only register for the New York Times and Washington Post (for now). Sorry.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Dirty Headline Alert

Parents, you might want to shoo your kids out of the room. This is why every copy editor should have the mind of a sex-obsessed middle-schooler. No, I don't want to explain it. If you don't understand why it's horrible, you're lucky.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Newspaper Spellings

In my post about headlines a few days ago, I called them "heads." This isn't the preferred newspaper spelling. The green-eyeshade folk use "heds."

Likewise, the beginning of a story isn't the "lead." It's a "lede." I've heard this was to avoid confusion between lead type and reporters' work, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the planet.

"Paragraph"? Nope. Try "graf."

Now that I've gone to the trouble of mentioning these all, I'll also tell you that I don't like them. They're fine in a newsroom context. But in this blog I stick to readable, comprehensible names. (When I don't forget myself.)

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Sunday, July 18, 2004

An Unfortunate Name

Slate takes on the case of Dairy Queen's new beverage. Let's all remember to keep an eye out for stuff like this.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Quotes in Headlines

Let's examine a fake headline for a second. (I'll be using my newspaper's style, which accounts for the abundant capitalization.)

Martha Stewart On Sentence:
'I Will ... Never Surrender'


Do those ellipses bother you? They bother me. The copy editor's zeal to include a direct quote has thrown a barrier in front of quick and painless reading.

You do not fix this headline by just taking out the ellipses and leaving the quote marks. Please, do not fix this headline by doing this. You would alter a direct quote. This seems clear to me, but some don't see anything wrong about it.

You do fix this headline by taking out the ellipses and the quote marks, as well as changing a word or two.

Martha Stewart On Sentence:
She Will Never Surrender

You're giving up the authenticity of the quote marks. I admit that. But you gain an easier-to-read head.

A Plea To Readers

Nothing shakes things up in the swanky Copy Massage offices like receiving messages from those who visit the site. Our staff rushes around the hallways in excitement, throwing confetti in the air and singing Madonna songs. We're not sure what their deal is.

The point? We would love to hear with you. It's been too long since Madonna's perky tunes echoed in the corridors and boardrooms of the grand Copy Massage towers. Comment on the posts, ask questions, send e-mail. Whatever it takes.

We'll be waiting.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Brains in Jeopardy

Let's examine this lead from our friends at the Associated Press.

LOS ANGELES -- If the answer is Ken Jennings and his record $920,960 so far in "Jeopardy!" winnings, the question must be, how does he do it?

Notice anything wrong?

The lead doesn't follow the format of a true "Jeopardy" clue. The question should be something along the lines of: "Who has excited the TV world with his quiz show winnings?"

This lead does not make sense. It's stupid. It's a non sequitur. The follow-up paragraph doesn't improve matters:

A curious mind, good memory and astute buzzer technique, said Jennings, a Utah software engineer who will make an unprecedented 29th appearance on the syndicated quiz show tonight.

That's right. The story compounds the error by answering the question that should have been addressed at the start.

Did I notice this? Did I catch this monumental stupidity? Nope. An astute desk intern at my workplace saw the mistake on a page proof. Everyone agreed it was a terrific catch. Her fix:

LOS ANGELES - If the answer is Ken Jennings with $920,960 so far in winnings, the question must be, who holds the "Jeopardy!" record?

A curious mind, good memory and astute buzzer technique got him this far, said Jennings, a Utah software engineer who will make an unprecedented 29th appearance on the quiz show tonight.


Better.

You might expect that such bungling be caught and excised by major newspapers. You might expect that legions of sensible copy editors across the country made a similar rewrite. You might imagine that people had sense.

You would be wrong.

A simple Google search (the lame tool of lazy writers everywhere) shows the unchanged story appearing on newspaper Web sites aplenty. I think it's time for a little hall of shame for those who couldn't be bothered to read a wire story and consider if it made sense.

USA Today
Boston Globe
Wichita Eagle (which found the time to localize the second graf!)
Toronto Star (which changed the grammar of the first sentence, but not the problem)
Hartford Courant
Washington Post
Philadelphia Daily News
Miami Herald
Newark Star Ledger
Houston Chronicle

And on and on and on.

I don't mean to be unduly harsh. Wire copy usually slips through copy desks with the barest of reads. In many newspapers, copy editors have their hands tied with problematic local stories. Also, these stories may have been posted by web staff before editing.

But try. We need to try. We need to give wire stories thorough, meaningful looks. Or else we look more desperately out-of-touch than we already are.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Spreading the Love

William Safire writes up Bill Walsh in the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine. Read it here. Nice to see one of the online pack receive recognition -- even if he had to do it by writing books.

I like to think that if Safire were about 100 years younger and 100 times less cranky, he would also have a blog about language. Perhaps I'm projecting.

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

My Latest Exciting Adventure ...

... Into the world of Web pages can be found here.

Content-ish type material will appear there soon, I hope. But the crushing burden of this blog may complicate matters. You never know.

