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 Comments

Bent the wrong way.

Someone has stolen David and Amy Flach’s horse. They’d like to get the horse back, so they offered a description, to wit:

Mecca, estimated to be 16 years old, is described as having speckles and a scar on its right rear knee.

Sigh. Horses don’t have “rear knees.” Neither does any other four-legged animal. They have two knees, just like us. The hind legs fold the other way, and the joint that allows such movement is called a hock. After years in the newspaper business, I can tell you that these little details mean a lot. If you get them wrong, people who notice assume everything else is wrong, too. As a horseman, I don’t expect lay folk to know the difference between a cannon bone and a croup, but I don’t think it’s too much to expect a reporter to know the difference between a knee and a hock. We’ve all heard of ham hocks, haven’t we?

It’s little details like this that make reporters and editors such fearsome contestants on “Jeopardy!” And if we’re ever together in New York, and hail the Cash Cab? You should let me do the talking.

Speaking of quadrupeds, Kate and I went on a grocery run yesterday and ran across a living Nativity. Of course we stopped; anyone who passes a living Nativity is a person who deserves coal in their stocking. When we actually got to the tent, however, we found that we were either too early or too late, as the Nativity had no Mary, no Joseph, no Magi, no baby Jesus, but did have two donkeys, two sheep, three goats and a chicken munching hay in a pen under a tent, next to a caged rabbit.

“I missed the part about rabbits in the Gospel of Luke,” I said to the man next to me, who didn’t get the joke.

There was a camel outside, ruminating, held by a man dressed as a shepherd. His Gore-Tex boots peeked from under his robe while he discussed the living Nativity circuit with a friend: “Yeah, we’re in Sterling Heights tomorrow, then Roseville, I forget where else.” Make that camel pay for its hay, dude.

We aren’t religious, but I try to explain its rituals whenever I can, so Kate won’t be entirely ignorant of the world. I searched for one in this menagerie, considered telling her the legend of how the donkey got the cross on its back and realized it would confuse her, as it’s a Holy Week story, and it’s only Christmas.

“I once knew someone who had a donkey named Milton. Milton Burro,” I said, lamely. She didn’t get that, either.

We left.

Holiday picture week continues. Here’s frequent commenter Brian Stouder’s wife Pam and daughter Chloe with the Man last week, photo taken at Pottersville Mall. Chloe appears to be asking for her own domain for Christmas, as MySpace is just so over:


Keep ’em coming.

Posted at 10:39 am in Holiday photos, Same ol' same ol' | 9 Comments

Saving on the light bill.

We kick off our End of the Year Foto-Festivities 2006 with this bang-up two-parter by Bob Pence, talented amateur photog and all-around good guy. He’s been at it awhile, as this pair will attest. First, Christmas in Fort Wayne, 1962:


This was taken at the corner of Calhoun and Berry Streets, the heart of downtown. Old-timers get tears in their eyes talking about Christmas shopping downtown, back in the day. Fort Wayne was never Chicago, but once upon a time it had a certain Bedford Falls-like feel to its downtown, and you get a sense of it here — a few blocks dense with stores, activity and holiday lights. You can almost see Uncle Billy, about to come toddling into view with a snootful.

Ah, but then Pottersville Mall opened out by the bypass. The same corner today:


Notes Bob: “Notice how much more tidy downtown looks, now that we’ve gotten rid of all those retail stores with their glaring signs.” Yes indeedy.

(By the way, thanks to all who’ve sent photos already. We’ll get to them soon enough.)

Posted at 10:45 am in Holiday photos | 13 Comments