Archive | June, 2011

Don’t sweat the small stuff

12 Jun

Does that title seem like an odd thing for a copy-editing intern to say?

Before I started working, I would’ve balked at the idea of letting the “small stuff” go. But, as I gain more experience during my summer internship, I’m re-evaluating exactly what it means to be a copy editor in an industry where the desks keep shrinking.

Metaphorically speaking, that is.

Because, like it or not, we’re doing more than ever as copy editors. And we can sit around and complain about it and think about how things used to be, or we can face reality and adapt.

For instance, I asked my supervisor about correcting sentences for sequence of tenses, as I’ve been taught. (John Bremner education, FTW.) His response? “We don’t really worry about that anymore.” The same for compound modifiers. Unless leaving out the hyphen would really confuse the reader, it’s not the place we should really be focusing our energy. And headline breaks, too, don’t matter as much as they used to.

Double entendres like this, however, are still very, very bad.

Does this mean that the final products we’re producing aren’t as good or polished as they used to be? Probably. But is it the end of the world? Probably not.

We’re in the industry of communicating. Part of the reason we have things like AP style is to provide readers with consistency and thus aid their understanding of the message we’re trying to communicate. But, at the end of the day, if we goof up and let a style point slip by or don’t get a comma in every spot it needs to go, I think it’s alright. I guarantee the readers probably won’t notice.

Except this baby. That's one astute looking baby.

So where should we be focusing our energy? For me, some of the most important areas include:

  • Basic facts — This includes things like names, addresses, making sure numbers add up, dates, etc. Getting the facts wrong not only defeats the purpose of trying to communicate something that people should or want to know, it makes your organization look bad. To help with this, know what’s going on in the city where you work. I’ve caught several factual errors because I’d heard a conflicting report somewhere else first.
  • Word use — If you read a word and get a feeling that something isn’t quite right, look up the definition. If you’re publishing words with connotations that differ from what you really want to express, you’re misleading the reader. Accuracy is king.
  • Sentence structure — If you have to read a sentence two or three times before you understand what they reporter is trying to say, that’s a problem. I’m a fan of short, simple sentences in newspaper articles, and I’m not afraid to start chopping lengthy ones up.

Of course, I think that it’s all still important.  Good story structure and trimming unnecessary wording are also some areas I pay attention to, but not as much as I’d like.

In the end, it’s about balancing what we wish we could do with what we can actually do during our shifts. It means abandoning some areas we really used to care about, yes. But it also means focusing more than ever on what makes the most sense to our readers instead of getting caught up in the minutiae of grammar and style.

UPDATE: My last piece for my ACES internship was recently published. I wrote about diversity and loaded language in the media. Check it out! Also, I highly recommend this internship to anyone who’s looking to make some good contacts in the industry. I got to research some interesting trends, my boss was wonderful, and I set my own hours.