Monday, July 5, 2004

Essential Reading

Let's assume you're a young copy editor, just starting out. What books would you need to do your job? Thanks for asking. Recommendations follow:

1.) Dictionaries

More than one, please. Multiple dictionaries give you multiple opinions, quickly. Yes, it can be more fun to ask the person sitting next to you, but sometimes she's busy. I'm biased because I own dozens of the things, but no single volume (besides the AP style book, perhaps) will help you more.

2.) Some sort of thesaurus

I prefer The Synonym Finder, but any book that can jog your mind for extra words can help. Don't use it to produce unfamiliar words. Use it to stimulate your thinking.

3.) An almanac

This makes me sound old-fashioned, but having all the information on a printed page can help you. We too often turn to the Web when a paper source could do the job more authoritatively. You don't have to get sucked into a Google trap for every single question.

4.) A few usage books

Quite a few volumes about "correct" use of the English language crowd the shelves. Most won't help you directly. They make you think about the written word critically, though, and that's what copy editing is all about.

Thursday, July 1, 2004

Tasking My Brain

For that matter, what's with the word "task" as a verb?

Who decided this was a good idea? I suspect it was the same guy who invented "efforting." I defy someone to use it in a way that doesn't sound incredibly lame.

"He's been tasked to find the answer."
"We're tasking on that."
"I've tasked her with an important assignment."
"I'm tasking."

I'm sure you are. And why don't you actually work at the same time? With a verb. They're these things that, before administrators took over the world, used to propel language. Back when language was used to communicate, not obfuscate.

Words like this make me want to gouge out my eyes with pica poles. And those pica poles are old and rusty, so I'm sure they'll hurt.

(Multi-tasking, I can live with. Barely.)

Monday, June 28, 2004

Never, Ever, Ever Use This Word

I was driving around St. Petersburg today, looking for apartments and listening to the radio. I shouldn't do this. I always regret it later. (Listening to the radio, that is. The living quarters remain a necessity.)

Anyway, a talk show host used a word that nearly drove me off the road through sheer revulsion.

"Efforting."

As in, "I'm efforting to get that done." "We're efforting to call him up." "I'm efforting to come up with the most offensive, needless word ever."

What drives me batty about this is substituting a jargony, verbed noun for the simple, wonderful, economical "try." "I'm trying to get that done." "We're trying to call him up." "I'm trying to make my word choices less offensive."

If you hear anyone use this word, slap them. They must pay.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Inspirational Thought for the Day

Thank goodness we don't have to do this on typewriters.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Quote Addendum

A couple of comments rattled into the old Copy Massage mailbox addressing last month's post about quotes.

"Asphaire" wrote --

"on number three.. GREAT to know.. at least i can stop feeling like I have to justify every little two word tango with an oxford quoted explanation.. like i always say when i'm at a loss for any sort of explanation.. if it ain't pleasing to the ear, then it's best to paraphrase. that probably the best grammar rule i know. :o/"

I think the point being referred to is actually my fourth, in which I spoke against parentheticals in quotes. It's stupid. I mean, why are we quoting someone if we don't let them speak for themselves?

The parentheticals I hate most are the condescending ones.

"'I hate that dadratted [U.S. President George] Bush,' Kerry said."

At least the [going to the park] example I created below tries to help the reader. The example above exists merely to show off how intelligent the writer thinks she is and how dumb she thinks the reader is.

"Peter" chimed in --

"I agree with the point of the first example, but adding the "old chap" part is a needlessly hyperbolic flourish. Who does that? Or have you noticed recurring problems with editors turning hillbillies into upper-crust Englishmen?"

Yes. All the time.

Friday, June 4, 2004

A Horse is a Horse

Thanks to Romenesko, I ran across this article about the blog and column of Smarty Jones.

That's right, Smarty Jones. A horse.

I don't want to judge anyone here, but that's stupid. Even for a tabloid (and an entertaining, well-written one), that's stupid.

It should be a gut-level test of all things journalistic. Will publishing this article or printing this photograph make the newspaper look stupid? If the answer is yes -- or even possibly -- let's rethink.

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Farewell to Tom

Mr. Mangan closes up Prints the Chaff.

Although I must say I'm crushed not to be one of his favorite editor-bloggers, it has been a pleasure to inhabit the same general niche of the blogosphere. I'll miss the site.

Yes, yes, I know, he's keeping the personal blog going. But it's not the same, is it? In any event, best of luck to him.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Quote Policies

I can't believe people have problems with this. Some do.

1.) We do not clean up quotes. "I ain't going to the store" should not become "I'm not going to the store, old chap."

2.) We do not creatively render dialectical phrases. Thus, we write "got to" for what sounds like "gotta" and "going to" for "gonna." We do not penalize people for being mushy-mouthed.

3.) We render sentences in the best grammar we know.

4.) If a quote isn't clear on its own, paraphrase it. Don't add parenthetical expressions. Never publish a sentence such as: "I enjoy it [going to the park] very much," he said.

