Category Archives: editing

Good advice for editors from Jane Friedman

One of my favorite people from the world of independent publishing is Jane Friedman, a wide-ranging consultant and author of the weekly newsletter Electric Speed, which is consistently full of good tips and advice.

The introduction to her newsletter this week struck me as especially enlightening. It’s a special message to those who would be editors:

One of my husband Mark’s favorite albums is God Bless Tiny Tim, first released in 1968. He believes it’s now an under-recognized album, mostly forgotten.

In 2018, the year of the record’s 50th anniversary, Mark decided it was time to write about it—a love letter, if you will—to convince the music world to listen again.

I was excited to see what he’d write. Of course he’s talked to me at length about what this album means to him. I couldn’t wait for his observations to be shared more widely. And he happens to be a very fine writer.

So he labored over this piece for months (doing loads of research) and was on the verge of publishing it.

But then he didn’t.

Why? Because of two mistakes.

The first mistake: He showed it to me.

The second mistake: I made a lot of revision suggestions that quashed his desire to go any further with it.

And now the 50th anniversary is in the distant past.

Editors do a lot of harm every day, unintentionally. In Mark’s case, I wanted the piece to work for the kind of audience I’d like him to have, not the audience he actually wants to reach. Plus I didn’t frame the feedback in a way that made it easy to take next steps.

It’s hard to find the right editor. If you’re struggling with an editor right now, ask them lots of questions. Figure out their assumptions. Ask for what next steps they’d take.

Good, heartfelt advice. And if you are looking to up your writing and editing game, you should subscribe to Jane’s newsletter.

Another passing: the NYT copy desk

The copy desk saved me — more than once.

In old-times newspaper terms, the copy desk in a newspaper’s newsroom was a horseshoe shaped table around which sat a number of editors who read what reporters wrote. On the other side of the table in the “slot” was the chief copy editor who handed out assignments to the copy editors.

These editors were eagle-eyed in their ability to spot misspellings, mistakes in grammar and style, inconsistencies in the writing, gaps in the reporting, inaccuracies in the recitation of facts — and generally overall bad writing.

As a reporter, I was guilty of all of these sins — and more. Time and again, a good copy editor saved me from journalistic perdition.

The copy editors could be irritating as hell if you were a writer or reporter.

But millions of times over the more than one hundred years that copy desks were in existence, they saved reporters (like me) and their newspapers from everything from embarrassments to libel suits.

And it was openly acknowledged in the profession that the best copy desk in the world was that of the New York Times. Now comes word that the copy desk at the Times is being phased out.

Source: When the Copy Desk Was the ‘Heart of the Newspaper’ – The New York Times

As the deadline nears for Times newsroom employees to apply for a buyout, it is already clear that the elimination of free-standing copy desks will be a wrenching change.

Of course, it falls most heavily on the copy editors who were told they do not have a future at The Times. But in time, it will fall on just about everybody in the news department, as the responsibilities of copy reading are dispersed.

Whether readers are in for a wrenching change remains to be seen. The management of The Times believes that the editing process can be streamlined without jeopardizing the accuracy of the news report. Many employees are less optimistic.

But there is no doubt that the new system will upend — necessarily or needlessly — a deeply rooted Times tradition.

As copy desks pass from reality into journalist lore, there is much to be said for and about them — too much to include in a single blog post.

Watch for more.

 

Author: I didn’t want to resort to self-publishing, but it’s an exhilarating change

Louise Walters: My debut novel did very well with conventional publishers, but they weren’t interested in the ‘difficult second’ – so I’m going it alone

Source: I didn’t want to resort to self-publishing, but it’s an exhilarating change

Louise Walters describes what it’s like to have a second novel turned down after success with a first novel. Here’s her conclusion:

Footing the bill to bring out the book means the responsibility is on my shoulders, but at the same time it’s incredibly freeing. I can market this book in any way I choose; I have real input into every decision regarding my work; I’ll even earn a fairer share of the proceeds from each sale. There’ll be no more six-figure sums of course, but it doesn’t matter. That was yesterday. I’m concerned with tomorrow. My second novel will be out there, available to those who want to read it. And I’ll be nurturing my own career and not relying on a debut-centric, celebrity-obsessed publishing industry. It’s only a book, after all, and self-publishing is a whole lot of fun. (quoted)

FDR, the editor: A date which will live in infamy

The first typed draft of Franklin Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech was heavily edited by FDR.

The first typed draft of Franklin Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” speech was heavily edited by FDR.

On the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Franklin Roosevelt dictated a speech that would become one of the most famous in American history. Unlike more modern presidents, who employ an army of speechwriters, Roosevelt wrote much of his own speeches.

He began this one by dictating to Grace Tully, his secretary. The first draft of his first sentence was, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a day which will live in world history . . . .”

Roosevelt was a notorious and perfecting editor, particularly of his own copy. No one knows what went through his mind when he was writing and editing this speech, but the evidence that he was giving each word much thought can be found in the image at the right. He made many changes to that draft. To Roosevelt, those first words were important, and they had to be right. They must have sounded flat, like the beginning of a dull history lesson.

Somewhere in the process, “day” became “date,” signifying a larger and more memorable moment in history than just a day. And “world history” became “infamy.” Roosevelt needed a word that would express the outrage that Americans felt about being “suddenly and deliberately attacked.”

Infamy was the word he chose. It hadn’t come to him at first. It came only in the editing process.

And it has become an indelible part of American history.

Roosevelt had good reason to weigh his words carefully — many good reasons, in fact. For much of two years prior to the Japanese attack, the country had been through a bitter debate about what America should do about the war in Europe. A strong America First faction, led by aviator-hero Charles Lindbergh, argued that America should not be involved in Europe’s problems. People on this side recalled America’s participation in World War I — then called the Great War — and believed America had lost many lives and much treasure and had gained little for it.

On the other side of the debate were those who believe that America’s involved in this European war was inevitable and that the sooner we committed to it, the better able we would be to end it quickly. The British, particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were desperate to bring America into the war, fearing that the British would not be able to hold out against Germany. America was the place where Nazism and Fascism could be stopped, this side argued, and it was America’s moral duty to the world to fight. Roosevelt was clearly on this side of the argument, but as president, he felt that he could not lead too strongly. If war came, he would have to have a united country behind him.

The bitterness of how divided America was at that point is exemplified by the actions of both sides over the issue of a peacetime draft, which came before Congress in 1940. Proponents knew that if war came any time soon, America would be totally unprepared both with equipment and men. A peacetime draft — though America had never had one in her history — made sense, and those who opposed it, proponents argued, were endangering the country.

The opposition to a draft included many young people, Gold Star Mothers (those who had lost children in the previous war, educators, pacifists, and isolationists. As Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II:

Day after day, black-veiled matrons who called themselves the Mothers of the USA march in front of the Capitol, vowing to hold a “death watch” against conscription. (p. 139)

Just about every issue through the next year became one of war or peace.

On December 7, a quiet Sunday, war came, but it wasn’t from the east in Europe.

Smoke pours from the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.

Smoke pours from the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.

Just after 7:30 a.m. local time, a fleet of Japanese bombers swooped into Pearl Harbor and dropped a payload of torpedo bombs on the ships anchored there. They kept coming — 189 in all — until the U.S. Navy was crippled beyond imagining.

Roosevelt was informed about 1:30 p.m. Washington time.

After conferring with aides throughout the afternoon, Roosevelt called in Grace Tully around 5 p.m and began dictating his speech. He worked on it, on and off, into the evening.

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers his speech asking Congress to declare war on Dec. 8, 1941 -- the date "which will live in infamy."

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers his speech asking Congress to declare war on Dec. 8, 1941 — the date “which will live in infamy.”

The speech was important, not just because of the history it would make but also because of the immediate situation. No one knew what would happen next. Would America be invaded by the Japanese? Japan had not only attacked Pearl Harbor that day, but it has launched coordinated attacks on the Philippines and numerous points elsewhere in the Pacific. It was not then out of the question that they could be on the shores of the West Coast within hours or days.

The nation waited on that bleak Monday to hear from Roosevelt. The speech, FDR knew, had to ignore the bitterness of the previous two years and set a direction and tone that would promote American unity.

By measuring precisely each of his words, Roosevelt did just that.


Audio

( The speech that Roosevelt delivered lasted slightly more than seven minutes.)

