Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Archive for October, 2008

Can a parrot say ‘copy edit’?

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 31, 2008

Here’s a case where actually thinking about what is being said (rather than focusing on superficial things like grammar) would have been helpful.

Language Log has an post about The Economist’s review of a book about a talking parrot. As Language Log points out, one sentence in the review stands out as being not only illogical, but possibly negating the entire premise of the book.

In explaining how the parrot seemed to be able to string phonemes together to create new words (a crucial way humans distinguish their language from that of animals), the review provides this example:

Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparenlty mixing “banana” and “cherry”).

What’s the problem here? Well, think of the most common things parrots are usually “taught” to say. “Polly wanna cracker” and “pretty bird” come to my mind immediately. Surprise! Both start with a p. Other parrots seem mighty capable of making this elusive sound without the use of fleshy human lips. By taking a simple step back and reflecting on whether this example gets the writer’s point across, a copy editor should have immediately been struck by this fact and realized that the explanation made no sense.

Language Log takes it a step further in pointing out that both the [p] and [b] are articulated with the lips, so if you can make one sound, lips or not, you should be able to make the other sound.

I’m not sure if this faulty information came straight from the book or if the reviewer just came up with an example. The worst part is that anyone who catches this error is going to write-off the content of this book. While I don’t really care that people won’t buy this whole parrot-who-can-talk story, it’s awful for the writer, whose work is probably already criticized enough from the scientific community.

While the blog rightfully blames the reviewer, I am shaking my head about how this got by copy editors. Even if the editors knew absolutely no details about how parrots mimic speech (like that having lips has nothing to do with it), the simple thought that parrots do indeed make the p sound all the time would have served them well.

Copy editors need to question every sentence. They need to wonder if it’s factual, clear, grammatical and  whether it logically makes sense. In this case, the sentence is crystal clear, grammatically intact, and it is factual in the sense that a copy editor could possibly look in the book to find this fact, or just think, “yeah, parrots don’t have lips … moving on.” But that test for logic is missing.


Advertisements

Posted in editing theory, real-life dilemmas | 1 Comment »

The nounification of ‘fail’ FTW

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 24, 2008

In high school, I used to write in leet speak all the time. When it came to writing on message boards, chatting on Instant Messenger and writing notes to my friends (hand-written notes!), I thought I was about as l337 as a person can get.

I wasn’t so into replacing every letter with a number, but I used the abbreviations, the creative punctuation and the flavor-of-the-week slang. I understood the subtle differences between lol, lololol and LOLZ. In my writing, typos were not only accepted, but encouraged. Punctuation took on totally. different. effects. All that mattered was that other leet-literate people got it.

My casual use of Internet slang and memes is probably the reason why the use of the word “fail” as a noun did not strike me as the least bit strange.

In fact, it wasn’t until I read this article in Slate’s language section that it ever occurred to me that the common online use of “fail” in constructions like “epic fail” was totally ungrammatical.

The fail meme has been around for years, but more recently, the growing popularity of blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger? and the new Failblog has brought it to the mainstream. A look quick look at the Google Trends for “epic fail” shows a steady increase from 2007 to now.

So what does “fail” in the place of “failure” say about us? What do Lolcats and leet speak and Internet memes say about the way we use language online?

The Internet is treated so differently than our other established mediums. The language that flies online is so utterly different from the language we use in print. Of course, tendencies toward leet speak are not universally applied to everything online. No one would expect online publications or news sites to use language this way, but people still feel that they can bend the rules. We especially see the trend on blogs, in chats and on message boards, which are all exclusively online. Because the Web is so fast-paced, the language mimics the medium’s manic tendencies.

I don’t believe leet speak, in any of its forms, has taken anything away from the Internet. People still take the Web seriously. They still use it to get their news and are quick to use Google when they want a quick answer. But language on the Web is definitely more fluid than the printed word and, I imagine, more fluid than the spoken word. Text on a screen is static, and online users treat it that way.

As more people go to the Web for their media fix, I don’t know what this fast-paced evolution of online language will mean for editors or writers. I imagine it will involve a lot more rule-bending, recognition that readers are extremely Web-literate and some creativity when handling the idea that “fail” is in fact a noun on the Web.

