Monday, February 27, 2006

Headline Advice

You want to write headlines? Here are five tips.

1.) Avoid writing them as questions.
2.) Don't be cute just because you can.
3.) Don't engage in wordplay that makes no sense.
4.) Accurately reflect the story.
5.) If you don't have the space you need, ask for more.

Boiling those five points down to one produces this:

Don't write headlines for yourself or your pals on the desk. Write them for your readers. We don't create the newspaper to amuse ourselves.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Future of Newspapers Update

I haven't seen as much hand-wringing in the past couple of weeks. Perhaps people want to watch how the Knight-Ridder business works itself out.

Interesting points have been made, though, on the difficulties of establishing "citizen journalism." Exhibit one: The Bayosphere. Analysis here. And the founder of Craigslist thinks too much has been made of it altogether.

He says: "The deal is, there's no substitute for professional-level writing and fact-checking and editing. One of the tenets of the effort I'm involved with is to drive more traffic to professional news sites. People have gotten too excited about citizen journalism, and they're not addressing the balance well."

Hmm. (That's my profound point. Hmm.)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What an Editor Does

I picked up a copy of "The Years With Ross," humorist James Thurber's account of his time with New Yorker editor Harold Ross. In the introduction to this new edition, essayist Adam Gopnik offers one of the best descriptions of editing that I've read.

Editors are, he writes, "before anything else, taker-outers, lighteners of the overpacked sentence."

He also reflects on the writer-editor relationship:

"In their hearts, writers think of editors as little as society ladies think of maitre d's: one tips them heavily and listens wide-eyed to their advice on the menu, but the point is to keep that table." (And, in their hearts, all editors think of writers as maitre d's do society ladies: spoiled, demanding children -- if only, sigh, you could run a restaurant without them.)"

Not that I personally think this way.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Follow-up and Another Blog

Response to the dietitian / dietician post of a few weeks back came quickly.

The word is not really a legitimately formed word, and I'm pretty sure both are correct (or incorrect, depending on how you view it). The OED lists both uses (all condescendingly). I remember reading about 'beautician' (Fowler?), and how ridiculous they made it seem. Generally, the -ician suffix is reserved for words ending in -ic (etc.) Mathematic(s)-> mathematician.Readers of this blog reveal new wells of information all the time.

I suppose I can understand usage experts' disdain, but what the heck do you call the person who's an expert on meal planning? The diet guy? The diet dude? Diet-woman the magnificent?

I mean, come on. Sometimes, inelegant uses persist because we don't have a better alternative. AP's mention suggests they haven't figured out a better way.

The reader who left that response has an interesting usage blog. You can find it here. The creator promises "some of the most boring, academic pedantry on the web." Who can resist?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Poynter on Grammar

Mervin Block, "a newswriting coach" and author of "Writing Broadcast News -- Shorter, Sharper Stronger," critiques recent slips by "60 Minutes."

A couple of examples:

3) "She was big box-office, made a total of 50 movies." (April 3, 2005.)

Delete a total of. Without it, the sentence means the same, except that now it's leaner. Strunk and White tell us in their "Elements of Style": "Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words ... for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

5) "The Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1869. It's still one of the best-looking things on Earth." (Oct. 9, 2005.)

Work on the bridge began in 1869. It was completed in 1883. Thing is something I was taught to avoid. My teacher had a thing about it.

Block catches some poor writing, yes, but some of those quoted "mistakes" are attempts at colloquialism. I don't know if those should be put at the same level as factual errors. We should banish cliches. But we should first verify those quotes and dates.

Stuff like this makes writers hate editors. We put our own prejudices ahead of what works for the story and the basic facts it contains. I would say we don't see the forest for the trees, but I don't want to lapse into dreaded cliche.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Note from the 'Real World'

The partner and I have spend most of the past week preparing for a guest. Although the guest has nothing whatsoever to do with copy editing, grammar or journalism as a whole, these preparations have taken up valuable blog-cogitation minutes.

Not to worry. Many small, annoying bits of grumbling float in my brain. I merely have to pluck them from the ether.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Spelling Point of Order

You spell the word dietitian, not dietician. I admit, I did not know this off the top of my head.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

From Gauntlets to Profundities

The comment I referred to in my gantlet /gauntlet follow-up came from Tongue-Tied, a blogger in New York. In a post today, Tongue-Tied summarizes our discussion on the difference or lack of same. She/he winds up in an interesting place:

I’m creeping toward heresy here, so I might as well go over the edge: Clay states that it’s better to be consistent than right. But why is consistency sacrosanct? If you wrote “run the gauntlet” one week and “run the gantlet” the next week, would anyone even notice? Would there be any consequences whatsoever? (On the other hand, people would notice if you spelled it differently in the same article or issue--though if you’re using it more than once in the same article, you’re overusing it.)

A couple of points.

One: Tongue-Tied works as a magazine copy editor. I would argue that magazines, because they publish less often and are thought of as more literary than newspapers, have less to gain from across-the-board usage rules. A daily newspaper has an interest in keeping basic points of style consistent -- it's a credibility issue for readers. Folks study the newspaper to find out where we fouled up.

Two: I hate to use the slippery slope argument, but I'll dust it off here just for kicks. If you allow misuse (admittedly, of a somewhat arbitrary distinction), where do you draw the line? What usages won't we ever allow? What ones will we allow sometimes? What ones aren't that important? I would hate to see the difference between literally and figuratively lost, for example.

Okay, I feel better now. Let me argue the other side for a bit.

One: The slippery slope argument is bogus. Any copy editor makes distinctions just like that all the time. If you're attuned to the language and its flow, you can't make changes willy-nilly and expect writers or readers to respect you. You have to be both a grammar enforcer and an interested reader.

A lot of usage books will tell you to replace the word "like" with "such as" in sentences like this one. But you can kill a sentence with that extra syllable. I only recently overcame my reluctance to allow the "like" to stay. I found the colloquial voice -- in rare circumstances -- to be worth it.

Two: I started "Copy Massage" as a reaction against blogs that make too much of points like (there, I did it again) gantlet / gauntlet. You can fill a blog with such nitpicks, and you can become the next grammar guru bemoaning the falling standards of our language. Good luck.

I don't want to do that. Misuse of language does interest me; a large part of my job involves fixing mistakes, after all. But I find the wider field of editing, journalism and related issues much more attractive. That's why I named this blog "Copy Massage," as opposed to "Copy Hacking" or "Copy Perfection."

I have a great deal of sympathy for Tongue-Tied. We may not be on the same page, but we're reading from the same chapter.