Headline writing for the web

Some of the most important words a journalist will write for the web are the headline. A headline has always been very important for print media. It is vitally important for the web. Because headlines appear in lists as links rather than with the body of the story, they are the reader’s first introduction to a story. If they do not sell the reader immediately, the reader is unlikely to click on the link to go to the story.

Headlines must contain the key words that will convey the subject of the story and what the story is about (two different things – the first general and the second specific).

The first rule of headline writing is that the words accurately represent what is in the story. Accuracy above all else.

Headlines are abstracted sentences — five to 10 words at most — that convey a complete thought. That is, they must contain a subject and a verb; better yet, a subject, verb and object.

Finally, and very importantly, a good, straightforward is what search engines such as Google like. Headlines are the key to search engine optimization (SEO), which helps to draw traffic to a web site.

 

The goal: coherent information

Headline writers need to keep this question in their minds as they begin and end the process of writing the head:

If a reader were reading only your five to 10 words, would he or she know what the article is about?

The answer to that question too often is no. How many headlines have you read that left you clueless. They may contain a word or two that you understand or designate a subject that you want to read about, they give you no real information.

 

Guidelines

With that question in mind, here are some guidelines.

  • Headlines should be based on the main idea of the story. That idea should be found in the lead or introduction of the story. 
  • If facts are not in the story, do not use them in a headline. 
  • Avoid repetition.Don’t repeat key words in the same headline; don’t repeat the exact wording of the story in the headline. 
  • Avoid ambiguity, insinuations and double meanings. 
  • If a story qualifies a statement, the headline should also. Headline writers should understand a story completely before they write its headline. Otherwise, headlines such as the one below can occur.Council to cut taxes at tonight’s meeting

    The City Council will vote on a proposal to cut property taxes by as much as 10 percent for some residents at tonight’s meeting.

    The proposal, introduced two weeks ago by council member Paul Dill and backed by Mayor Pamela Frank, would offer incentives for property owners who use their property to create jobs for area residents. . .

     

  • Use present tense verbsfor headlines that refer to past or present events. 
  • For the future tense, use the infinitive form of the verb (such as “to go,” “to run,” etc.) rather than the verb “will.” 
  • “To be” verbs, such as “is,” “are,” “was” and “were,” should be omitted. 
  • Alliteration, if used, should be deliberate and should not go against the general tone of the story. 
  • Do not use articles— “a,” “an” and “the.” These take up space that could be put to better use in informing the reader. In the examples below, the second headline gives readers more information than the first.New police patrols help make the streets safer

    New patrols help make westside streets safer

     

  • Do not use the conjunction “and.” It also uses space unnecessarily. Use a comma instead.Mayor and council meet on budget for next year

    Mayor, council agree to cuts on new budget

  • Avoid using unclear or little-known names, phrases and abbreviations in headlines. 
  • Use punctuation sparingly. 
  • No headline may start with a verb. 
  • Headlines should be complete sentences or should imply complete sentences. When a linking verb is used, it can be implied rather than spelled out. 
  • Avoid headlinese — that is, words such as hit, flay, rap, hike, nix, nab, slate, etc. Use words for their precise meaning. 
  • Do not use pronouns alone and unidentified. 
  • Be accurate and specific.

 

The original question

Keep reminding yourself of the original question we posed earlier:

If a reader were reading only your five to 10 words, would he or she know what the article is about?

Headline writing is not easy if it is done well. Some people have more facility with it than others, but anyone who is determined to be a journalist can lean to write a good headline.


Resources

Shawn Smith, Headline writing: How web and print headlines differ, NewMediaBytes.com

JPROF’s editing for the web exercise and completed example

Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction study guide

The following is a guide originally produced for studying for the Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, and Diction exam given by the College of Communication at the University of Alabama.

The guide is organized along the topic listed below. Click on any of these topics to take you to that part of the guide.

Sentences.
A sentence is a group of words with a subject and a verb that expresses a complete thought. The four types of sentence structures are simple, complex, compound and compound-complex. Sentences may also be classified by their content: declarative, interrogatory, imperative and exclamatory.

Sentence errors. Some of the most common errors that occur with the use of sentences are sentence fragments, comma splices (or run-on sentences), errors in agreement, and lack of parallelism.

Word choice. Choosing the correct word to use in the correct context is an important part of knowing how to use the language. You should understand the subtleties of the language in order to make the correct choices.

Spelling and plurals. A student must know how to spell certain words. In this section, we give you some of the basic rules for spelling and a list of words you should know.

Parts of speech. Knowledge and understanding of the eight parts of speech should be a part of any student’s knowledge.

Phrases. Students should be able to recognize infinitive, appositive and participial phrases.

Punctuation. In this section, we give you some of the rules for using commas, colons, semi-colons, and periods.

A sentence is a group of words with a subject and a verb that expresses a complete thought. “John ran to the store” is a complete sentence; it has a subject, “John,” and a verb, “ran,” and it expresses a complete thought. “After the rain stopped” is not a complete sentence; it does have a subject and a verb, but it does not express a complete thought. A phrase like “after the rain stopped” is called a dependent clause; it contains a subject and a verb but cannot stand alone. “John ran to the store” is an independent clause.

Sentence structures
There are four kinds of sentence structures: simple, complex, compound and compound-complex.


A
simple sentence is one that has an independent clause — one with a subject and a verb that can stand by itself — and no dependent clauses, such as


John ran to the store.

The Electoral College really elects the president, not the popular vote.

The rain brought much-needed relief to the drought-stricken countryside.

No one cared much about Fred or his dog.


The simple sentences above have the subjects and the verbs underlined. A simple sentence is not called that because it expresses a simple thought; a simple sentence may express a complicated thought. It is a simple sentence if its structure has only one independent clause and no dependent clauses.

A sentence that has two or more subjects or two or more verbs may also be a simple sentence. For instance, look at the following sentences.

Both reporters and editors are necessary for putting out a newspaper.

I climbed into the truck and started it up.

The carpenters began their work but failed to complete it.

A complex sentence is one that has an independent clause and a dependent clause.

In the sentences below, the dependent clauses are underlined. A dependent clause has a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone as a complete thought.


Because I could not see her, I did not think she was there.

The professor left the question unanswered, saying the students would have to answer it for themselves.

As long as he works there, he will not have much of a social life.


A compound sentence is a sentence that contains two or more independent clauses, and these clauses should be separated by a comma and a coordinating conjunction.


I wanted to go to the game, but I did not have a ticket.


This is a compound sentence because it contains two independent clauses; they are separated by a comma and the coordinating conjunction “but.” Another common coordinating conjunction is “and.” Sometimes a semicolon substitutes for the comma and coordinating conjunction.

The following are some examples of compound sentences. Notice that they have more than one independent clause, and the clauses are connected by a comma and coordinating conjunction.

I couldn’t go to the game, and so I watched it on television.

France and Britain went to war with Germany in 1939, but the United States did not enter the war until 1941.

Good writing is not only a matter of style, but it is also a matter of content.

You can go with us, or you can stay home.

I could not believe it, and I told him so.

 

A compound-complex sentence is a sentence that contains two independent clauses and a dependent clause. The independent clauses should be separated by a comma and coordinating conjunction, such as in the following sentence.
The following sentences are compound-complex. In each, the independent clauses, the dependent clauses and the commas and coordinating conjunctions are underlined. See if you can tell which is which.


One candidate said that he would not raise taxes , but the other candidate would not make any promises.

I cannot go , but I am sure that my friend can.

When the child comes home from school, his mother wants him to do his homework , and he can then play with his friends.


Sentence content

We’ve just been discussing the four structures for sentences. As for content, there are four types of sentences: declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory.

A declarative sentence is one that makes a statement. This is the most common type of sentence.

An interrogative sentence is one that asks a question, and it is usually ended by a question mark (?).

An imperative sentence is a command; it is usually ended by a period, but it may also end with an exclamation mark (!).

An exclamatory sentence expresses some strong emotion (excitement, joy, fear, etc.) and usually ends with an exclamation mark (!).

Sentences

 

Sentence fragments

Earlier we referred to sentences as groups of words with subjects and verbs that express a complete thought. Sometimes someone will write a group of words that does not express a complete thought. That is a sentence fragment. While there are some situations in writing where a sentence fragment may be appropriate, generally we should write in complete sentences.
In the following examples the sentence fragments are underlined.


A radio station’s credibility is based on trust. So much so that the station cannot long exist without it.

Too little, too late.