Posted in editing theory | 1 Comment »

Hear that buzzing? It’s the sound of a trendy word dying.

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 21, 2008

If you’re interested in living a greener lifestyle and reducing your carbon footprint, why not dabble in DIY projects or become a locavore?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you might need to brush up on your buzz words.

Buzz words are everywhere. From business-speak to lawyer-ese to subculture slang, it’s hard to resist the temptation of using trendy buzzwords to liven up your writing.

First, there’s the problem of making your writing sound outdated. Using an on-the-rise buzz word might seem cool as you’re writing it, but the novelty wears off quickly with readers. The word might just be the flavor of the week. In a month, it’ll seem stale.

Next, there’s the problem of keeping your writing clear. Buzz words are new and, therefore, unfamiliar to a lot of people. Jargon is obviously a no-no because, by definition, it is not going to be understood by the average reader. But even some commonly used words should still be avoided. For example, I say “DIY” all the time, but I recognize that it’s slang. Although the well-established DIY subculture has been around since the 1970s, it has become a buzz word in recent years as the environmental movement has become more mainstream in response to global warming. I wouldn’t want to use “DIY” in a story today because it still carries that trendy sound, and I don’t know if it will stand the test of time and be embraced by the public.

Of course, some buzz words have to leak into news stories eventually as they become more accepted. Technology terms like “e-mail” and “Internet” were likely buzz words at some point,

Just look at how foreign-sounding this guy makes the Internet sound. I assume the word hadn’t become standardized yet when this CBC news segment aired since the reporter doesn’t even tack on a “the” before it.

Should the reporter not have used the word “Internet”? Of course he should have. It was necessary to the story. If I was doing a story about DIY culture, I’d call it what it is. But casually name-dropping trendy words in your copy is an easy trap to fall into, and it’s important to be well aware of the potential consequences.

If you’re not sure if a word you want to use is a buzz word, BuzzWhack is a useful tool.

And, in case you’re still in the dark about the first sentence in this post:

Green – adj. relating to or being an environmentalist political movement (from Merriam-Webster)
Carbon footprint – n. a measure of the impact a person’s activities have on the environment, and in particular climate change (from carbonfootprint.com)
DIY – n. short for “do it yourself” (from Merriam-Webster)
locavore – n. one whose diet consists primarily of locally-produced food (from BuzzWhack)

Now you can decide for yourself whether you’d like to embrace these eco-friendly words.

Posted in editing yourself | Leave a Comment »

Adding ID to injury

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 17, 2008

The Gainesville Sun ran an article this week about a guy who had both of his arms broken by the same man in two separate attacks. The article really makes you feel bad for the guy. He apparently had an argument with the alleged attacker, who came at him with a brick one day and a metal pipe the next. After the second attack, the victim went to police and discovered that both of his arms were broken.

The strange thing here (other than the story itself) is that the story included the victim’s address. Newspapers usually include addresses of people in cops stories because they’re a good way of identifying a person when most of your information comes from the police and you don’t have much else to go on. Victims of assault, however, usually aren’t identified by address. It brings the potential for unwanted attention to someone who has already been put through an ordeal.

While the paper shouldn’t pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of anyone, it would be safe to treat this man as a victim after having both of his arms broken. Although the police have arrested the suspect, it’s entirely possible that some other people have a score to settle with this human punching bag, and the paper has some responsibility to protect him.

How far does that responsibility go? Should we not identify any sort of victim? What makes someone a victim? People who have been robbed are certainly victims, but I don’t see  much harm in identifying where they live. I know SPJ’s ethics guidelines say to be cautious about identifying victims of sex crimes, but what about other victims of assault? The code didn’t mention that issue specifically, but I feel like this would fall under the “minimize harm” section. This guy was a victim of a violent crime; I think it would have been smart to err on the side of caution.

Posted in ethics, real-life dilemmas | Leave a Comment »

Bailout to the rescue

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 14, 2008

Are copy editors to blame for the public’s perception of the $700 billion financial rescue plan?

The plan has been called a bailout for weeks, and more recently it’s been referred to as a rescue. Has the change in semantics affected public opinion?

Kathy Schenck points out that “bailout” carries some negative connotations, while “rescue” sounds much nobler. I have to agree with her; even the first time I heard the bill referred to as a “bailout,” I thought it sounded a little opinion-tinged. But, to be safe, I checked out what the the ultimate objective authority, the dictionary, had to say.

