Not much time today — the biggest part of the Big Edit still stretches before me, and I got five hours of sleep last night, which means an afternoon nap is a necessity. I sent the first part of the job to the client last night, and discovered we differ on whether the phrase “unpaid volunteer” is redundant.
I said yes, but then considered the volunteer military, which is paid, so OK, he wins on that one. And so it will go for about 50 more pages. Which I volunteered for.
Whenever I do a project like this, I can feel myself slipping into editor mode, ready to go 15 rounds over unnecessary adverbs and “unpaid volunteer.” Every so often I have to smack my cheeks, screech “big picture!” to the empty room and reset the ol’ brain. Good writing, and good editing, is all about details, but obsessing over details is the original slippery slope leading to madness. I didn’t know my journalism fellowship was really over until I was back at work on the copy desk, beefing with a colleague over…(harp glissando, swimmy-screen effects)
When I was away on my leave, the newspaper was redesigned yet again, with the usual results: More big type, less little type. Stories now carried a main headline, a sub headline, something called a “lead-in” and my personal favorite, the overline. The relationship between all of these elements was complex and changed from section to section, but it went basically like this: The main head could be Tarzan-speak: Fire kills 3. The subhed was longer, still Tarzan: Space heater blamed for early-morning blaze. The lead-in, if there was one, had to be more of a complete sentence: The home had smoke alarms, but they lacked batteries. (By this point the poor reporter could file a story saying, “Blah blah blah blah blah” and not worry about being found out. By readers, anyway.)
And then there was the overline, which hovered over everything else like a vengeful god. It was a short little all-caps thing that was at the very top of this explosion of verbiage, and no one really knew what to do with it. In sports stories, it was always whatever sport or league the story below concerned: NFL, COLLEGE BASKETBALL. Elsewhere, it was sort of a Greek chorus commenting on the story below. Think of an old-fashioned painting where a cherub flies above the action, trailing a banner like a little airplane, helpfully spelling out the scene’s moral lesson. For our fire story, it might be HOLIDAY TRAGEDY.
So on this one day in the summer of 2004, I was handling the Page One story about an insurgent attack in Iraq. The main hed was something like 4 Marines die in bombing and the subhed Truck explodes in crowded marketplace; 12 civilians killed, many more wounded. And there was probably a lead-in, too, but today’s story involves the overline. The one I wrote read BAD DAY IN BAGHDAD.
Can you guess what was wrong with this, and why it had to be corrected between editions? Was “bad” considered undue editorializing? No. Did it happen at the cusp of sunrise or sunset, making “day” not precisely accurate? No. Grizzled copy editors with the AP stylebook tattooed on their frontal lobes know the real problem:
Baghdad is not a stand-alone city in AP datelines; hence it must always have the country appended to it on first reference. And since this was part of the headline array, it might be the very first word a reader’s eye falls on. On the one-in-a-billion chance that this might be the first story read by a recently awakened coma victim who didn’t know the United States was fighting a war in Baghdad, Iraq and not Baghdad, Iowa, and might spend a nanosecond or two in terrible confusion, the overline was changed to read BAD DAY IN BAGHDAD, IRAQ.
No, I’m not kidding.
This is why I’m really not cut out to be a copy editor. However, I do it because I care.
Today’s holiday foto feature is submitted by Alex Jokay, who notes it’s from Aboite Township (the Fort’s hoit-to-the-toity suburb), “but not the tonier side of the tracks.” Ah, suburbia:
Now go out there and pick some nits of your own.