I doubt that the mayor will see you. Especially since you have already broken several appointments with him.


Comma splice or run-on sentence

A comma splice, or run-on sentence, is a common error, particularly among those who do not understand sentence structure. A comma splice is the joining of two independent clauses with only a comma ?nothing else. Generally, such a structure is not acceptable in written English.
The following are some examples of comma splices:


I doubt that he will come, he didn’t say he would.

Some people eat to live, others live to eat.

Ruth’s first home run barely made the seats, his second went over them.


A comma splice can be corrected in one of two ways. One way is to replace the comma with a semicolon. Another way is to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma. By doing that, the sentences above would become


I doubt that he will come; he didn’t say he would.


Some people eat to live, but others live to eat.


Ruth’s first home run barely made the seats, and his second went over them.

 


Agreement

Agreement refers to singular or plural references. A singular subject takes a singular verb; plural subjects take plural verbs. In the sentence,

The clock strikes at quarter past the hour.

the subject is “clock.” A singular noun, “clock,” takes the singular verb, “strikes.” However, if the sentence were

Clocks strike regularly around the campus.

the plural subject “clocks” would take the plural verb “strike.” All that is fairly simple, but what about a sentence like this: The consent of both sets of parents are needed for a juvenile marriage. The subject and verb in this sentence are not in agreement. “Consent” is the subject, not “sets” or “parents.” Consequently, the verb should be “is” not “are.”

Agreement is also a problem when you are using pronouns to refer to nouns. These nouns are called antecedents, and pronouns should always agree with their antecedents. In the sentence, “The boys believed they could win,” the antecedent “boys” agrees in number with the pronoun “they.” Often, however, the following mistake is made: “The team believed they could win.” The antecedent “team” is a singular noun, and its pronoun should also be singular. The sentence should read, “The team believed it could win.”


Wrong:The team believed they could win.
Right:The team believed it could win.

 


Parallelism

Parallelism involves stating two or more elements in a sentence in the same grammatical form. Parallelism promotes ease of reading and undertstanding and is an important concept for the writer. Here’s a good example of a sentence in which the elements are not parallel:

Earlier this morning, she wrote three letters, mailed them and had poured herself a cup of coffee.


The elements that should be parallel in this sentence are the verbs, wrote, mailed, and poured. They are all past tense. The verb “had poured” is not parallel with the other verbs in the sentence. It is past perfect. The sentence should read:

Earlier this morning, she wrote three letters, mailed them and poured herself a cup of coffee.

 

Here’s another example:


Wrong: A lawyer should be logical, articulate and have a quick wit.
Right: A lawyer should be logical, articulate and quick-witted.

 

Sentence errors
Choosing the correct word to use in the correct context is an important part of knowing how to use the language. The Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction Exam has a number of questions that will ask you to make these choices. In this section, we will explain some of the types of choices that you may have to make.

Agreement

Subjects amd verbs should agree in number. Pronouns and their antecedents should also agree in number. (See above for more explanation of agreement.)

 


Who, whom

These are two pronouns that are often used incorrectly, particularly in spoken English. Who is the subjective case and should be used as the subject of a sentence or clause as in the following example. (For more on the case of pronouns, see below.)

Who is free to run an errand?

I don’t know who can do that.

She is the one who will surely pass the text.

Whom is objective and should be used as the object of a sentence, phrase or clause.

Whom do you trust?


The coach was disappointed in Smith, of whom he expected much.


I doubt that we will find the people whom we are seeking.

In the first sentence, “you” is the subject of the sentence while “whom” is the object. In the second “whom” is the object of the preposition “of.” In the third sentence, “whom” is the objective of the clause “we are seeking.”

Like, as, as if

These words are often use interchangeably and consequently incorrectly. Like is a preposition and should have an object. As and as if are conjunctions and should be used to join clauses. The problem most often arises when like is used as a conjunction.

Wrong: I pretended like I knew what I was talking about.
Right:
I pretended as if I knew what I was talking about.

Comparatives and superlatives

Adjectives can show degrees of quantity and quality with their comparative and superlative forms. A comparative form of an adjective is usually made either by adding er to the end of the word or by putting more in front of it. The superlative form is made by adding est to the end of the word or by putting most in front of the word.
One of the rules for using comparatives and superlatives is that a comparative form should refer to only two objects. A superlative form should refer to three or more objects. Look at the following examples.

Wrong: He looked at the map for Midville and Danville and found that Midville is the closest city to us.

In this sentence there are only two cities involved: Midville and Danville. The sentence erronously uses the superlative form: closest. The sentence should read as follows:

Right: He looked at the map for Midville and Danville and found that Midville is the closer city to us.

Here is another example:

Wrong: Sue was the oldest of the twin sisters.
Right:
Sue was the older of the twin sisters.

 

Using adverbs to modify verbs

One of the common mistakes made in spoken English is to use an adjective rather than an adverb to modify a verb, as in the following sentence: He drives careless. The sentence should read: He drives carelessly. Make sure that the words modifying verbs are adverbs rather than adjectives.

Gerund phrases

Sometimes a phrase will use a verb or a form of a verb but will actually act as a noun in a sentence. Verbs that end in ing and function as nouns are called gerunds. Gerunds and gerund phrases can act as nouns in a sentence, as in the following:

Writing is a difficult task for many people.

The word “writing” is a gerund because it is a form of the verb “write.” It does not act as a verb in the sentence, however. Rather, it is the subject of the sentence. The following is an example of a gerund phrase in a sentence:

Writing a good advertisement takes some creativity.

The phrase, “Writing a good advertisement,” is a gerund phrase because it contains a gerund and is the subject of the sentence. If gerunds can act like nouns, can they then have modifiers? The answer is yes, and that sometimes presents a problem, as in the following sentence:

Wrong: She disapproved of me going to that movie.


The reason this sentence is wrong is that “me” modifies the gerund phrase, “going to that movie.” “Me” is the objective case of the pronoun, and for the sentence to be correct, it needs the possessive case of the pronoun.

Right: She disapproved of my going to the movie.

Use of pronouns after like or as

When pronouns occur after the conjunctions than or as, they should be subjective pronouns if they are the subject of an understood verb.

I had a better understanding of the subject than he (did).
Mary cannot recite the Gettysburg Address as fast as I (can).

Proper use of words

Part of the Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction Exam involves selecting the correct word or words in the context of a sentence. The following items include some of the words that you might find on the GSPD.

Less, fewer. Use fewer with countable items; use less with amounts or things not countable.

Affect, effect. Effect is a verb meaning to produce change, or it is a noun meaning result. Affect is almost always a verb that means to pose or to influence, but it can also be a noun referring to an emotional state. These are two of the most confusing words in English, but careful writers will learn to sort them out.

Like, as. As is used to introduce clauses; like is a preposition and requires an object.

Principal, principle. Principal means someone or something first in rank, authority, or importance. ‘Principle’ means a fundmental truth, law or doctrine.

Over, more than. Over and under are best used for spatial relationships. When using figures, more than and less than are better choices.

Whose, who’s. Who’s is the contraction of who is. Whose is the possessive form of who.

Its, it’s. It’s is the contraction of it is. Its is the possessive form of the word it.

Lay, lie. Lie is a state of being, while lay is the action word. Lay needs an object to be used correctly.

Your, you’re. Your is a pronoun which means belonging to you; you’re (a pronoun plus a verb) is a contraction of you are.

There, they’re, their. Their is a possessive pronoun; there is an adverb indicating direction; they’re is a contraction of the words they and are.

Medium, media. Medium is the singular form of this word and requires a singular verb; media is the plural form and requires a plural verb.

Accept, except. Except means exclude; accept means to receive.

 

Word choice
The spelling words in the GSPD exam may include those on the list below. These words are not the most difficult words in the language to spell, but they are some of the most commonly misspelled words.
You will also need to know some of the basic rules for forming plurals. Here are a few:

  • Most plurals for nouns are formed by simply adding -s to the root word.
  • Nouns ending with -s, -z, -x, -ch or -sh usually require an -es ending to form the plural.
  • When a word ends with a consonant and then a -y, the -y is changed to -i and an -es is added (example: army, armies).
  • When a word ends in a vowel and a -y, you can simply add an -s for the plural (example: bay, bays).
  • Compound words without hyphens simply take an -s on the end (cupful, cupfuls), but compound words with a hyphen take the -s on the significant word (son-in-law, sons-in-law). The AP Stylebook advises that -‘s should be used only in forming the plural of single letters (A’s, B’s) but not figures (1920s, 727s).
  • Never use -‘s to form the plural of a word that is fully spelled out.