From Merriam-Webster:

Bail out- v. to rescue from financial distress

Rescue- v. to free from confinement, danger, or evil

“Bailout” certainly seems like the appropriate word, but I still think that it carries a negative connotation. To me, when you bail someone out, you’re giving them a handout. You’re helping them out  when they’ve gotten themselves in deep trouble, and they probably don’t even deserve your help. As in, “I’ll bail you out this one time, but you owe me big. Don’t expect me to help you out like this again.”

Maybe that’s just me, but this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talks about how the b-word might have influenced people’s perceptions, and consequently, the House’s initial rejection of the bill.

A rescue, on the other hand, is the ultimate form of selflessness and nobleness. Helpless animals and children need rescuing; drunk friends across town with no cash and no way of getting home need bailing out. Heroes rescue; annoyed roommates bail out.

I’d like to think of the Wall Street bigwigs as somewhere between helpless critters and inebriated college students.

Headline writers weren’t wrong in using the word “bailout.” It is, afterall, probably more accurate than “rescue” because its meaning deals specifically with finance. But writers should never underestimate how a simple word can shape a person’s perception.

Posted in headlines, in the news, real-life dilemmas | 1 Comment »

When the ‘A’ in Q&A is a big mess

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 7, 2008

I talk a lot about writing the way you speak, but what about speaking the way you write?

I’m not a fan of stories in Q&A format. When they’re done right, I enjoy reading them, but they can be cumbersome to edit. You can only really edit the source’s answers for spelling and punctuation, and you can’t do much about style. Q&A only works when you have a really eloquent source who speaks in complete sentences and stays on topic.

Interviewing a TV news anchor or professional public speaker might elicit really clear utterances, but I can’t think of many more people whose interviews would be coherent if transcribed directly. The problem is that speech doesn’t translate well onto paper. People repeat themselves. They start a sentence one way and trail off without finishing. They twist around their sentences into passive voice, and they don’t honor subject-verb agreement.

Slate has an article about trying to diagram Sarah Palin’s sentences from her recent interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

While the article acknowledges that diagramming is normally reserved for the written word, it criticizes Palin’s incoherent ramblings and asks whether we should hold our politicians, who are used to having to think (and speak) on their feet, to a higher standard.

And it’s true. Palin’s spoken ramblings were already difficult to understand. Reading a transcription or trying to diagram her sentences is nearly impossible. And yet, I encounter Q&A stories that ramble on like this all the time. Writing a traditional story and picking a few choice quotes that get the source’s point across well would do these stories much more justice.

Let’s just be thankful that Katie Couric’s interviews don’t get transcribed directly into a print story.

Posted in editing yourself, style | 3 Comments »

Cliches can muck up your pristine headlines

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 3, 2008

Cliches are probably enemy No. 1 when it comes to editing copy. But they’re especially heinous in headlines. I’ll admit that writing headlines is probably the copy-editing task I struggle most with, and when that cliched phrase pops into mind, it just seems like such an easy way out.

Next time you’re worried that you’re about to fall into the cliche trap, reading this post from Headsup might remind you how ridiculous they can look.

Just how many people can come up with the exact same headline about the Wall Street bailout? Well, quite a few if they’re all relying on a pop culture reference and a question headline.

So at the Alligator, we have a list of blacklisted words that everyone agrees should not pop up in our stories unless in a direct quote or in some other unavoidable circumstance. Among those words are “sustainable,” “green” and “community.” (Bonus factor: It is very likely for all three of these words to potentially show up in the same story.) These tired old words sound nice but have little real meaning or weight. They’re banned from news copy (we let columns and features slide), and of course, banned from headlines.

I’ve found the list pretty useful and have noticed that everyone tries to abide by it for the most part, which isn’t easy considering how difficult it is to pick up on cliches in your own copy. A phrase never seems cliche when you use it. To solve that problem, I suggest writing down your own list of blacklisted headlines. Scribble down any cliche when you see it. When it’s time to write your headline, that list of unusable phrases is a visible reminder that you’re not as clever as you thought.

Posted in editing yourself, headlines | Leave a Comment »