Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Copy editing

Learning How Editing Can Make You a Better Writer

I’ve been getting to write more stories for work, which has been great in terms of developing my reporting and writing skills. I’ve found that line and copy editing stories for Poynter Online throughout the past year has made me a better writer.

It’s taught me to write tighter sentences, triple-check my facts and cut out unnecessary information. It’s also helped me improve my ability to conceptualize an idea and see it through the reporting process. I’m now more readily able to take a big idea and find a focus for it. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned how helpful it is to find a focus and talk about a story with an editor on the front-end as opposed to writing the story and then having an editor tell you after the fact that the story is “all over the place.”

Here are some of my recent Poynter Online stories:


Grammarians, Language Lovers Unite at 13th Annual ACES Conference

“Who loves semicolons?” a grammarian asked while teaching a workshop at the American Copy Editors Society conference last weekend. A room full of hands shot up. “Woohoo!” one audience member yelled.

It was an appropriate set-up for the discussion that followed — a discussion rooted in the nuts and bolts of grammar and in the belief that the structure of sentences and words matters. Talk of multiple singular antecedents, parallelisms and subject/verb agreement led to questions and concerns over a perceived “laxness” in the world of grammar.

Is it OK if we split infinitives? What about beginning sentences with “but” or “and”? How about using sentence fragments (sparingly?) It’s OK to do all of these things in moderation, said Wichita Eagle Deputy Copy Desk Chief Lisa McLendon, who led the workshop.

Some “rules” aren’t so bendable, though. Subjects and verbs should agree, modifiers shouldn’t be misplaced and participles shouldn’t dangle.

Seeing McLendon and audience members become impassioned by the discussion made me chuckle at times, but also made me realize how important it is to have a group of professionals who care about preserving the English language. We need people who cringe when they see misspellings in menus, who take pictures of grammatically incorrect signs that say “Veteran’s Memorial Park” and who save writers from confusing “who” from “whom” and “lie” from “lay.”

Having edited my college newspaper and lots of stories on Poynter Online, I can understand why newsrooms need copy editors, and I can’t help but worry when I hear about them getting laid off.

Just last week, The Baltimore Sun let go of many of its copy editors, including the esteemed John McyIntyre. Fewer copy editors (and reporters, photographers, etc.,) in the newsroom often results in fewer attendants at conferences such at ACES. Chris Wienandt, ACES president, made it known that the society lost thousands of dollars by holding this year’s conference. The society also opened the conference up to more non-journalists this year.

Some of the estimated 235 attendees (down more than 100 from previous years) were from trade publications, universities and even the CIA. Others I talked to were simply interested in editing or had recently gotten laid off and wanted a chance to surround themselves with fellow language lovers.

As a copy editor, I valued what these language lovers had to say. And as a writer, I’ve always appreciated getting calls or pointers from them.

–“You put a comma before and after Joe Smith’s son’s name. That would mean that’s his only son. Is that true?”

–You said ‘While preparing for her presentation, she only talked to people who had been affected by the tragedy.’ I’m guessing she probably did more than just talk to people while preparing for the project, so we should make that “While preparing for her presentation, she talked only to people who had been affected by the tragedy.”


They’re subtle changes, but they matter to copy editors and to readers who are sticklers for good grammar. They matter to me, too. I’m a “copy editor” by title, but I don’t always consider myself one in the sense that I do a lot more than copy edit in my current job. I edit stories from beginning to end, then copy edit them, and I write, do Web production, etc.

I’ve always enjoyed reporting more than copy editing, but I think that in many ways, being a copy editor can make you a better writer. The job teaches you to pay attention to words, sentence structure, details, facts and more. It’s helped me to clear clutter from my own writing, craft SEO-friendly headlines and more diligently check my facts. One of my journalism friends recently told me, “I think it helps, actually, to write for a few years and then edit, and then write again.”

I’d agree. Working as both an editor and a writer also helps you understand how different departments in the newsroom work, and makes you better able to advocate for colleagues on both ends of the production cycle.

If I didn’t have any editing experience, I probably wouldn’t have as fully enjoyed the “smackdown” between Merrill Perlman, former director of copy desks at The New York Times and Bill Walsh, copy chief for national and foreign news at The Washington Post at the end of the conference. The smackdown involved an Everlast T-shirt, red boxing gloves and a heated debate over, yes, style points.

One point of debate: Should we say “The real-estate agent bought an ice-cream cone” or “The real estate agent bought an ice cream cone” sans hyphens? (Walsh said yes to the hyphens, while Perlman and others said no.)

The crowd joined in. One woman who was passionate about hyphens, or a lack thereof, shouted, “AP finally dropped the hyphen in ‘teenaged’ – YES!”

These kinds of exclamations are commonplace among copy editors, especially when you get a group of them together. I may not always share the same level of excitement, and I can’t say I love semicolons, but I sure appreciate those who do.

Story Behind the ‘Copy Editor’s Lament’ Song

Christopher Ave, Credit = Tim Barker

Christopher Ave, Credit = Tim Barker

Earlier this week my editor sent me a link to a song that one of Poynter’s faculty members found via Twitter. After hearing the “Copy Editor’s Lament” song, I couldn’t help but want to write about it.