The following is a list of words that you should know how to spell.

acceptance
accommodate
accomplish
achievement
acquire
actuality
advertising
alienate
allotment
all right
aluminum
among
analyze
apparent
applies
argument
arguing
arouse
attendant
beauteous
behavior
belief
believe
beneficial
bureau
burial
carried
category
characterized
clothes
coming
comparative
completely
connote
conscious
controlling
controversy
controversial
cruelly
definitely
definition
define
describe
effect
embarrass
enough
environment
especially
exaggerate
existence
existent
experience
experiment
explanation
description
desirability
deteriorate
dilemma
disastrous
disillusioned
easily
facilitate
fascinate
field
fundamentally
grammar
guaranteed
height
heroine
hungrily
hypocrisy
immediately
industries
interest
interference
its
it’s
laborer
led
listener
loss
lose
losing
marriage
material
mere
methods
mystery
necessary
occasion
occurred
occurring
occurrence
opportunity
oppose
paid
pageant
particular
passed
performance
personal
personnel
phase
political
practical
precede
prejudice
prepare
prevalent
principal
principle
privilege
probably
proceed
procedure
profession
professor
prominent
prophecy
pursue
quiet
receive
receiving
recommend
referring
regard
ridicule
repetition
rhythm
sense
seize
separate
separation
shining
similar
sincerely
straight
studying
succession
summed
surprise
technique
tendency
than
then
their
there
they’re
thorough
to
too
two
transferred
tremendous
unnecessary
vaccinate
valuable
villain
woman
whole
write
writing
you’re
Spelling and plurals

 

Commas (,), semicolons (;), colons (:) and periods (.) are among the most common forms of punctuation.

Commas are used to separate items in a series (red, white and blue) and to set off parts of a sentence (After the rain had stopped, John ran to the store). They are also used arbitrarily, as in separating elements in a date (Nov. 15, 1980).
The following are some specific rules for using commas:

  • A comma should be used to separate introductory phrases and clauses from the main clause of the sentence.
    Plagued by doubts, he could not make up his mind.

  • Use commas to set off non-restrictive elements in a sentence. A non-restrictive element is something that is not essential for the meaning of the sentence.
    The new teacher, who was born in Idaho, turned out to be brilliant. 
  • A comma should separate words that interrupt a sentence or words of direct address.
    He decided, however, not to go.
    What is your decision, Joe, about the job?
     
  • A comma should separate items in a series. (AP style advises that in a short series, a comma is not necessary between the next to last item and the conjunction. The flag is red, white and blue.) But longer items need the comma before the conjunction.
    He began his day by getting up, washing his face, puring himself a cup of coffee, and looking at the morning paper.

 

Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses in the same sentence.

He did not want to go with us; he wanted to stay home and watch the baseball game.


A semicolon should also be used to separate long items in a series.

Attending the dinner were John Smith, mayor of Tuscaloosa; Mary Johnson, president of the League of Women Voters; Joe Jones, vice-president of Jones Steel, Inc.; and Rhonda Jackson, head of the Committee for Better Government.


Colons are often used to link the latter part of a sentence to some previous part.

The flag contains the following colors: red, white and blue.


The period (.) is most often used to end sentences, but it has other uses, such as ending abbreviations (Mr.). The question mark (?) is used to end interrogative sentences, and the exclamation point (!) ends sentences and expressions of excitement.

Punctuation
 


Copyright © 2002 Jim Stovall

 

Discussion: the key to good editing

One of the most difficult things to teach beginning editing students is, somewhat oddly, attitude.

While no one should be cocky or uncivil, a good copyeditor must have the confidence not only to spot errors but also to change the copy to make it better. That is reasonably easy to do when they are dealing with technical matters – spelling, grammar, style rules, etc. – where the rules are explicit. It is much more difficult when changing copy calls upon editors to use their judgment and to have confidence in that judgment.

An editor must consider any piece of copy his or her own – must “take possession” of it, in the modern phrase. A good editor does not hesitate to see what it wrong, recognize how it should be changed and then change it.

Dates for the journalist

Even if history teachers have stopped making students memorize dates, journalism teachers shouldn’t. Dates are important for a full understanding of events, and students should have precise knowledge of the important events in American and world history. The list of dates on this web site, adapted from The Complete Editor, is a good place for the student to begin acquiring this knowledge. Once the students have studied this list, they will be ready to tackle the two crossword puzzles contained on this site (links just below this paragraph). You can download these puzzles as HTML or PDF files. (Posted Jan. 10, 2005)

time-place-crwd-1, time-place-crwd-2

The following dates are important for an editor to know and should be committed to memory:

July 4, 1776 — Declaration of Independence signed

July 1-3, 1863 — Battle of Gettysburg

November 19, 1863 — President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address

April 14, 1865 — Lincoln shot at Ford’s Theater; died April 15

November 11, 1918 — World War I ends

October 29, 1929 — Stock market crash begims Great Depression

September 1, 1939 — Germany invades Poland

December 7, 1941 — Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor

June 6, 1944 — D-Day; allies invade Europe

August 6, 1945 — Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima

December 1, 1955 — Rosa Parks refuses to give up seat on Montgomery bus, begins modern Civil Rights movement

February 20, 1962 — John Glenn is first American to orbit the earth

September 15, 1963 — 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham bombed

November 22, 1963 — President John F. Kennedy shot

April 4, 1968 — Martin Luther King killed in Memphis

July 20, 1969 — Neil Armstrong first man to walk on the moon

May 4, 1970 — Four students killed at Kent State

May 15, 1972 — George Wallace shot

June 17, 1972 — Burglars break into to the Democratic party headquarters at Watergate apartment complex in Washington

August 9, 1974 — Nixon resigns over Watergate revelations

August 16, 1977 — Elvis Presley died

January 28, 1986 — Challenger explodes shortly after liftoff

April 19, 1995 — Federal building in Oklahoma City bombed

January 1998 — First reports surface of  President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern; scandal eventually led to U.S, Senate impeachment trial in n 1999

September 11, 2001 — Terrorists hijack four airplanes in the U.S., crashing them all; two fly into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, causing them to collapse; a third flies into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.; a fourth crashes into a rural area in Pennsylvania

December 26, 2004 — An earthquake in the Indian Ocean causes a giant tsunami, killing more than 150,000 people and leaving many more homeless

Inclusive dates:

1861-1865 — American Civil War

1903 — Wright brothers first flight

1914-1918 — World War I

1919-1933 — Prohibition

1925 — Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee

1930s — the Great Depression

1939-1945 — World War II

October 1962 — Cuban missile crisis

Adapted from The Complete Editor

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses by Mark Twain

By Mark Twain

The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer stand at the head of Cooper’s novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole.

The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
— Prof. Lounsbury

The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention.

…One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo…

The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest, were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
— Prof. Brander

Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction yet produced by America
— Wilkie Collins-

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature in Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction–some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:


1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the Deerslayer tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible or reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules there are some little ones. These require that the author shall

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.


Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties she kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

I am sorry there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the delicate art of the forest, as practised by Natty Bumppo and some of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples. Cooper was a sailor–a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure woodcraft, or sailor craft, or whatever it is, isn’t that neat? For several years Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so;skips again a hundred feet or so–and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place he loses some “females”–as he always calls women–in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he doesn’t strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball across the plain through the dense fog and find the fort. Isn’t that a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature’s way of doing things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently the trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you or I could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person’s moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases–no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless your heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind in which he has failed to render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of “the caves”; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maquaand those others on the table-land a few days later; and a Hurry Harry’s queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer’s half-hour with his first corpse; and at–but choose for yourself; you can’t go amiss.

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper’s proudest creations in the way of “situations” suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer’s protecting gift. Cooper’s eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a “situation.” In the Deerslayer tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook’s outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become “the narrowest part of the stream.” This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were oftener nine hundred feet long than short of it.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to the form of an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by a rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal-boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it had only two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low-roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length”–a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say–a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms–each forty-five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of the in the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians–say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did they notice that they could make money by climbing out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indians never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what do the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him, and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the house! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The fault was Cooper’s, not his.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did–you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still farther astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat–for he was a Cooper Indian. In the matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as an observer.

