Friday, October 28, 2005

Derivative Points

Thanks to Nicole of A Capital Idea for spotlighting these copy-editing related items.

First, from a Detroit Free Press article about author Elmore Leonard. He's written a serial novel for the NYT Magazine.

It's the first time Leonard has written serial fiction for a newspaper. It's the first time he's written a serial, period. The work took him all summer and really cut into his tennis playing.

And that was before the Times copy editors got it. Now, the idea of Elmore Leonard and his expletive-spouting bad guys being edited for a newspaper that still identifies women as Mrs. So-and-So is hilarious. In time, Leonard will probably think it's funny, too.

Right now, though, he's listing the things that the detail-oriented Times editors said were no-nos. "Getting laid." The Gray Lady's gatekeepers X'd that one.

"Arkansas." Arkansas? In newspaper style, it's abbreviated Ark.

But what if a person is saying "Arkansas"? You still abbreviate, because it's in the stylebook. Even if you're writing fiction, it seems.

Sutter fought the Times' copy editors on that one, and you can see his victory in Chapter 2. But Sutter's still hot about it.

"They don't realize this guy's got a sound. Every word. Ar-kan-saw. That's a big word for Elmore," Sutter says. "He sweats every word."

Nicole posted this awhile back, and she said she was skeptical about it. I'd like to add my voice to hers. This is nonsense. The chance that a copy editor at the Times -- a superbly well-edited newspaper / Web site / magazine / whatever else -- actually pestered Elmore Leonard about style seems slim.

Copy editors are vulnerable because we deal with details. We work on a level of detail that baffles others. Like Elmore Leonard, we sweat every word. And we sweat every word for the same reason he does. We care about the overall picture. Those details affect how people see the newspaper /Web site / magazine /whatever else.

Part of managing details, of course, is knowing when to leave deviations from style alone. It's knowing when the rules can be bent or broken. If I know that, I trust the editors of the Times know that.

Permit me a theory. I suspect that a copy editor found incorrect word usage or factual errors and told Leonard. I suspect that annoyed the author, and he decided to exact a little revenge by painting us as anal-retentive creeps. Grrr.

On to a second item from Nicole.

This classic clips comes from a "yes, we make mistakes," article from the Post & Mail of Columbia City, Ind.
For starters take Associated Press stories. Writing for the AP is a dream many or all journalists have at some point because it is seen as the pinnacle of journalism, but even they make mistakes.

Mistakes don't happen often, but occasionally an AP story will be used that has a grammatical error, missing word, double word or something else wrong with it.

Newspapers are not allowed to make ANY changes to an AP story, no matter how glaring it may be. It's a rule we must follow and sometimes the story with an error is the only one on the topic, and if it's important enough we have to run it.

The only exception to changing an AP story is cutting off paragraphs at the bottom so the story will fit.

Nicole didn't quote the first two paragraphs, but I think them the most remarkable. I know folks that have worked at the AP, and while most enjoyed it, I doubt they would refer to it as the "pinnacle" of journalism. I also wonder if the intern author of this piece has ever spent time just reading the wire. If so, he'd quickly notice that mistakes happen all the time in AP copy. That's one of the reasons they update stories regularly.

I don't know who told this poor kid that AP stories couldn't be changed, but they shouldn't take advantage of an innocent.