I interviewed Christopher Ave, the man who wrote and recorded it, and wrote the piece shortly thereafter. I felt as though I could relate to the song and to Ave’s reason for writing/recording it, which made the story that much easier to write.

I especially like one of Ave’s quotes: “A lot of us in journalism sort of chuckle at copy editors’ slavish devotion to style, but you know what? They can really save your butt.” So true.

You can read the story here:

Christopher Ave has publicly referred to himself as a human safety net who double-checks facts, corrects punctuation and fixes grammatical errors.

He’s not a copy editor, though.

He’s a journalist and musician who wrote and recorded a first-person song, “Copy Editor’s Lament,” about a copy editor being laid off.

“AP Stylebook is my bible/Helped me stop a suit for libel/But nothing ensures my survival now/And I don’t know what I’ll do/After I’m through/Killing my last adjective,” he sings.

Ave, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s political editor, said the song isn’t a tribute to a particular copy editor, but rather a musical testament to the value of all copy editors — those who have been laid off and those who are still in newsrooms.


Seeking Resources for Copy Editors

Pretty soon I’m going to be entering the world of copy editing. I have copy editing experience, but I want to read and learn more about the profession. Right now I’m reading The Copy-Editing and Headline Handbook by Barbara G. Ellis. (Sounds real fun, I know!) It’s actually pretty interesting. Ellis goes into a lot of detail about headline counts, writing and editing captions, transition words and forbidden terms in text, and more.

I asked a couple of friends who are copy editors what they would suggest reading. One of them recommended the following books, some of which I’ve read:

Woe Is I and Words Fail Me, both by Patricia T. O’Connor.

The Elephants of Style and Lapsing Into a Comma, both by Bill Walsh of The Washington Post.

Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark.

She also suggested reading the American Copy Editors Society’s forums at www.copydesk.org and visiting Testy Copy Editors at www.testycopyeditors.com.

Another copy editor said that once you know the basics and are familiar with the AP Stylebook, copy editing is mostly a learned-on-the-job skill. He added:

If you have a good ear for writing, it helps you decide when a grammar rule can be bent or when a writer’s gimmick just isn’t working. Basically, readers should not notice the writing style, or any gimmickry or any of the mechanics of what they are reading – all they should have to think about is the subject of the story.

Check out a variety of stuff: How effectively Domino uses blurb-style writing; how The New Yorker’s writers take a complicated subject and boil it down to 10 inches; how sharp and witty Entertainment Weekly’s headlines are – but not so sharp and witty that the story itself is a letdown; or, how The New York Times Magazine’s stories tend to be about 15 inches too long, or how The Observer’s stuff doesn’t quite dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.

Or, as far as books are concerned, how you can just sail effortlessly through Dean Koontz’s and JK Rowling’s novels, while every single word in Anthony Swofford’s or Annie Proulx’s works has a visceral punch. Polar opposites, but all rewarding.

Well said. I also like visiting The Grammar Girl’s Web site from time to time. Eats Shoots and Leaves and The Elements of Style are good resources, too.

What copy editing resources would you recommend?

Responsibilities Rise as Copy Desks Shrink

Mallary Tenore/Poynter Online

My editor asked me to write an article about “the future of copy editing” last week after hearing talk of copy desks shrinking nationwide. She said she thought I would be especially interested in the topic, given that I am going to spend the next year copy editing for Poynter Online and News University. (I’m going to keep freelancing on the side, but my primary duties will revolve around editing.)

I agreed, but wondered how I would approach the article. “Future of” stories can be tough to write because you have to approach them with a clear focus so you don’t end up with a simple round-up of people’s guesses as to what the future will be. I didn’t want to write an article that was preachy or not grounded in research and reporting, so I made some phone calls and spent five days talking with copy editors, top editors and others for the story. It took me longer than usual to find a focus for the piece, and it wasn’t until after I wrote the first draft and sat down with my editor that I realized what I wanted the message to be. I conveyed this message in the nut graf of the story:

Those in charge of hiring copy editors aren’t so quick to call copy editing a dying profession, but they know change is on the horizon. The future they envision for copy editors includes a merging of responsibilities, a greater focus on editing blogs and multimedia and an understanding that even with fewer resources, the basic fundamentals of copy editing still need to be upheld. Outsourcing, meanwhile, has reminded them of the importance of knowing a coverage area at the local level so they can catch mistakes that might otherwise find their way onto sites like “Regret the Error.”

The stakes are no doubt high for copy editors, who are the last folks to see a story before it gets published. If a mistake slips through, the copy desk is usually blamed. Now, there are fewer people to blame, but greater responsibilities to be had. Copy editors are being asked to do page layout and design in many newspapers, meaning their sole focus is not editing. Some copy editors I talked to for the story said they fear that accuracy could be jeopardized with fewer people to catch mistakes.