The reader will find some examples of Cooper’s high talent for inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in The Pathfinder.

A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head having first been touched with paint.

The color of the paint is not stated–an important omission, but Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not have been seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eye see a common house-fly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards–one hundred and fifty feet. Can the reader do it?

The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge of the nail-head; the next man’s bullet drove the nail a little way into the target–and removed all the paint. Haven’t the miracles gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Longrifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before the ladies.

“Be all ready to clench it, boys!” cried out Pathfinder, stepping into his friend’s tracks the instant they were vacant. “Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito’s eye. Be ready to clench!”

The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.

There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.

The recorded feat is certainly surprising as it stands; but it is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made Pathfinder do this miracle with another man’s rifle; and not only that, but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself. He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, “Be ready to clench.” Now a person like that would have undertaken the same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.

Wasn’t it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

The respect for Pathfinder’s skill and for his quickness and accuracy of sight was so profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster’s bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper’s and that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump against which the target was placed.

They made a “minute” examination; but never mind, how could they know that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the Pathfinder’s turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and fires.

But, alas! here is a disappointment; an incredible, an unimaginable disappointment–for the target’s aspect is unchanged; there is nothing there but the same old bullet-hole!

“If one dared to hint at such a thing,” cried Major Duncan, “I should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target!”

As nobody had missed it yet, the “also” was not necessary; but never mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.

“No, no, Major,” said he, confidently, “that would be a risky declaration. I didn’t load the piece, and can’t say what was in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder.”

Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder speaks again, as he “now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by the females”:

“That’s not all, boys, that’s not all; if you find the target touched at all, I’ll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you’ll find no wood cut by that last messenger.”

The miracle is at last complete. He knew–doubtless saw–at the distance of a hundred yards–that his bullet had passed into the hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole–three bullets embedded professionally in the body of the stump back of the target. Everybody knows this–somehow or other–and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable merit.

The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue. Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many other enterprises of his. He even failed to notice that the man who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on the seventh, and can’t help himself. In the Deerslayer story he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

“She’s in the forest–hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain–in the dew on the open grass–the clouds that float about in the blue heavens–the birds that sing in the woods–the sweet springs where I slake my thirst–and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God’s Providence!”

And he preceded that, a little before, with this:

“It consarns me as all things that touches a fri’nd consarns a fri’nd.”

And this is another of his remarks:

“If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp and boast of the expl’ite of the whole tribe; or if my inimy had only been a bear”–[and so on].

We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in-Chief comporting himself in the field like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could. On one occasion Alice and Cora were being chased by the French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father’s fort:

“Point de quartier aux coquins!” cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.

“Stand firm and be ready, by gallant 60ths!” suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; “wait to see the enemy; fire low, and sweep the glacis.”

“Father, father!” exclaimed a piercing cry from out of the mist; “it is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!”

“Hold!” shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in solemn echo. ” ‘Tis she! God has restored my children! Throw open the sally-port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!”

Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate word. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called Deerslayer. He uses “verbal” for “oral”; “precision” for “facility”; “phenomena” for “marvels”; “necessary” for “predetermined”; “unsophisticated” for “primitive”; “preparation “for “expectancy”; “rebuked” for “subdued”; “dependent on” for “resulting from”; “fact” for “condition”; “fact” for “conjecture”;”precaution” for “caution”; “explain” for “determine”; “mortified “for “disappointed”; “meretricious” for “facetious”; “materially” for “considerably”; “decreasing” for “deepening”; “increasing” for “disappearing”; “embedded” for “inclosed”; “treacherous” for “hostile”; “stood” for “stooped”; “softened” for “replaced”;”rejoined” for “remarked”; “situation” for “condition”;”different” for “differing”; “insensible” for “unsentient”;”brevity” for “celerity”; “distrusted” for “suspicious”; “mental imbecility” for “imbecility”; “eyes” for “sight”; “counteracting “for “opposing”; “funeral obsequies” for “obsequies.”

There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now–all dead but Lounsbury. I don’t remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he makes it, for he says that Deerslayer is a “pure work of art.” Pure, in that connection, means faultless–faultless in all details–and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper’s English with the English which he writes himself–but it is plain that he didn’t; and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper’s is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no life-likeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality;its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are–oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Mark Twain takes aim

In a famous 1895 essay, Mark Twain delivered a stinging critique of one of America’s 19th century literary icons, James Fennimore Cooper. Twain was very much a modern writer, advocating active, descriptive verbs and short rather than long words. His essay is worth reading, not necessarily for what it says about Cooper, but for what it says about writing itself.

In a defense of Cooper, Lance Schachterle and Kent Lyungquist say Twain manipulated the evidence against Cooper and was ultimately unfair to him.

The eighteen rules for effective fiction that Twain claims Cooper habitually violated fall under three heads: he could not formulate a plot that got anywhere; his characterization was vapid, inert, or unconvincing; and his diction was  wretched. Twain seeks to win the reader’s assent to this view of Cooper by alternating elegant and brassy variations of his own critical judgment with illustrations apparently drawn straight from the text. Precisely by his choice of examples Twain reveals his satirical strategy. With “circumstantial evidence,” Twain actually distorts what Cooper wrote and presents the illusion of conclusive proof without any real substance. By carefully manipulating Cooper’s texts, willfully misreading, and sometimes fabricating evidence, Twain leaves the reader with the impression that he has polished Cooper off. By looking at Twain’s treatment of plot, characterization, and especially diction in The Deerslayer, we can lay bare Twain’s rhetorical strategy and satirical distortions.

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deerslayer by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist  (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Studies in the American Renaissance, 1988.

Read Twain’s essay and see for yourself.

Editor dilemmas

George Daniels, University of Alabama

As we discuss the culture of Journalism, no one is more responsible for knowing the culture of journalism than an editor. Chapter 12 (of Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How) on Editors presents you with not only a list of traits good editors, but also some guidelines for how editors and reporters should operate. After reading Chapter 12, in the following scenarios, 1) Identify what trait the editor is lacking and 2) Diagnose what’s wrong with the reporter-editor relationship. Make notes on each of the situations and we will discuss them Wednesday.

1. A reporter for the Tempe Times turns in a story about teen pregnancy problem in Tempe, which lacks statistics about the state in which Tempe is located. New to the area, the editor is oblivious to the teen pregnancy rallies held each year and a new statewide campaign on teen pregnancy. After the article is published, a furious reporter storms into the editor’s office because a sentence is left out of a quotation from the manager of the local health department. The omitted sentence changes the meaning of the story.

2. A veteran local television news health reporter, whose contract is not renewed, signs on at the local newspaper as the features section editor. In hiring her, the executive editor cites the ex-TV reporter’s 20 years in the community. The next week the executive editor is forced to intervene in a dispute between the concert reporter and the new features editor over a story that was re-edited in a broadcast writing style. The shorter sentences infuriated the writer, whose style has been more traditional inverted pyramid.

3. Quake magazine, a publication for seismologists, hires a new managing editor from National Geographic. In pitching stories about the San Andreas Fault, the managing editor suggests running a graphic that gives the Fujita Scale. The day before the magazine is to be printed, the reporter notices the scale, which is actually used for hurricanes, and alerts the publisher to the new managing editor’s faux pas. The managing editor apologizes and instead suggests running a graphic of the Richter scale to help seismologists understand what it is.

4. An African-American educators’ news website hires an Asian woman to be graphic design editor for the website. Flurries of e-mails come into the website’s publisher after the design editor used Ebonics (a type of African-American slang) in a graphic about low urban enrollment.

5. The city editor at a small community newspaper gets in a shouting match over a reporter’s use of quotes from Blueberry Baptist Church. The editor wanted the reporter to use quotes from a wire story. The reporter was upset to find her quotes from Blueberry Baptist, the largest church in the community, replaced with quotes from a national news story.

(Posted Feb. 2, 2005)

Discussion notes: accuracy

The first commandment of modern journalism remains accuracy (it wasn’t always so). Present accurate information in an accurate context and in a way that can be understood by the reader, listener or viewer. That’s the reporter’s job. That’s especially the editor’s job.

What does that mean? How can an editor make it happen?

Many errors, if not most, are made at the reporting stage of the journalistic process. Sometimes, there is not much that an editor can do about them, given limited time and resources to check them. (This is true for daily news organizations, but it is less so for magazines.) Still, editors have to take responsibility for all the errors in their publication, and they need to systematically guard against making errors.

