Tales of copy editing.

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.

Posted at 10:14 am in Holiday photos, Media |

10 responses to “Tales of copy editing.”

  1. brian stouder said on December 20, 2006 at 11:05 am

    And you know, lots of people who have NO IDEA how to really edit, end up doing it. Writing quotes or other business-related writing is something that probably all of us have to do at some point – and therefore we know it’s much harder than it looks!

    My pet peeves include inconsistent references to the same item, which I suppose is how such things as the AP style book came into existence. But it IS funny that you refer to the newspaper trying to update/freshen/modify it’s appeal, while also having certain arbitrary, rigidly retained orthodoxy

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  2. mary said on December 20, 2006 at 11:37 am

    The picture of a pitbull looks like a Boston Terrier. Is this some subtle comment on the tolerant attitude towards homosexuals in Massachusetts?

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  3. Cliff said on December 20, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Is there any more downtrod part of the newsroom than the copy desk? No glory of seeing your name in print, and only recognized when you make an error — never for the hundred that are caught and fixed. That creates the whipped-dog, bunker mentality among many copy eds that they are the thin blue line. I think that has something to do with creating “Baghdad, Iraq” overlines. Copy eds own language and usage — not the philistine reporters. It is their refuge.

    Of course, as you pointed out, this psychic need to rule minutia means the big picture is often missed.

    I worked at a paper where the eds had to turn in their marked-up proofs at the end of the shift. The rule was this: The eds could live with an error in the paper, but never with an error that resulted from a lack of proofing.

    Can’t tell you how many times, in the forensic examination of a mistake, you would discover three eds who overlooked a major fact error in a hedline (wrong town name, etc.) but all had scrupulously noted a widowed line of copy in the 14th graf.

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  4. nancy said on December 20, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Well, when you think about it, a Boston Terrier is sort of a gay pitbull. Maybe that’s the effect they were going for.

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  5. mary said on December 20, 2006 at 12:32 pm

    Maybe, but I think pitbulls would get aids from dirty needles rather than unprotected sex. Or maybe from blood transfusions they got during post-fight vet visits. We should ask the guy who posted the sign.

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  6. nancy said on December 20, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    Cliff: Exactly. And that’s why editing at our downsized, dying paper was so stressful — you couldn’t really count on the people above you doing their jobs (like getting the town name right) so you could fret over widows. In fact, with the loss of an overnight sports editor, most of that copy was placed on the page straight from the reporters’ keyboards. And so we were effectively line editing AND copy editing. You only have to have a sense of my ignorance of sports to know what a miracle it is that I never had the Rangers playing the Lakers somewhere. As it was, I never knew “audible” was acceptable as a verb until I’d changed it about a million times.

    The absolute worst was the freelance-written copy, like the running column. Here, please hack 30 percent of this treatise on shin splints, slap a hed on it and make sure you don’t miss any boo-boos in the box scores, either. Argh.

    (Although, perversely, I did sorta like the job. I kinda got into preseason football stories. It was a lot like following the war.)

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  7. Kirk said on December 20, 2006 at 5:02 pm

    Baghdad, Iraq?

    Jesus, Christ

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  8. mary said on December 20, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    There is a Baghdad, California and it’s pretty rough. Could have been there.

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  9. nancy said on December 20, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Well, the editor who insisted on this change is an excellent one, and I don’t want to imply any different. My point is that editing contributes to a very specific kind of tunnel vision that asserts itself in wacky ways. I guess in a perfect newsroom, editors, and even writers, would rotate in one another’s jobs from time to time, just to see the world a little differently. That’s why I don’t think my time on the desk was wasted. It really did give me a new perspective on things.

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  10. John said on December 21, 2006 at 10:15 am

    We are off to see the granddaughter and spend Christmas with our daughter! Merry Christmas to all! Lex, if you’re listening, I’m heading for your neck of the woods.

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