Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Are you the new copy chief at your college paper, or are you editing for the first time?

A thread at Testy Copy Editors offers some advice.

My favorite, from Paul Wiggins:
Far too many voices are raised when people see finished college papers. Accept the mistakes, no matter how stupid they seem. Learn from them, and move on.
I think that can be the toughest part. If you've worked till 4 a.m. after a full day of classes, made some amazing catches, and missed only your 8:30 class the next morning, kudos. But other people, with more experience than you, will still find things to complain about. Let 'em! It's a good lesson to learn early because perfection will always be expected of copy editors. Now is the time to get in the habit of listening to your "accusers," figure out why that mistake was made, and determine how to avoid making it again. That's a valuable teacher in itself.

Some other things I'm glad I (or I wish I had) learned in college: Try not to be defensive because it will always seem childish, as if you can point out everyone else's faults but can't face your own. And this won't change once you get out of college or land your first big job.

Get in the habit of doing one read on stories backward, starting with the last paragraph, then the second-to-last, etc. This will allow you to focus on the grammar and individual words rather than the story line. It's usually where I find story holes or facts contradicting one another.

And, in college, make sure there's enough organization that copy editors have time to read every story before it's on the page. Making all those corrections on a proof is an invitation for more errors later.

Get in the habit of having the story's copy editor be the story's first headline writer. That's how it will work later in life, and all copy editors need that headline practice. But remember that someone else may, and often should, suggest a tweak to make that headline better, or an angle to make it more understandable. Headlines are the most read part of the paper, and much more attention should be placed on getting them just right.

If your headline is rewritten, don't be defensive. Take a deep breath and see what you can learn from the change. (But if it was changed without someone informing you, seek out the rewriter. You must learn from the change to improve, and it may be difficult to do so if you don't know the reasons behind it.)

Read, read, read — the AP Stylebook, Bill Walsh's "Lapsing into a Comma," Patricia O'Connor's "Woe is I." Try to set up a mentor at the Big City Paper, or find someone there (or a professor) who will help critique the paper's editing so you can see what you've missed. And copy chiefs, send out reminders of style points you see wrong so that everyone can learn from them. There are a lot of rules out there, and it's hard to remember them all on first read. It will take practice.

And in all this, remember to have fun with what you're doing. It's incredibly stressful work that few people will understand or realize. But you do get to make great friends, goof off and eat a lot of pizza. Enjoy it!


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