So, how?

• Presenting information that is verifiable. Some information should not be produced by professional journalistic organizations because it cannot be checked. We used to put most rumors in that category, although the standard here may be changing.

• Making sure interpretations of information are fair and reasonable and that they exclude other interpretations.

• Gathering information from various sources that might confirm the information we have or give us additional perspective on it. The editor must exercise careful judgment in weighing the credibility of those sources.

Many times in our editing of news stories, the nature of the information points to one and only one source, so this last procedure may not be possible. An editor must be practiced and knowledgeable enough to discern that

— which argues for a wide range of knowledge on the part of an editor. It also argued for editors being specialists in something – that is, having an intimate knowledge of some subject. What are you a specialist in? (Instructors: Ask this question of your students and you’ll get some interesting answers.)

 

Achieving accuracy

What are the practical steps we can take as editing students to achieve accuracy? Read chapter 4 in your text (The Complete Editor) on Accuracy, Clarity and Brevity, the tri-part Holy Grail of Journalism. Then, when you have an editing assignment, do the following:

question, question, question. Raise questions about every sentence you read. Does this sound right? Does it pass a smell test? Could the source have really said this? Does this make sense? Do I know something different? If you do, it’s your responsibility to change the copy or to raise a question with the instructor.

check what you can check. The stylebook and dictionary are the first places to begin. If an article refers to the “assassination of President John Kennedy in 1964,” check it out (it’s wrong!). As time allows, check anything you think there will be a record of.

names, dates, times. Names of people in news stories should always be checked for spelling and appropriate titles. Go back to the reporter (or ask the instructor) for a check on dates and times.

do the math. When a story contains numbers, make sure you add them up. If a story says something like “35 years ago in 1969,” make sure that 1969 is 35 years ago (it isn’t).

internal logic. Reporters contradict themselves in their writing; it happens more than you might think. Stay sensitive to finding these contradictions. Sometimes there is a reason for including contradictory information, but those reasons should be obvious or spelled out for the reader. The editor has to deal with them.

use the language literally. One of the exercises in The Complete Editor says that the city council reacted “violently” to the mayor’s budge proposal. Yet, there was no fighting during the city council meeting. Everything was civil, no violence at all.  The word “violently” was used inaccurately, making the description of the event inaccurate.

In journalism, we speak literally, not figuratively, and we deal with specific, concrete information rather than vague ideas.

use your common sense.  You don’t enter a parallel universe when you are an editor; you deal with a very real world. Words, phrases, sentences, statements and other items that sound out of kilter probably are. Deal with them; fix them. Make them make sense.

Judging the accuracy of a piece of writing and correcting the writing to make it accurate is not unlike what we do as adults in reacting to the world around us. We have to decide what is true, relevant and accurate in order to make good decisions about our lives. In journalistic editing, those processes are the same – only they are often done with more intensity, with the knowledge that decisions will affect the lives of others, and with the pressure of a deadline.

Example

A local newspaper had this headline in a January 2000 edition.

Grandson revives the memory of Confederate general

The headline ran beside a picture of two men shaking hands. Presumably, one was the man to whom the headline referred. Both appeared to be middle aged, between 40 and 60 years old. Given that the Civil War occurred in the 1860s, nearly 140 years ago, it did not seem reasonable that either was the grandson of a Confederate general. DO THE MATH.

The headline was wrong.

The story identified one of the men in the picture as the great-grandson of Confederate general Jeb Stuart. The headline writer — on most newspapers that’s a different person that the one who writes the story — misunderstood or was too lazy to rewrite the head to make it accurate.

Or worse, the headline writer didn’t think it made any difference. For people who try to promote professionalism in the media, that’s a scary thought.


An additional note: John Early McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copydesk at the Baltimore Sun, has an excellent piece on the Poynter web site about the importance of editing. In it, he cites a 2003 conference on Editing for the Future held at the First Amendment Center in Nashville. The web site for the conference contains many resources for those interested in editing, including a session devoted to accuracy. That session was led by Margaret Holt, customer service editor of the Chicago Tribune. During her presentation (which can be viewed on video at the site), she told the story of the time when the Tribune got serious about guarding against inaccuracies:

Since 1992 the Chicago Tribune has hired a proofreader to do an errors-per-page annual report, so the newsroom can track errors from year to year. “We were abysmal starting out,” she said. “I think we were as high as 4.82 errors per page.”

However, the Tribune’s accuracy program kicked into high gear in 1995 when it suffered an accuracy “meltdown.” A senior writer misidentified a top Tribune executive in an obituary of a beloved editor. That executive was “not happy,” Holt said. The obit was published on a Saturday, and by Monday, the executive ordered the Tribune to establish an error policy.

(Posted Feb. 9, 2005)

Discussion notes: attacking wordiness

Most of the editing students I have taught over the last three decades share this trait: they are reluctant to change anything in an editing exercise, even when it is obviously wrong. Getting them to where they will correct grammar, spelling and style errors in the first step. But to be good editors, of course, they must go far beyond this. They must learn to recognize and attack wordiness – the heart disease of good writing. Here are some lecture/discussion notes about what to tell editing students about wordiness – how to recognize the symptoms and cure the disease.

He gave $25,000 of his own money to charity.

At first glance, this sentence may seem ok – straightforward, grammatically correct, not too long, uses short words, expresses a fairly simply thought. But look again. It has too many words, way too many. The first culprit if easy to spot: the word “own.” Totally unnecessary. Of course, it’s his own money. He wouldn’t be giving anyone else’s money to charity, would he?

He gave $25,000 of his money to charity.

But wait, there’s more. By the same logic that we just used, we can also eliminate “of his money” from our revised sentence. Again, we can’t assume that he’s giving away somebody else’s money.

He gave $25,000 to charity.

What does the first sentence have that this third one does not? Nothing – but a bunch of words. Certainly no information is gone.

A good copyeditor should approach every sentence in this way, always asking, “What’s not necessary? What can I eliminate?” The goal of a good copyeditor in a professional setting is to give the reader as much information as efficiently as possible. All the words used in any writing should carry as much informational weight as possible. The copyeditor who can achieve this goal and shorten a piece of writing has done a good job.

But brevity isn’t the goal. It’s clarity. Making writing clear, so that it can be read easily and understood completely the first time, is what a copyeditor is all about. Sometimes that may mean making a sentence or a paragraph longer, and you should allow for that possibility. Most often, however, when you attack wordiness successfully, that’s what you will be doing.

(Remember, too, that accuracy is the number one goal of all journalists. You should never sacrifice accuracy to brevity. See the notes about achieving accuracy.)

Here are some things you should develop a sensitivity too – or let’s say these are pollens that you should develop an allergy to:

Redundancy. A redundancy is a set of words in which the idea or information is repeated. Some redundancies are easy to spot and eliminate. For instance:

Easter Sunday

Easter is always on Sunday, so the word “Sunday” doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. There are lots of redundancies floating around in the language (“component parts,” “exact same,” etc.), so carry a can of redundancide around with you and try to eliminate as many as possible. In fact, you should come to the next class with five redundancies that you have read or heard.

Sometimes redundancies may take a bit more consideration. The legal eagles around us are full of redundancies, and one of my favorites is “cease and desist.” Strictly speaking, I suppose, this is not a redundancy; there is a shade of difference between the meanings of these two words, enough so that they add something for the reader. But the copyeditor has to make a judgment about how good these words are, how much value they have. Are they worth using? Both of them? Or would the reader be just as well off with the word “stop”? The good copyeditor is always thinking about this stuff.

Repetition. The general principle is that no information in a news story should be repeated. You are probably safe in sticking with that principle. But you might be surprised by how many times the principle gets violated. Beginning reporters – especially those who have under-reported their stories – are bad about repeating information. The time and date that was in the lead paragraph often shows up in the last paragraph.

Taking a course from a paraphrase to a direct quotation is sometimes the occasion for repetition. For example:

She said the president had no plans to invade Iran at this time. “President Smith has said repeatedly that there are no plans on the table to launch an invasion of Iran,” she said.

The direct quotation does not tell us any more than the first sentence did. It should be eliminated, and another direct quotation – one that adds to the information we can give our readers – should be used.

Avoid repeating major words in a news story. Try to use synonyms.

Avoid repeating major or unique phrases.

