Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Cereal narrative

Roy Peter Clark at Poynter tells reporters about the importance of collaboration. On copy editors, he says:
Ignore the traditional antagonism that leads writers to believe that copy editors are vampires who work at night and suck the life out of stories. Think, instead, of copy editors as the champions of standards, as invaluable test readers, as your last line of defense. I once wrote a story about two brothers with terrible physical handicaps. The boys had been separated for several years. I described the wonderful reunion of the brothers, how they watched cartoons and fed each other "Fruit Loops." A copy editor, Ed Merrick, called me to check on the story. He offered his praise for a job well done, but said he had sent a news clerk down to the supermarket (this was before the convenience of the Internet) to check on the spelling of "Fruit Loops." Sure enough, the correct spelling was "Froot Loops." Nice catch. The last thing I wanted was for the reader to notice this mistake, especially at a high point in the story. Years later, I would see Ed and give him the thumbs-up sign in gratitude for his Froot Loops fix. Talk to copy editors. Learn their names. Embrace them as fellow writers and lovers of language.
I appreciate the sentiment here. It's true: Copy editors are not vampires who suck the life out of stories. Ahem.

I do question his story, though. Yes, it's important to get the facts straight. Froot Loops was indeed misspelled. But that's the best example Clark could come up with?

No bad telephone numbers? No bad addresses? No bad URLs?

He had no stories of libel averted? Errors of fact that would have embarrassed the paper?

Focusing on the trivial things copy editors fix every night does us a disservice. I appreciate Clark's urging reporters to just get along with copy editors. But there are bigger reasons than Froot Loops.


At 5:59 PM, March 09, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Well said, Nicole. Clark’s acknowledgement is welcome, but the Froot Loops example is akin to saying that reporters are an important part of the journalistic process because they're the ones who rewrite the spaghetti-supper press releases into calendar listings.

At 11:46 AM, March 10, 2005, Anonymous Ron Davis said...

I can understand being frustrated by this, but I took it a different way. I think Clark's point could be that the "trivial" stuff copy editors catch every night IS important. Certainly the correct spelling of Froot Loops wasn't going to make or break his story, but the fact that astute readers would have noticed the error high in the story would have tainted the entire report. ("If he can't even get the name of the cereal right ...") That Clark remembered it years later does say something about how vital our routine work is. Would he have remembered at all if the copy editor had just fixed an address or a phone number or a compound modifier?

At 2:46 AM, March 11, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I do see your point, Ron. And I also agree with the sentiment that it's important to get the trivial stuff right, too.

My big question was whether his example was the best illustartion of "copy editors as the champions of standards, as invaluable test readers, as your last line of defense," as he wrote.

Everyone has an example of a copy editor showing off some trivial knowledge. We need to be equally known for pulling people's asses out fo the fire.


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