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Editing matters

25 Nov

Wow. I definitely took a long hiatus from blogging. It wasn’t intentional. I worked full time over the summer and jumped straight from that into a hectic semester.

I’d like to get back into the swing of things, and I’m starting with a blog makeover. I’ve already updated my look. Next up is adding my current resume and samples of what I’ve been working on this semester.

For my first post back, I’m cheating a little bit. Below is an essay I wrote about editing for a scholarship. I think that it captures my philosophy on editing well, and I’d like to share it with more people than just the five members of the ACES scholarship committee.

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Everyone loves the glory of a byline. It’s true that most people don’t become journalists to become famous — there can only be so many David Carrs and Hunter S. Thompsons, after all. But getting a little recognition for your hard work is, quite simply, nice. Whenever I see my name in print, I always feel a little shiver of satisfaction run through my body — I wrote this, and everyone who reads it knows that. The proof is on the page.

It's probably best that we don't have more than one Hunter S. Thompson anyway.

Copy editors, on the other hand, don’t get this journalistic perk. And while most people know what role a reporter plays on a publication, they often have no idea what a copy editor does. Or they write them off as glorified spellcheckers, a task that could be easily — and cheaply — handled by a computer program. I’ll admit that, when I first heard about copy editors, I didn’t value them too highly. For me, to be a journalist was to be a reporter. So that’s what I decided to be.

And yet many people wouldn’t even read a story if it weren’t for a copy editor. An editor did, after all, write the headline that catches the reader’s eye and the deck that draws them further into the article. Other readers might question a writer’s and publication’s credibility if they were to run across a glaring grammatical error or misspelling, but, thanks to copy editors, those mistakes should be few and far between. And those subheads that break an article up into more readable — and less formidable — chunks? They were probably the work of a copy editor as well.

Unfortunately, this was also the work of a copy editor.

I discovered these truths, among others, in my first editing class. Editing, I found out, meshed well with my natural attention to detail and eye for organization. Writing headlines helped me develop a creative side that I never knew I had. These developments, coupled with the constant stress I was feeling in my reporting class, caused me to start considering copy editing as a viable future career. But I still had lingering doubts about this path — did it somehow make me less of a journalist? Was I the only person who preferred editing to writing?

These doubts began to fade as I continued to explore copy editing. Editors aren’t lesser journalists simply because they aren’t out in the field getting their hands dirty. They still exercise news judgment every night as they evaluate the reliability of sources. And check to see if reporters have represented multiple points of view. And ensure that stories have logical, effective flows.

Good editors are the dictionaries of the newsroom, striving to cultivate strong vocabularies and sharp spelling skills. But, more importantly, they’re the newsroom encyclopedias as well. They know a little bit about everything that’s going on in the world and in the newsroom. After all, they need to be able to speak comfortably about a variety of topics with everyone from reporters to photographers to production managers.

That's a lot of information, my friend.

Good editors are also a publication’s last line of defense. It’s their job to prevent everything from plagiarized content to a misspelled name — which could actually upset some readers more than plagiarism — from making it into the final version of a publication. This defense barrier is becoming increasingly important as more and more people online claim the title of journalist. Credibility is still a key advantage of professional publications. And copy editors must remain vigilant in order to hold on to that advantage — as publication turnarounds continue to shrink, mistakes and lapses in judgment are bound to increase.

Finally, good editors are stern yet gentle taskmasters.  They must adhere to the rules of style and grammar and their informed opinions while still respecting a writer’s voice and vision. I recently read something on Twitter that has stuck with me. The person wrote that the best compliment she’d ever received on her editing was when a reporter told her that she had made the article sound how the writer had wanted it to sound in the first place. A good editor does not make an article his or hers but rather the best version of what the reporter wrote.

A good editor is many things, and I’m far from all of them. But I know that, with time and practice, I will improve that skill set. I’m not scared to go into journalism, despite the cries that it’s a dying field. The old business model of journalism is gone, yes. But people want more information than ever before. And I want to be there to make sure they get the clearest, most accurate news possible.

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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.

ACES article!