And, above all, try to avoid repeating verbs, especially from one sentence to the next. Active, descriptive verbs carry more information weight than any other words. When you repeat a verb, even in a different paragraph, you usually haven’t told the reader much more than he or she already knew.

 

Note: Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute has written an excellent essay on “word territory.” Key words and phrases in your writing should be given space, or territory, and you do this by not repeating them.

Bureaucratese, or “official speak.” Reporters often fall into the trap of using the language or phrases of their sources, who may be officials of government agencies or businesses. Usually, this language is overblown or laden with excessive verbiage. In other words, it uses too many words, and it’s not plain English. Reporters might be forgiven for this sin (or they might not), but editors can never be forgiven for missing this stuff.

The following is from a state education site, describing what a journalism course or program should be in a high school:

The primary goal of any journalism program should be for students to improve oral and written communication skills. Many high school students seek opportunities to explore career possibilities in the media. Journalism programs should offer students many opportunities to excel in a variety of areas.

It’s full of “official speak.” Let’s try to rewrite it in plain English. What does it really say?

And watch out for jargon. What’s jargon? The language of a special group. Scientists have their jargon; so do sports writers and educators and jazz musicians. All God’s children got their jargon. As an editor, you shouldn’t let it slip into the writing.


Now the soapbox.

As a copyeditor, you should be offended by any misuse of the language. You should call for public humiliation of people who misuse the language by anything from grammatical errors to redundancies to bureaucratese. You should feel an affinity for the language and should be protective of it, just as you might be protective of a family member. And you should root out such violations of the language, mercilessly.

As an editor, your duty is to change what needs to be changed. Your duty is to help the reporter give the reader as much information as efficiently as possible.

And most reporters need help.

Check out the exercises on wordiness, redundancies and repetition in The Complete Editor.

Jim Stovall (Posted Feb. 10, 2005)

Discussion notes: Responsibilities of the editor

Editors have broader responsibilites than a reporter to a news organization. They must take charge of various aspects of the news operation that reporters do not have to consider.

— Editors must take a broader view of their job, the news organization and the entire profession

— Editors must know the organization

• purpose
• structure
• processes
• history and tradition

— Editors must develop skills in handling people and resources

• budgets
• helping people achieve success
• allocating resources

— Editors must be masters of the language

• style, especially style
• grammar (sometimes they must arbitrate)
• understand the importance of language precision

— Editors must understand the forms of information presentation that their medium demands

• inverted pyramid story structure
• other forms of news presentation
• graphic forms
• photo editing
• language of design

The death of the clever headline?

Writing a good headline – accurate, clear and clever – is the most difficult task in the process of journalism.

The evidence for that appears on a thousand newspapers and news web sites every day where you don’t have to search very hard to find inaccurate, confusing and mundane headlines that give readers good information about the article they represent.

Writing a good headline is also one of the most important tasks of journalism.

The headline is the reader’s first view of the article and often their only course of information about the story. A good headline has a lot to do with whether or not a reader dives into the story. Headlines also set the tone of the publication.

Headlines are notoriously difficult to write. For decades I have watched students and professionals struggle with find those few exactly right words that will say just what should be said about the story. And I have participated in plenty of those struggles myself.

The headline writer is faced with substantial and often complex information but must make a clear, coherent statement about it using only eight to ten words (if that many). The headline has to accurately reflect not just what the story says but it also has to take into account the context of the story and the ability of the reader to understand it. Plus, the headline writer has to do this again and again every day under the pressure of a headline.

Now there is yet another pressure: Google, and all its kind.

In an article this week in the New York Times, Steve Lohr writes that headline writers are increasingly called to take into account what search engines look for when scanning web sites looking for relevant material. (The Boring Headline is Written for Google) A high placement for a story by a search engine can draw readers by the thousands, and that in turn can mean increased advertising revenue.

So news organizations large and small have begun experimenting with tweaking their Web sites for better search engine results. But software bots are not your ordinary readers: They are blazingly fast yet numbingly literal-minded. There are no algorithms for wit, irony, humor or stylish writing. The software is a logical, sequential, left-brain reader, while humans are often right brain.

 

Lohr makes the point with a number of good examples of how news organizations have changed headlines to make them less clever and more bland, satisfying the search engine’s tastes. Some news organizations are even writing two headlines, one that can be picked up by the search engine and one that can be seen by the readers of the site or that will appear in the print version of the story.

Whether search engines will influence journalism below the headline is uncertain. The natural-language processing algorithms, search experts say, scan the title, headline and at least the first hundred words or so of news articles.

Journalists, they say, would be wise to do a little keyword research to determine the two or three most-searched words that relate to their subject — and then include them in the first few sentences. “That’s not something they teach in journalism schools,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online newsletter. “But in the future, they should.”

Another challenge to us all.

Jim Stovall (Posted April 14, 2006)

Update: But worse than the boring headline is the useless one. Here is Steffen Fjaervik’s take on this. (Posted April 14, 2006)

Editing for the web: example 1 illustration

Below is a version of editing assignment 1 where the editor has tried to follow the instructions in the assignment. What are some of the obvious differences that you can spot immediately between the original and edited versions? What are some of the less obvious differences? Is there anything else or different that the editor might have done with this story?

 

Editing for the web: example 1

Let’s say you’ve decided that the web is a different medium than print (you’re right, it is!) and that you want to do more than simply shovel stories written for print onto your web site.

And let’s say the story below shows up on your computer screen:

UT Official Studies Impact of Rankings on Higher Education

KNOXVILLE –- Media rankings of colleges and university MBA programs matter to students, faculty, alumni and donors. They influence the way colleges and universities do their work. And, while some academics question the validity of rankings, most believe them to be correct.

Those are among the findings of a research study done by Nissa Dahlin-Brown, assistant director of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. Dahlin-Brown has a doctorate in higher education administration and policy studies.

Dahlin-Brown’s study, “The Perceptual Impact of U.S. News & World Report Rankings on Eight Public MBA Programs,” was published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, a peer-reviewed, refereed, professional and scholarly journal published by Haworth Press.

U.S. News & World Report, which publishes a variety of college ranking lists, has published its rankings of the nation’s top 50 MBA programs since 1990. U.S. News officials said rankings are based on reputation (40 percent), placement success (35 percent) and student selectivity (25 percent).

“I set out to discover and describe the impact of the U.S. News & World Report rankings on ranked and unranked public MBA schools,” Dahlin-Brown said. She interviewed 45 faculty and administrators. Those officials represented eight unnamed colleges and universities — three in the Tier 1 (ranked 1-25), three in Tier 2 (ranked 26-50) and two unranked institutions.

Four themes emerged from the research, according to Dahlin-Brown.

First, rankings matter. “Rankings catch the attention of prospective students, parents, and employers,” she said. “Schools that rank well win praise from legislators, trustees, and alumni.”

Further, she noted in her published study: “Schools have found that when (MBA program’s) rankings rise, admission applications go up. If their ranking drops, many tell stories of decreased enrollments, angry alumni and students, lost funding, and more.”

Second, rankings impact policy and practice. Those interviewed said the desire to be a top-ranked MBA school had prompted their institutions to adopt some controversial practices. Those practices include doing away with undergraduate programs to provide more resources for MBA programs and beefing up career services and admissions offices to funneling more money into MBA programs.

Thirdly, rankings may be based more on appearance than substance

“Some of the people I interviewed complained that rankings weren’t statistically based,” Dahlin-Brown said, noting that literature on the topic has echoed that concern. Dahlin-Brown’s study quotes one person interviewed as saying, “I think these rankings, no matter how systematic they are, tend to be beauty contests.”

Finally, rankings are generally thought to be correct, i.e., top-ranked were the best.

Although most participants thought U.S. News’ top-ranked schools were the nation’s best, they said that’s partly because those schools have good overall reputations.

“Most participants agreed that the U.S. News ranking did not measure the academic excellence of the (MBA) schools they ranked,” the study states.

Dahlin-Brown’s study also notes that schools with MBA programs ranked 1-25 were more positive about the rankings than those ranked 26-50, or not ranked at all.
“College rankings have become a point of controversy in the higher education community,” she said. “While some think rankings are helpful to prospective students, others think the rankings are time-consuming endeavors that have little or no constructive value.”

So what do we do?

The story deals with an interesting topic and has a lot of good information in it, but its writing style and structure are not suitable for the web. Our first job is to edit the story so that it is more web-friendly. That will involve the following:

Shortening the story. It’s now more than 500 words; our goal is to get it to 300 or fewer.