5.) We don't make people look stupid for no reason. "I think our current president, Bill Clinton, shouldn't have invaded Iraq," she said.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

News Is News Is News

As journalists, we're predisposed to overthink. The reporters wonder what the source didn't say. The copy editors wonder what the writers really meant. We ponder and analyze, cogitate and mull, until someone above us waves the deadline flag.

But sometimes, news is news. For reporters, this means that every story doesn't demand an in-depth narrative approach. Sometimes, we just want to know what happened. It's not hard. Tell us. Let it be. (To quote one of those Beatle fellows.)

For copy editors, this means that every headline and caption doesn't need to be a masterpiece. All art heads needn't contain vibrant word play. Sometimes, just telling the reader what's going on is enough.

We beat ourselves up over the "art" of newspapering when 99 percent of newspapering isn't art. It's news. It's communication.

Let's do that first.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Five Print Media Myths

1.) We're objective.

I don't think anyone can be objective. We are all the products of our surroundings and personal beliefs. Too much news becomes mushy in pursuit of "objectivity." We should, instead, strive for fairness. That is, we acknowledge that we all have different views and try to reflect that in an equitable manner.

2.) News doesn't have an entertainment purpose.

Yeah, we like to feel better than the reality TV folks. But we still put "brights" on front pages, still encourage columnists to be colorful, still look for that wacky wire story to fill the inside. Face it folks: we serve up entertainment sometimes.

3.) Readers care about the same things we do.

Newspapers spend tremendous time and effort on series of stories and projects that often bore folks to tears. Yes, we know the doll factory made defective dolls. Do we really need the 50th follow-up story about the factory, moving the story an eighth of an inch forward?

4.) That we're not obsolete.

With the Web, television and radio, newspapers no longer have a monopoly on anything. Pictures? TV does it better. Frothing-at-the-mouth commentary? Turn on Rush in the afternoon. In-depth articles and analysis? Check out some of the better blogs.

Newspapers will be around for years to come -- because of their place in the public consciousness and because no other organizations have similar news-gathering infrastructures yet. But that time will come, and we shouldn't delude ourselves.

5.) That Generation X/Y/Whatever doesn't care.

Younger people care about the world and news. Look at the people who flocked to Howard Dean's campaign. Consider the huge audience for the topical "Daily Show" on Comedy Central. The appetite is there.

Do newspapers address it? Nope. They either ignore the demographic entirely, publishing more and more aging-boomer items, or they condescend mightily. Red Streak anyone? Anyone?

Young people will read newspapers.

But newspapers have to give them a reason.

Friday, May 7, 2004

Quick and Generic Post on Blogging

No, I haven't given up this blog.

No, I'm not giving up copy editing.

Yes, I am still here and willing to be engaged in the world.

Why? Blogging is important. I'll be doing a presentation for my copy desk in a month or so that touches on blogs and why they're important. If you're reading this, you probably know why.

Blogs won't replace newspapers. They won't replace magazines. They are a new form, for a new time. They offer instant access to people's thoughts and emotions, and they provide an enormous platform for self expression.

Truthfully, I've been away from Copy Massage because I've been working to wrap up another blog. You see, at the beginning of this year I wrote three blogs -- one personal, one poetry and one this. The personal one wrapped at the end of February. The poetry one wrapped at the end of April.

Copy Massage remains, which is as it should be. A lot of people have stopped by here, and I hope my recent silence hasn't scared them off.

The point?

Blogs = tremendously important forum for writers of all ages and persuasions.
Me = dedicated to blogging.
This point = over now.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Written Quotes' Challenge

Copy editors have some leeway when dealing with spoken quotes. Wait a moment, please. Before you come after me with machetes, consider this sentence:

“I dont think this tax cut; well-ententioned though it may be -- will effect the economy in the right weigh,” Jones said.

Would there be any problem in changing it to:

“I don’t think this tax cut, well-intentioned though it may be, will affect the economy in the right way,” Jones said.

Of course not.

The problems with the sentence are caused by slapdash spelling and punctuation on the part of the reporter, not the speaker. Copy editors have a free hand in those areas, within reason, to make the quote read smoothly.

But let’s not take this free hand too far — say, to quotations from written works.

If a news release, say, has the sentence:

“The much needed tax cut will benifit little children big children and adults.”

I would not change it. Period.

I would not add the hyphen between much and needed. I would not correct the spelling of benefit. I would not add a comma after little children.

A news release is a written form. If we edit information from it, we are therefore directly changing what the source “says.”

That’s not to say we should be eager to print such a sentence. A paraphrase would allow us to get that information across more effectively. Like so:

“Americans for Tax Freedom, a lobbying group, said the tax cut was needed and would benefit children and adults.”

As you see, a couple of superfluous adjectives can be neatly trimmed as well.

However, if it’s important to use that sentence from the press release as a direct quote, hands off. That means you.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Technical Terms

Let's turn to Merriam-Webster Online for a moment.