1 Apr

My internship with ACES is almost over. Here’s an article I wrote a couple of months back about editing and checklists that was recently posted on the website. I have another, about an editor who works for Travel Portland, that should run in the next newsletter. And I’ll be starting my last piece, about editing and loaded language, in the next week or so.

This was a really great experience. I highly recommend  that any student who will be a junior or senior next year and wants to make some contacts in the copy editing world apply for next year’s internship.

 

Cultivating a culture of ‘mean’

22 Mar

The Internet is a wonderful, wacky place. It can do great things, like help fuel opposition movements in Egypt or make it easier to raise money for the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan.

But the Internet has a darker side too, one which often manifests when videos or photos start to go viral. Take the latest online singing sensation, Rebecca Black. Black has been all over the news lately and the music video for her song “Friday”, which started it all, now has more than 30 million hits on YouTube.

But Black isn’t famous because she put out a really fantastic song. She’s famous for the opposite reason — the song is terrible and everyone’s passing it along as a joke. Just looking at some of the comments on YouTube it’s hard to believe how mean some people can be… “I weep for the future of mankind”…”Like AIDS for the ears”…and so on. (These are some of the nicer ones.)

Star or victim?

This behavior isn’t really anything new. People have been saying mean things and making fun of other people behind their backs forever. What is different is the scale and ease of this bullying. Anyone can e-mail a link to a video, post it on their Facebook or sign up with some anonymous username and start posting nasty remarks, secure in the knowledge that they’ll probably never be called out on it.

Some argue that the fame and fortune that accompany these viral video stars more than makes up for the hurt feelings that made them famous. But does it? Rebecca Black is only 13 years old. In a recent interview she said the comments don’t hurt her feelings anymore but I have to wonder if she was telling the truth.

He's rich now, guys! It's totally fine.

I’m not sure if there is a solution for this cyber-bullying problem. The thing that makes the Internet so wonderful in the first place — its universal access — is  what makes this culture of mean possible. And I know that I’m part of the problem. Hell, I made fun of Rebecca Black too and I love surfing Buzzfeed, looking for the next Joe Schmo I can laugh at.

But I am interested in the role that the media plays in all of this. To me, it’s an oftentimes conflicting stance. One moment, I’ll see a website or TV news station playing the latest humiliating video for everyone to see. The next, they’re digging up the person in that video and giving them a platform to show the world they’re real and they’re hurt.

Sounds like a good thing, right? I’m not so sure. These interviews might help change public perception, but I think that most people have already decided how they want to perceive somebody and have moved on. Plus, they inevitably spur a new wave of people to go online, view the video and spew out more negativity.

Remember her?

Honestly, I think the media should just ignore  viral videos. “But the people want to know!” you might cry. My response? They can easily go online and watch the videos themselves. In fact, they probably already have. We have many more important things to cover than contributing to online bullying.

As for monitoring comments, most news websites already have some kind of feature that helps with that. Another interesting idea is one I saw on The Missourian’s website. There, they make people register with their full names as usernames in order to leave comments and have a strong policy against uncivil comments. I’m sure people can just give a fake name to get around this, but it might at least give some pause to cyberbullies.

 

 

Another ACES article!

4 Feb

I wrote this one a while back, but it just got posted today. Check it out to learn more about a stylebook for the world of digital media.

http://www.copydesk.org/news/features/2011/yahoo-style-guide/

‘Up in arms’ about violent clichés

23 Jan

I was inspired to write this after reading a blog entry on Yahoo!

I agree with the point that no journalist needs to rethink using violent clichés because those clichés inspire violence itself. That’s just as ridiculous as the people who called Sarah Palin out for her “cross hairs” campaign image, claiming it inspired Jared Lee Loughner to go on his shooting spree in Tucson.

Maybe the campaign was in poor taste, but it was not murder-inducing. The real reason Palin got dragged into the spotlight again? She’s ratings gold; people love it when she opens her mouth because they never know what she’s going to say next.

Am I on TV a lot? You betcha!

