Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Getting along with line editors

Poynter has an article by Bob Baker: 10 things copy editors want from line editors. The best:
1. Have the courage to tell them (reporters) when their stories don't work.

2. Stylish writing is invalidated by bad grammar, bad spelling and other rudimentary flaws.

3. Encourage more hard-news leads. Our overuse of anecdotal or feature-style leads -- particularly ones that are too long -- tends to make the newspaper insubstantial.

5. Try to avoid being defensive when we ask a question that challenges a story. We don't mean it personally.

7. Stick to deadline, and put more pressure on your reporters to follow it. Do a better job of filing non-deadline features or news stories between 2 and 4 p.m.
But when you're reading, don't stop there. This street goes both ways, and the advice for copy editors to help out line editors resonates as well.

Most of it has to deal with our tendency toward being too literal. A turn of phrase may be out of place in one story but work well in another. It might sound strange on its own but work in context. Be flexible. The main goal here is for readers to get it, and sometimes they get more than we give them credit for.

One other comment: There's a point in there that will make a lot of copy editors groan. Here's an excerpt:
Let us have that sense of style. A writer should be able to use the expression "...doesn't float her boat" without having it automatically changed to "...fails to enthrall her." ... I don't want things to get out of control, but I like it when a writer tries coining a new phrase or even a new word. We should be willing to accept such attempts at word play or at least not toss them aside immediately.
All I'll say here is that considering how bent out of shape some copy editors get when their headlines are tweaked by the slot, we should be aware that the best writers will notice when we change a turn of phrase.

No one's saying you should not change that turn of phrase if it's warranted. But when you're doing it, imagine how you'd explain the change to the writer the next day if confronted. If your reasons sound hollow -- or don't exist at all -- think twice.


At 1:34 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Gothamimage said...

Nicole, Good post- I agree that it is fun to experiment with writing styles, but that should be kept out of the articles. Good reportage speaks for itself.

If you want to style and poor grammer, you can read my blog, which is done without line or copy editors, late at night, and it shows- but I have fun annoymously!

At 3:03 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger cl said...

If only every creative writer were coherent, too: My co-worker questioned a "chickens coming home to roost" lead in a legislative budget story last week, and for good reason: It was attention-grabbing, but it didn't actually make much sense in the context of the story. Then she looked up the expression and attributed it to Malcolm X after the JFK assassination. And that didn't have anything to do with the Kansas Legislature.

At 10:54 AM, February 09, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Christy, that's hilarious.

A reporter here was taken to task by readers recently for saying Kinky Friedman announced his candidacy for governor from that "shrine of heroic lost causes," the Alamo.

I thought it sounded nice -- and wasn't really *so* off-base, considering the outcome. But it was pointed out in letters to the editor that the area's independence from Mexico was won in part because the battle helped gain time for Sam Houston. One letter said, "You should at least have a copy editor somewhere on the premises who knows that."

Don't mess with Texas history, I guess. Ouch.


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