Internet: an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world

World Wide Web: a part of the Internet designed to allow easier navigation of the network through the use of graphical user interfaces and hypertext links between different addresses -- called also Web

Thus, I prefer to write that someone has their interactive site on the Web -- not "the Internet." Thus, I prefer to direct readers to the Web, not "the Internet" to find information.

Look.

It would be perfectly accurate, when identifying someone in a story, to write that his or her house was "in the United States." But wouldn't it be better to write that their house was "in Cleveland"?

The latter statement tells you much more than the former. The fact that the house is "in the United States" is packed into the information that the house is "in Cleveland."

Many things go through the Internet that don't appear on the Web. If you retrieve your e-mail through a program other than your Web browser, you didn't "surf the Web" to get it. It went through the Internet's pathways to your computer.

People use the terms interchangeably. Don't do it. Each of these words has a specific meaning that it behooves us to preserve.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Acronym Anger

The only acronyms used in a piece of writing should be ones commonly understood on their own. That is: FBI, CIA and the like. No others.

I don't care if the article mentions the IGRJTYAA (the International Great Regional Jam and Toast Youth Association of America) over and over and over again. Don't use the acronym. Call it the youth association on second reference. Call it just the association.

For God's sake, don't call it the IGRJTYAA.

Just because the story covers the group doesn't mean readers know the acronym, or that they will become accustomed to said acronym in a few paragraphs. Give them -- give everyone -- a break. Use real words.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

What I Learned at ACES Houston

Bring nearly 400 copy editors together for three days in a confined space and you produce magic. And bitching.

Grammar ticky-tacky can be overrated. Especially when so few agree.

The world of copy editing can be disconcertingly small. In my first session, I met two people with whom I attended college.

Tom Mangan is three steps ahead of us all.

Phil Blanchard is as dashing in person as he is at the TCE board.

I'm happy that I do what I do.

More Copy Editing Convention Business

To anyone I didn't speak with at the Houston shindig, I apologize. On the first day (Thursday the 18th), I was operating on slightly more than an hour of sleep. On the second day I had it pretty much together, but by day three (Saturday the 20th) I was packing up to leave. I flew out that evening.

The result of all this: I spoke to fewer people than I hoped. Some disappeared before I could reach them. Others frightened me. I also didn't plug this blog nearly as much as I planned -- I figured it would look tacky.

Anyway.

I learned a lot, and I hope to share some tidbits as this blog (as featured at Poynter) continues. I'm glad to have talked with those of you I did. Drop by Copy Massage now and then, if you would. Leave insulting comments for all to see.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Back to Florida

I've returned, with books and papers aplenty. More to come, as I assemble my thoughts. Fun times.

Copy Massage Mentions

Thanks to the folks at Poynter, who mentioned Copy Massage in an article posted Thursday.

Quite a few folks dropped by, it seems. Thanks.

Jotbook News Service links to Poynter and the article. They have these kind words about me:

"As far as I'm concerned, copy editors in their twenties should not be allowed to do anything but get coffee until they have cleared adolescence, at, say 33."

Thursday, March 18, 2004

So, I'm Here

In Houston, that is, for the ACES conference. Met and chatted with Tom of Prints the Chaff and saw old coworkers and college folk.

I'm using the free computers provided, and there's a line, so I'll wrap up. I'm operating on slightly more than one hour of sleep.

Copy Editor Code

I'm off to the ACES convention today, tomorrow and Saturday. In honor of that, I'll repost a piece that gained positive attention back in October. It's my set of simple precepts for copy editors.

I'm sure more could be added, but these five points sum up my basic beliefs about the craft. As I said then: "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 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 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.

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. We sometimes take it too lightly. 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.

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. Style ensures consistency and readability. It differentiates a newspaper from a collection of stories thrown together.

It is the voice of the paper.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Quick Annoyances

Don't you hate it when a story with a dateline uses the word "here"? I do.

An example: "MOSCOW -- The streets are quiet here, as Russians prepare for a new week."

If the dateline says Moscow, readers will be able to make the connection that the streets run through that Russian city. I guarantee. The "here" strikes me as an affectation, a word meant to drill the reader with the reporter's on-the-spot-edness.

Cut it out.

In the same vein, why do reporters feel the need to attribute quotes so redundantly? " 'I got the idea for the series of paintings while watching Oprah,' Jones said in an interview."

How else would Jones say it? Does Jones wander the streets at night, explaining the motivations behind his work to strangers? Does he call random people from the phone book to talk about his artistic intentions?

Of course not. We called him up and interviewed him. It goes without saying he said it in an interview.

Some stories, in which the subject makes a public presentation and then talks to a reporter afterward, need such a distinction. I might allow "said in an interview" in that case. But most of the time "said after the speech" works just as well.

Greetings ...

... To new blogger Paul Wiggins. The intrepid Australian editor's blog is linked in the right column (as Morose Copy Editor). Good to have you aboard, sir.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Two Types of Editing

Those of us lucky enough to work on the rim do two main kinds of copy editing.

