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Archive for the ‘editing yourself’ Category

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First, there’s the problem of making your writing sound outdated.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.

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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.

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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.

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One fewer mistake

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 19, 2008

The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability has an environmental challenge called One Less Car. The details of the challenge are not so important, but its name is useful for a lesson in another silly grammar rule. Someone mentioned to me recently that it should be called “One Fewer Car” in accordance with the AP Stylebook.

Although the name might sound completely legit, it breaks the fewer versus less rule. The rule states that you should use “fewer” when you can count the items you’re describing and “less” when you can’t. In this example, you can count cars, so “fewer” would be the correct word to use. The easiest way I remember it is with the phrase “less gas, fewer gallons,” which I have posted next to my desk.  It’s a mantra of sorts.

So I think the less/fewer rule is a nice guideline for news copy. I don’t love it, but I don’t mind it. I also don’t think that it should be applied to catchy slogans that would sound ridiculous otherwise. While “One Fewer Car” doesn’t sound totally awful, “One Less Car” has a much nicer ring to it. And take the recent Gardasil vaccine campaign. Its slogan is “One Less,” as in, one less woman to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. This phrase wouldn’t have quite as much punch it if were “One Fewer.”

I’ve heard people even apply the rule to the 10 items or less line at the grocery store. Bill Walsh wrote a mini-rant about people being sticklers over the wording of the sign. I believe his argument, though, was that the sign could be taken to mean “10 items or less [than that],” in which case the use of “less” would be appropriate.

Whether it’s grammatically correct is beside the point. What’s more important here, again, is the way people use it. The fact that “less” has been used in the grocery store line for so many years makes its use in that context perfectly acceptable, in my opinion. The reason “10 items of fewer” sounds awful to the ear is that you’re so unaccustomed to hearing it.  Someone who injects the word “fewer” into phrases and slogans where it’s technically correct but uncommon nonetheless sounds out of touch.

So in your run-of-the-mill story about attendance at a county fair, saying, “Fewer people attended this year,” is perfectly acceptable. But trying to pass off a phrase as ungrammatical when it simply sounds nicer that way is just plain silly.

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Keep the online grammar police at bay

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 16, 2008

Correcting news copy and correcting a person’s speech are two very different things. One of my pet peeves is when people correct me when I speak. I think most would agree that it’s pretty rude. But what about correcting a person’s online grammar? Should the same leniency be given to the errors and misspellings on a blog?

The Baltimore Sun had a nice little article on online grammar police. I don’t consider myself a grammar cop, and I try to look past mistakes. But many people are not so forgiving.

The writing on your blog should reflect your voice, but that’s no excuse for poor grammar. People are quick to dismiss what you have to say when you have multiple misspellings, little or no punctuation and way more ellipses than necessary.

People should take the writing on their Facebook profiles as seriously as they take their resumes. And I don’t think I need to go into the importance of good grammar and usage in an e-mail to your boss. If you’ve found yourself guilty of not editing yourself online, here are five tips that will make your posts, e-mails and other online writings look that much better.

  1. Spell things out. You aren’t getting charged by the character, so don’t try to abbrev evry wrd. It not only looks sloppy, but it’s also hard to read.
  2. Use consistent capitalization. If you really don’t want to use proper capitalization in your Twitter updates, no one will kill you. But do keep in consistent. don’t do This. AnD dEfiNatEly DoN’t do ThIs (It’s so eighth grade). In longer writing, like on your blog, use regular capitalization rules.
  3. Use apostrophes appropriately. This seems easy, but apostrophe misuse is one of the biggest mistakes I see online. Don’t use apostrophes to make words plural (unless the word is a numeral or a letter). Do use apostrophes to make a noun possessive.
  4. Limit your exclamation points. Ask yourself, “Would I actually exclaim this if I was saying it out loud?” If the answer is yes, use one exclamation point. Use two if your verbal exclamation would be followed by a fist-punch in the air (in other words, very sparingly).
  5. Read what you just wrote. Don’t click that publish button so quickly. Mistakes act as a distraction from what’s really important: your content. You don’t want your first comment to read, “You spelled ‘administration’ wrong.” You want it to say, “I wholeheartedly disagree with your assessment of the administration, and here’s why.”

For people to take your writing seriously, you have to take it seriously, too. That means editing it to the best of your ability. I won’t judge you, but those online grammar police might, and you don’t want to get on their bad side.

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