Outsourcing copy editors is another risky undertaking, they say, because outsourced workers won’t know the communities being written about. I’m learning more and more that to be a copy editor, you have to know a community as well as, if not better than, reporters do. Copy editors need to know how to spell city council members’ names, and they need to know which streets run parallel and which ones intersect. They realize the value of such details. It’s their careful attention to detail and accuracy that make copy editors such valuable assets to the newsroom. They’re the unsung heroes of news operations, the folks who never get a byline but who “save” reporters and editors from making themselves look silly or careless.

In reporting the copy editing story, I found that many copy editors don’t think the newsroom understands all the work they do. John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun, alluded to this in my interview with him when he asked: “Will copy editors find it within themselves to immerge from their customary anomyinity and make a persuasive case for the value of what they do? If not, then they’re going to lose out.” I didn’t have room for this quote in the article, but it struck me as an interesting question.

I raised a question yesterday in the comments section of my piece about the dialogue that copy editors and reporters have — or don’t: “I’ve talked to a lot of copy editors at mid to large-size papers who say they have little interaction with reporters when editing their stories,” I wrote. “Sure, assigning editors talk with reporters, but it seems like it would be smart for copy editors to do the same. Maybe then more people in the newsroom would better understand the work they do. What’s the conversation like between copy editors and reporters in your newsroom?” Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section of my story by clicking here.

The responses I’ve gotten in the comments section of the article and in personal e-mails has made me realize just how passionate copy editors are about the work they do, and how much they are trying to ensure that the value of their work will not be undermined in the future. My article didn’t reveal what the future of copy editing will be, but I hope it at least provided readers with a sense of where the future is headed. As the kicker of my article says: For now, this much is true: The stakes for copy editors aren’t getting any lower.

I’d like to continue writing copy editing stories and am open to your ideas. What questions do you have about copy editing that you’d like to see me pursue?

Heading to Dallas, Then Back to St. Petersburg

During a time when many journalists are getting laid off or leaving the industry to further their education or enter a new field, I’ve been putting out feelers for reporting jobs. I like to think that despite the difficulties the industry is facing, there is hope for young journalists who want to enter the field. I get inspired when I see more than 20 young journalists enroll in Poynter’s six-week summer program, or when I see the new class of Chips Quinn scholars talk with excitement about starting journalism internships this summer in newsrooms around the country. Sure, I’ve been known to be overly optimistic, (I was voted “most optimistic” in high school), but I try to be realistic at the same time.

Part of being realistic is realizing that today’s journalists need to be versatile — they need multimedia skills, traditional reporting and writing skills and copy editing skills. It’s this realization, in part, that led me to accept an offer today as a copy editor at The Poynter Institute. In thinking about my decision to take the position, I considered the fact that editing and reporting are not mutually exclusive. My ultimate goal is to be a reporter, but I’m looking forward to taking some time to develop my editing skills and, in turn, become a better writer.

I’ve always believed that writers need to have knowledge about a lot of different subjects, hence the reason why I was so drawn to a liberal arts education at Providence College. Editing helps you to become more knowledgeable on a variety of subjects, particularly because you have to approach whatever you read with a certain level of scrutiny. Just as reporters should be curious about the world around them, so too should editors be inquisitive and ask questions about the copy they’re editing. The copy editing I’ve done so far has helped me to become a more focused reader, pay closer attention to detail and develop a greater appreciation for facts, accuracy and truth.

It has also provided me with an opportunity to improve the writing of those whose work I edit. Every day I walk past a piece of origami paper that’s hanging on my bedroom wall. It reads: “Being a good editor is about making people better.” I wrote down this expression after hearing National Public Radio’s Ellen Weiss say it during a talk at Poynter last fall. Weiss’ simple message stuck with me because of its great meaning. I would argue that the same message applies to reporters — being a good reporter is about making people better by telling stories that give a voice to those who may otherwise remain unheard.

Of course, the best way to be a reporter is to do actual reporting. I’ve made it a goal to freelance at least one story a month while I’m at Poynter and to continue writing personal essays. (Maybe someday I’ll write that memoir I’ve been talking about …) The wonderful thing about writing is that you can do it anytime, and anywhere. For three months this summer, I’ll be reporting and writing at The Dallas Morning News, where I have a feature writing internship. I have never been to Texas before, so I’m looking forward to exploring a new city and finding story ideas in a new community. I’ve often thought that one of the greatest ways to get to know a new city is to be a reporter. As a journalist, your job forces you to talk to people in the community, ask questions and find your way after getting lost on an assignment. (Not that this has happened to me …)

As the Naughton fellow, my beat has been the journalism industry. When I go to Dallas, I’ll be immersing myself in “my beat,” and I’ll be able to bring that much more knowledge of the industry back to Poynter. I’ll head to Dallas on July 26, at which point I’ll end my Naughton fellowship at Poynter. I’ll return to the sunshine state at the beginning of November with a fresh sense of the issues newsrooms are facing and the ways in which they are maintaining hope.

You can be sure I’ll post “Word on the Street” updates between now and the end of July and that I’ll blog about my road trip to Dallas and my experiences there. Stay tuned!