1.) We copy edit for readers.

2.) We copy edit for ourselves.

The first covers all the "obvious" work we do. Did we spell the name right? Does the story make sense? Does that telephone number connect readers to a dubious psychic rather than the local quilt club?

The second covers the stuff we love to chew over. Did we master this arcane point of grammar? Did we smooth the sentences to absolute perfection? Did we substitute generic names for any trademarks?

Both types of work are important.

1.) We have to serve our readers: That's the basic job of a newspaper.

2.) Us copy editors have to serve ourselves. Sure, we might err on the side of persnickety. Sure, we might infuriate the occasional narrative journalist. But we're practicing a refined craft, and it makes us feel better to know someone knows why "impact" is a lousy verb.

The first type of editing takes priority. If a story has been edited for other copy editors, and not readers, we haven't done our job. Never lose sight of the folks who make this all possible.

Monday, March 15, 2004

“Hastily called press conference.”

Let’s never use this phrase again, OK? It shows up time and time again, imparting a false sense of urgency. The murky haze of cliché has settled over “hastily called press conference” and seems unlikely to lift soon.

Do writers routinely use the phrase “deliberately set-up press conference”? Do they routinely draw our attention to careful planning of a question-and-answer session with journalists?

Of course not.

Writers use “hastily called press conference” to add zest when they’re flagging. The cliché stands in for meaningful context of description of what’s going on. It hits readers over the head with a mallet, yelping, “I’m important, dammit!”

We don’t need the phrase, though. We need the context.

Think about it. If a building bursts into flames at 10 a.m., and the fire chief hold a news conference at 11 a.m., do we have to tell readers that the gathering was “hastily called”? Readers can put it together. I trust them on this.

If a writer absolutely had to draw attention to the thrown-together nature of such an event, I might allow “impromptu.” But I wouldn’t be happy about it.

Finally, another problem with the original phrase is “press conference.” Let’s use “news conference,” unless we’re sure the only reporters there worked for print media.

Same-Sex Marriage ...

...Hits the San Francisco Chronicle. Ow.

Tough issue there. Tough decision to make.

I understand the newspaper's concerns. The question, however, is where this stops. Can a gay journalist cover issues about gay people effectively? Can a black journalist cover issues about black people effectively? I think most people would say yes to both questions.

So where is the line drawn? When is a person too involved in an issue to cover it effectively?

May you be cursed to live in interesting times ...

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Advertising Follies

Driving to work I heard a radio ad with a sentence that raised hairs on the back of my neck. I will attempt to reproduce it here, and then shred it. You will have to imagine the annoying announcer’s voice on your own.

“Please buy a grill from Frank’s Grills, the company who literally invented home grilling.”

Problem No. 1. A company is not a person or an animal with a name, and therefore should not be referred to as a “who” or “whom.” Please use “that.”

Problem No. 2. How do you figuratively invent home grilling? If you can’t figuratively do something, then a reader has to assume the action is literal.

Otherwise, you would write, “He literally walked to the neighborhood grocery store. Then he literally bought a bag of groceries, literally paying for them with cash. After that, he literally visited a strip club.”

Don’t use “literally” as a garden-variety intensifier.

(And yes, I know this entry has shown up later than the 13th, but that's when I wrote the thing. In the interests of chronological accuracy, if not blogging preciseness, I've bumped it back.)

Thursday, March 4, 2004

The Issue Comes To Arkansas

The press there has some gay marriage issues.

Thanks to Romenesko for the link.

The article neglects the Washington Times, however, which also uses the quotation marks.

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

LBGT Answers Aplenty

Much of what I promised to post about terms used for gay and lesbian people has been addressed on the American Copy Editors Society message board.

Go there and be enlightened.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Readers Ask Pt. 2 ...

As for "marriage for gay and lesbian people," the preferred term of the NLGJA, I pretty much agree with Peter and Tom on its clunkiness.

That wording has solid thinking behind it, though. It's the reason "rights for gay and lesbian people" works better than "gay rights." Lesbian and gay folk don't want a special category of rights (insert your own lame joke here about what rights those would be). They want the same protections and status that other groups enjoy.

They don't want a special kind of marriage, they just want to marry. The institution doesn't change, but the people wanting to be part of it do. Perhaps the ultimate, most-accurate-possible phrase would be "marriage for same-sex couples."

I take the reajavascript:void(0)listic stance. I appreciate the NLGJA taking the time to work out these issues, but I have headlines to write. And their phrase (or my version) doesn't fit.

Readers Ask...

Peter, in a couple of comments below, has asked why "same-sex marriage" is my preference over "gay marriage" and astutely pointed out some problems with the NLGJA's wording. Prints the Chaff has weighed in too.

I admit, the difference between same-sex and gay marriage is small. I mean, everyone calls it gay marriage, right? I am bothered by several points though, which I list here.