I realize this might seem a little hypocritical since I’m mentioning Palin myself right now, but I encourage media in the future to really pause and think it over before they decide to use a vague connection to a story to mention or interview her in the future. Is there someone else whose opinion is more relevant? Odds are there is. Talking to the same source over and over again might be good for revenue, but it’s not necessarily responsible journalism.

It’s actually something that happens a lot in journalism, even on my school’s paper. It’s easy to get comfortable with automatically reaching out to a certain source. And maybe that person is the best authority on a topic, but there are a lot of people out there with a lot of expertise between them. It never hurts to get a new voice in the media.

Getting back to the subject of the Yahoo! post, although I disagree with the reason some journalists have decided to review the violent phrases they use, I’m glad they’ve decided to do it.

Clichéd writing is lazy writing. Stock phrases sound good because we’ve heard them so many times, but they’re not effective and sometimes they’re not even accurate. Sure, politics are pretty nasty, but are they really comparable to killing and warfare? Journalism isn’t just about getting the facts right; it’s about getting the feeling of a story right too. Phrasing and voice can take a backseat when we want to cover a story quickly, but they shouldn’t.

These babies, however, definitely should be in the backseat.

I’m just as guilty as everyone else here. While I don’t necessarily use a lot of violent clichés, I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of using trite phrases before. But when you struggle to make a saying fit in your headline or story, that’s a sign that the wording isn’t right for the piece. Trying to use it anyway will not only mislead your audience, it will in a sense desensitize your readers to wording that in another setting might have been really powerful. How many times have we heard about a candidate being “under fire”? Fairly often. So much so, it doesn’t seem so dangerous when we see that same phrase in an article about the war in Afghanistan even though the two situations don’t really have anything in common.

I try to stay mindful of using the right words when I write as a journalist and I encourage others to do the same. Fresh writing is good writing and it’s definitely more interesting to read.

It’s the little things

16 Jan

I really enjoy copy editing. In fact, I’m looking to pursue it as a career after I graduate college. Recently, I’ve come across a couple of things that have reminded me why, despite spellcheck, grammar check and similar software, it’s still a good idea to keep a copy editor around.

1) I noticed this on the front page of my university’s website. It’s a story about a professor who maps internet censorship.

What caught my attention in this instance is the hed for this article: Access Denied. There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself. It plays off of a phrase that ties into the article’s topic and would have been fine in print. Online, however, it doesn’t work for a couple of reasons.

  1. In terms of SEO, no one searching for an article about global internet censorship is going to use this phrase.
  2. It makes me think that my access is being denied to something or that there’s some kind of computer error and the real content can’t load.

Number two is the biggie here. I had to read the hed and subhead two or three times before I finally understood what was going on.  You can’t count on most readers being that patient.

2) I definitely feel for my fellow Big 12 school on this one. This was obviously an error that was simply overlooked before the paper went to print. The mistake in question? The title for a break box accompanying a story about rape and sexual abuse was supposed to read “Who can not give consent.” This ran instead:

Ouch. You really hate to see something like that happen. It’s an error that only a human could catch. Grammatically, nothing is wrong with it. Mistakes like these remind me why, although it sometimes seems excessive, four or five different people look over a page before we send it to print.

3) This next item is computer generated and concerns an issue I’ve seen pop up multiple times. It also brings into play copy editors’ ever-expanding duties – it’s not just about commas and homonyms, folks, but context, layout and general attentiveness as well.  The item? An ad-article combo that appeared on Glenn Beck’s website shortly after the shooting rampage in Tucson that left six dead.

Apparently, the random image generator on Beck’s website paired a photo of the pundit with a gun next to a quote about controlling violence in America. Clearly, this didn’t happen on purpose but the fact remains that it did happen. There’s no way that a computer can be programmed to know that something like this isn’t exactly kosher.  I also recently spied a travel agency ad for trips to Australia in an article about the flooding in Brisbane. Yikes.

I guess, in the end, it sometimes seems like copy editing isn’t as important as it used to be. I disagree. It’s still important, just in new and changing ways. I mean, someone’s got to keep Glenn Beck from looking like a complete failure as a human being. Right?