1.) The basic problem of accuracy. I wrote about this earlier. Gay people can already get married, just not to people of the their own gender. This might seem pedantic, given that you can deconstruct "gay marriage" to mean "marriage for gay couples," or something like that. But the more I think about this point, the more I believe it's valid.

2.) "Gay" only stands for one side of the equation. The mainstream media doesn't always make this distinction, but in the LBGT community (that's lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered) gay refers almost exclusively to men. Given that lesbian couples are part of this controversy too, "gay marriage" strikes me as narrow.

3.) The legal questions of this debate do not specifically deal with sexual orientation. They exclusively focus on gender. That's why the constitutional amendment floating around the U.S. Congress right now doesn't use the words "gay" or "lesbian." It would block any marriage between persons of the same gender, regardless of their sexual orientation.

4.) Neutrality. "Same-sex marriage," while colorless, describes the issue in a simple and broad way.

All of this said, I don't necessarily think "gay marriage" should be banned from newspaper pages. It comes in handy at times, and we don't want to put ourselves in the position of eliminating easy-to-understand options.

"Same-sex marriage," as I said, remains my default for now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Terminology Update

The whole same-sex marriage issue has heated up to the point where few can address it without their faces turning red and steam spewing from their ears. But let's agree on a basic point:

"Gay marriage" is a stupid thing to call it. Gay people can get married now. Just not to other gay people of the same gender. Thus, "same-sex marriage" can be used as an alternative.

The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association does not agree with either of the terms. (Full disclosure: I am a member, although I haven't sent in my dues for this year, so perhaps I'm not.) Their point:

"The terms 'gay marriage' and 'same-sex marriage' are inaccurate and misleading. The decision made by the Massachusetts court affects the state’s existing marriage law. The court has ordered the state to apply the existing law equally to gay and lesbian couples as early as May 2004. The accurate terminology on-air, in headlines and in body type should be 'marriage for gays and lesbians.' "

I understand the NLGJA's point. Their preferred alternative takes up a lot of space, though. Many media organizations seem to have settled on "same-sex marriage" as preferred terminology, with "gay marriage" being used for tight headline counts.

I have a lot more to write about on this topic in general. So keep watching.

My Row of Sticky Notes

I've attached several yellow sticky notes to my desk. They contain scribbled notations about entries meant for this very blog. I know you would love to read what is on them. OK, then. Here they are, reproduced as exactly as possible. Decipher them at your own risk:

WaPo
quotes
policy...
quotes overall

2 types
of editing
1.) Readers
2.) ourselves

Thankless
nature
of
job

Gay marriage,
gay
rights --

So now you know what's coming up. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Who Reads This Thing?

People who search using these terms:

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i was deleting my massage
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journalism +dash +usage +editing +aces
"why proofreading is important"

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Color Me Unimpressed

This CNN story serves as a useful example of my latest pet peeve.

Let's stop using Web message boards as sources in stories. The practice ranks right up there with using someone's Friendster profile in writing about them.

Real people saying real, on-the-record comments should always be preferred. Always.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

It Doesn't Work That Way

TV and radio news does this all the time, and I can't stand it. Newspapers do it nearly as much. And the whole matter comes down to simple reading comprehension.

What am I blathering about?

"The accused killer." "The alleged rapist." "The accused terrorists."

None of these constructions should be used in a self-respecting newspaper. All of them use "accused" or "alleged" as a fig leaf -- but that fig leaf doesn't cover anything. If you use the phrase, you are calling someone a killer, rapist, or terrorist. The fig leaf words try desperately to make it seem otherwise, but you have already convicted the person or people involved.

Writers can fix the problem simply and easily. "The suspect, who is accused of killing." "The man alleged to have raped." "The men accused of terrorism." Sure, these constructions take up more space. But they allow for a crucial distinction by separating the people involved and the acts they are accused of committing.

Anchors on radio and TV news programs use the incorrect constructions all the time. I'm sure they defend the wording by saying "it sounds better." Well, it might sound better to say that the president transformed into a dragon and tried to eat the Democrats in Congress. It might sound better to say Martha Stewart was discovered to be an android from the distant future. It might sound better to say Elvis Presley writes this blog.

That doesn't make it true.

A Reminder

Although this site is titled Copy Massage, and although I am not straight, this is most definitely not a place to find information about gay massages. I'm sure other sites can help. Thank you.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Random Tip

For those of you who edit with pagination systems that display text in white-on-blue (or some other non-paper like fashion), try copying and pasting your headlines and other display type to a simple text document. Make sure the font on that text document is something easy to read, such as Times.

Read your work through. I'll bet you see something you didn't notice on the blue screen.

Changing such minor points as background color and font style can bring issues into focus. I'm not sure why it works, but it has helped me recently. When I'm working on a larger project, simply viewing all of that display type in a different context can help.

Just a thought.

Where Will You Be March 18-20?

I know where I'll be.

Yep, the most happening place in the continental United States should be in Houston. There, members of the American Copy Editors Society will hold their yearly conference.

I've made my reservations. If any of ya'll are going, let me know.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Regimen Change

Regime -- We use this word today about a government. The neo-conservatives speak of "regime change."

Regimen -- If you're on a regimen, you're on a set schedule, say of exercise or diet.

Now the problem: The words have a common ancestry. They once were nearly the same. Take a look at Merriam-Webster:

Regime -- 1 a : REGIMEN 1 b : a regular pattern of occurrence or action (as of seasonal rainfall) c : the characteristic behavior or orderly procedure of a natural phenomenon or process
2 a : mode of rule or management b : a form of government (a socialist regime) c : a government in power (predicted that the new regime would fall) d : a period of rule

and then Regimen -- 1 a : a systematic plan (as of diet, therapy, or medication) especially when designed to improve and maintain the health of a patient b : a regular course of action and especially of strenuous training (the daily regimen of a top ballet dancer)
2 : GOVERNMENT, RULE
3 : REGIME 1c

As you can see, the words started out meaning much the same thing. Regime then seems to have diverged, with its latest meanings almost exclusively related to its social studies aspect. Regimen has been consistent for a while, but has been used sparingly to mean regime.

Confused yet? I sure am.

The point is, if you want to be clear to most people, write about Saddam Hussein's regime, not his regimen. That is, unless you're dealing with his aerobics routine.

Monday, February 9, 2004

My Main Newsroom Issue

These days, it's my abandonment of caffeine.

I drink one caffeinated soda a day. That's it. In the newspaper business, that's asking for trouble. I'm pushing forward, however, happy not to be spending the money on fizzy drinks and feeling relatively jitter-free.

Yes, the world can be a harsh, cruel place.

Sunday, February 8, 2004

Redundancy Patrol

I’ve railed against “future plans” already. I heard a horrid one on TV the other day: “past history.”

Again, I am forced to ask, “Is there any other kind of history?”

If the reporter was a fan of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, perhaps she was thinking of his “Future History” series. I doubt that’s the case, however.

Such slips can be excused in speech. We tend restate our main points until our listeners agree or hit us with a blunt object.

Let’s keep them out of writing.

Friday, February 6, 2004

Stretching for a Story

And a headline. From CNN's site:

The Jackson stunt: What now?

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Vocabulary Fun

What's a compendium?

If you asked me before today, I would have said "A big gathering of stuff, like an anthology or something." Perhaps I would have phrased it more eloquently.

The word doesn't mean that, however.

A compendium is actually a summary or outline of some substantive work. Or, in the words of oh-so-definitive Merriam-Webster:

1 : a brief summary of a larger work or of a field of knowledge : ABSTRACT
2 a : a list of a number of items b : COLLECTION, COMPILATION

As you notice, the meaning I mention is in there, but only at the very end. That's also known as "the place where dictionaries put the wrong meanings that unknowing folks have perpetuated."

My thanks for this tidbit go to Theodore M. Bernstein's "The Careful Writer." He theorized that the incorrect meaning took hold because the word sounds so lumbering and immense. It's an impressive-seeming word.

Too bad the language doesn't bear it out.

Month-End Referrals

As January winds down, let's take a glimpse at the multitude of ways readers come to Copy Massage. Remember, the best referral receives a free Copy Massage T-shirt and Caribbean cruise. (Best referral will be decided by me, sometime.)

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Pulitzer Prizes for instance are most often awarded photographers who make pictures of shocking, dramatic moments
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"Pulitzer" "journalism" "entries" "guidelines" "wire" "2004"
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Safire gauntlet to readers
"Justin Timberlake"+"picture"+"rolling Stone"
link:http://www.eldoradotimes.com
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album massage

Friday, January 30, 2004

At the Hair Salon

So I was at the hair salon in a St. Petersburg mall, reading the latest issue of US Weekly. My research for this site knows no bounds. And my hair was shaggy.

The magazine, besides being generally appalling and symbolic of the downfall of humanity, helped pass the time. One article in particular, caught my eye. It mentioned an upcoming movie, featuring a college "coed" who helps a professor.

First off, the word "coed" is dated and ridiculous. Coeducation has been the norm now since what -- the 1950s? Coed is so old I expect it to wear suspenders and use hair tonic.

Yet the vintage of the word wasn't what alarmed me. In this article, "coed" referred to a male student.

Huh?

Let's check a couple of dictionaries.

"Coed: A young woman attending a coeducational college or university (Webster's New World)."

"Coed: a student and especially a female student in a coeducational institution (Merriam-Webster)."

I could cite more examples, but the point should be clear. A coed, in virtually all instances, should be a woman. Just because the word seems like it might be able to possibly, just kind of, you know probably refer to a male -- doesn't mean it does.

If we use antiquated slang, let's make sure it's correct.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Cable Installed

I took the plunge and called the cable company to hook me up. With the election season heating up, I need my news in my living room, in living color.

I've been without cable for a year-and-a-half. Not much has changed, I have to say. Well, Comedy Central doesn't show Saturday Night Live anymore. Anchors look older than I remember.

The reason I'm blathering about it? I have a new form of media, folks. Expect some tidbits from the world of broadcast as we push ahead.

Let's Just Imagine

Howdy. Let's just imagine that I've been filling the past couple of weeks with exciting and informative posts. Let's just imagine you found them thrilling, and that somehow they disappeared from the site. Ha ha!

Let's not imagine that I spent the past couple of weeks sleeping a lot and otherwise avoiding writing on the Web. Let's not imagine that I spent the last week on vacation, playing computer games and getting cable installed.

Anyway. It all resumes now. More or less.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Let's Hear It For the Desk

This site -- and most other material about copy editing -- often gives the impression that editing is a lone pursuit. One pictures the noble copy editor, striving against all odds and a story full of inaccuracies. He or she faces the gale head-on and plows ahead.

Some of that is true. Most of it is not.

Because, you see, no copy editor works alone. Others on the desk help. Others rewrite headlines, catch further mistakes and round up stray bits of lost coding. They make the job possible.

If you have copy edited for any time at all, you know the feeling: A co-worker spots the most glaring, obvious error in a story you just edited. An error you didn't see. A misspelling of the president's name, perhaps. In the headline. (Not a mistake I've seen, mind you, but not far off.) Most people play it cool in a situation like that, but I find myself wanting to bow and kiss the hem of the co-worker's garment.

I offer help to others as well. As the night of editing goes on, I may tweak a headline or rearrange some words. I may notice the caption doesn't jibe with the photo it accompanies. The list goes on.

In the end, no one can do this job in a vacuum. The desk has to watch out for its own. That's how we learn, and that's how we put out a newspaper.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Something Useless

Fie upon useless words. Fie, I say!

The latest culprit: “Is something that.” Reading these words reminds me of eating a bowl of mushy, gray cereal. No flavor. Precious little purpose when easier-to-take alternatives exist. An editor can and should excise that phrase violently.

“The concert is something that everyone will enjoy.”

Make it: “Everyone will enjoy the concert.”

“The show is something that demonstrates the development of artistic styles.”

Make it: “The show demonstrates the development of artistic styles.”

Next topic.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Happy Note ...

Today I celebrate a year of association with a fine Tampa Bay-area newspaper. Thanks to all the fine staff and readers of the publication.

Let's hope the next year is similarly exciting and fulfilling.

Thursday, January 8, 2004

Prints the Chaff Runs With It

More fun with redundancies over there.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Of Course They Are

Redundancy alert: future plans.

Can plans be anything else? Yes, I know, sometimes plans don't work out. But the context should make that clear.

If someone says "I have a plan," you don't assume they're talking about a plan for a day ago, or a week ago. That person has a plan for something coming up. This stems from people's insane desire to clutter up writing with useless words. If writing exists to communicate, why add filler? No defense exists.

I don't want to harp on trifles. But this isn't a trifle. It's common sense.

Sunday, January 4, 2004

'Sup, Will and Nicole?

Will at Stylin' and smilin' has finally graced us with an entry. It's a doozy. I'll quote a couple of bits.

"The Internet is the future of newspapers as we know it. I will always be a newspaper guy as long as there's a tangible product sitting on my doorstep each morning. But our paper's Web sites provide the rest of the country (and the world) with a face of what we look like and what we do."

True enough.

The problem is that revenue comes from the print side. Online publications have struggled to make a profit. Until we figure out how to attract high-profile advertisers to support free online content, newspapers will have to stay mainly in the print realm.

Poor Salon, one of my favorite places online, has nearly gone under time after time. It soldiers on, but barely. Its cousin, Slate, survives on Bill Gates' pocket change.

Also: "This was never meant to be an everyday blog. I guess that violates the rule of blogs (that being blogs need to be updated every day)."

Just update more than every month, Will. That will suit me!

After light posting in November and early December, Nicole returns with a vengeance on A Capital Idea.

Her most recent entry, responding to a Slate article about the Valerie Plame affair. It's a humdinger. Choice paragraph:

"Also, sources leak information for the 'wrong' reasons all the time. That doesn't give the journalist the right or obligation to name them. And if the leaking of this information was a crime, often so is the leaking of other information. It's still not the journalist's job to squeal."

Let's hope this new year is full of such bloggy goodness!

Meanwhile, the Times Public Editor Ponders ...

... Quotes in and out of context. The New York Times' Daniel Okrent makes some excellent points.

A good paragraph:

"Whether plucked from a press conference or a barroom conversation, quotes are not just reported - they're selected. Subject goes on at length; reporter picks a few especially revealing, juicy or simply interesting sentences; presses roll; and, later, the subject cries, ''Taken out of context!" But except when a newspaper prints verbatim transcripts, all quotations are taken out of context. The context is the actual conversation or press conference in which words get uttered; the printed pages of a newspaper can only rudely duplicate it."

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Happy New Year

Best of wishes from the friendly staff of Copy Massage.