Making the writing more lively and direct.

Making the story more appropriate for text on the web with the use of links, lists, paragraph spacing.

Writing a short summary to go at the head of the story.

Writing a livelier headline.

OK, let’s take a look at an example of how this was done. This page will open in a new window. Resize both windows so you can look at the original version and the edited version at the same time.

Discussion notes: editing for the web

These notes are designed for editing instructors who want to conduct a section on editing for the web or online journalism instructors who want to teach their students about the special considerations for editing for a news web site.

An example of taking a “for print” story and making it into a “for the web” can be found here at JPROF.

Begin with the basics

Any discussion of journalistic editing should begin with reminding students of the basics of copy editing that do not change no matter what the medium:

Grammar, spelling, punctuation — These are always considerations for the editor. It is just as important to be technically perfect in use of the language on the web as it is in any other medium. Two common mistakes in punctuation: direct quotations and forming possessives.

AP style — Style rules are not optional in any journalistic setting.

Syntax, sense, repetition and redundancy — All of these are problems that need to be dealt with in any writing, web included.

Accuracy — Always, accuracy. (See JPROF’s notes on Achieving Accuracy.)

Structure and emphasis — The basic form for news on the web is still the inverted pyramid news story. (Checklist for inverted pyramid news stories.) Readers of the web want their information immediately; writers and editors need to give it to them.

The five Ws and H. Editors should make sure that there is a clear statement of who, what, when, why and how in the story. (Where and when, too, certainly.) These things tend to get lost in all the verbiage that we are likely to produce.

So, what’s different about the web? Well, here are a few things:

Conciseness

Wordiness is one of the chief editing problems that a web editor must attack. (See discussion notes for Attacking Wordiness.) The web demands — and readers demand — that information come packaged in the fewest words possible. They want detail, they want color, but they also want efficiency. Read the before and after stories in the editing for the web example (referred to above) and see how the editor has attacked the verbiage of the writer. Has anything been lost or left out? Was it that important to understanding the story?

(You may want to talk to your students about a broadcast writing approach if you have not done so already: simple words, simple sentences, telling the story quickly, getting out. We don’t really have to go that far on the web, but we do need to emphasize conciseness.)

Visual aspects

On the web, one of the most important aspects of writing is how it looks. Computer screens are sometimes difficult to view, and text on a computer screen takes some extra effort. In addition, many readers are in the habit of “scanning” rather than “reading.” As editors, we need to offer them visual cues that interrupt their scanning to concentrate on the words that are on the screen. An editor needs to ensure that the presentation of the words is as legible and easy to understand as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

Paragraph separation — A pretty standard presentation on the web is to have a line of white space between the paragraphs. Some programs do this automatically, but if they do not, the editor should see that this is one, as long as it is consistent with the visual style of the web site. Here is a good time to bring up the value of WHITE SPACE in design; white space is what allows us to see items on a page or on a computer screen. The web has unlimited space, so creating the appropriate amount of white space should not be a problem.

Lists — Creating lists, where they are appropriate, is one of the most valuable things a writer or editor can do for a web audience. Lists are easy to read because they are short and the white space is built in. But a good list should also be informative and should add value for the reader.

Block quotes and indentations — Block quotes, as long as they are not too extensive, are another device that makes reading easier. Like lists, they have white space built in.

Pull quotes — The pull quote is a graphic device used for many decades in print to create white space on a gray page. A pull quote can also be used to emphasize certain information. This is an important editorial decision that the editor should take seriously and give a good deal of thought to. A pull quote does not have to be an direct quotation, although that is often the way it is used. A pull quote can be anything that editor deems relevant and worth emphasis.

Story box — A story box is like a pull quote in a graphic sense: an insertion of larger type into the body of a story. The box doesn’t pretend to be a quotation, however. It is an explanatory paragraph of list that adds something that is not in the story itself. It introduces both graphic variety and new information to the reader. An editor who creates a story box must spend some time and effort on it.

Subheads — Subheads serve the same purpose on the web that they do in print: to break long stretches of copy. Subheads should be consistent and logical in their placement, and they should be accurate in their description of the text below them. They should be general enough to cover what the text says in the next few paragraphs.

Links

Links represent one of the special powers of the web as a news medium — the ability to put the reader in touch with additional information about a top. For more on linking, see The Art of Linking article on JPROF.

For the editor, two major questions about links arise:

Where can I insert inline links into the text? And from this question comes those of where will be link take the reader? And will the purpose of the link (that is, where it will take the reader) be apparent? The editor needs to construct inline links so that they fit into the copy flow but that they are also obvious about what the reader will get if he or she clicks on that link.

What links do I list separately (related links)? Why are they there? Sometimes the reason for their presence will be obvious. At other times, the editor will need to describe them succinctly but in a way that will inform the reader.

Chunking

Chunking is an inelegant term for breaking up information and presenting it to the reader. In print, we think in terms of a single “story” and possibly a few exras: pictures, graphs, sidebars, etc. On a web site, we should think in terms of a subject/event and the different pieces of information we have about it.

At this stage of the web’s development, we still think of the central piece of information as a “story,” albeit a shorter narrative that we might have in print. In the near future, we may see a reduction in the use of the “story” as the organizing center of a web package. It may instead be the video or the photo gallery.

Chunking means that we need to consider the pieces of our package. Many of these pieces may be put together in some kind of text/narrative, such as an inverted pyramid news story. Other pieces, however, may not fit into that genre, and as editors we should be intellectually nimble enough to handle them.

Jim Stovall (Posted Feb. 7, 2007; updated Feb. 3, 2009)

New York Times coverage of Obama’s speech – a different reporting form

  • The New York Times used the tools of the web to bring the story of Barack Obama’s speech to Congress last week in a different and innovative way.

The web offers journalists many opportunities to report on events in ways that we never could have done with another medium. Witness the New York Times coverage of President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress last week.

The Times had a straight news story on it, certainly, with all of the accompanying reactions and standard forms that print news stories are supposed to take.

But reporters and editors put together information about the speech in an innovative way that shows what can be done when a bit of creativity and imaginable are combined with the tools that the web gives to good editors and reporters. The screen shot to the right shows how the Times combined:

  • a video of the speech;
  • a marked timeline of the video so users could select a particular part of the speech if they wanted to;
  • a transcript of the speech so readers could follow along the video or simply read it without the video;
  • commentary and information from the reporters and editors about each part of the speech.

This package undoubtedly took some fancy coding to set it up correctly and some testing to make sure that it worked. No news organization could invest this kind of time and effort in anything less than a major story.

But here is an alternative to the straight narrative, and it is impressive.

Editing for the web: discussion notes for journalism instructors

These notes are designed for editing instructors who want to conduct a section on editing for the web or online journalism instructors who want to teach their students about the special considerations for editing for a news web site.

An example of taking a “for print” story and making it into a “for the web” can be found here at JPROF.

Begin with the basics

Any discussion of journalistic editing should begin with reminding students of the basics of copy editing that do not change no matter what the medium:

  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation — These are always considerations for the editor. It is just as important to be technically perfect in use of the language on the web as it is in any other medium. Two common mistakes in punctuation: direct quotations and forming possessives.
  • AP style — Style rules are not optional in any journalistic setting.

  • Syntax, sense, repetition and redundancy — All of these are problems that need to be dealt with in any writing, web included.

  • Accuracy — Always, accuracy. (See JPROF’s notes on Achieving Accuracy.)

  • Structure and emphasis — The basic form for news on the web is still the inverted pyramid news story. (Checklist for inverted pyramid news stories.) Readers of the web want their information immediately; writers and editors need to give it to them.

  • The five Ws and H. Editors should make sure that there is a clear statement of who, what, when, why and how in the story. (Where and when, too, certainly.) These things tend to get lost in all the verbiage that we are likely to produce.

So, what’s different about the web? Well, here are a few things:

Conciseness

Wordiness is one of the chief editing problems that a web editor must attack. (See discussion notes for Attacking Wordiness.) The web demands — and readers demand — that information come packaged in the fewest words possible. They want detail, they want color, but they also want efficiency. Read the before and after stories in the editing for the web example (referred to above) and see how the editor has attacked the verbiage of the writer. Has anything been lost or left out? Was it that important to understanding the story?

(You may want to talk to your students about a broadcast writing approach if you have not done so already: simple words, simple sentences, telling the story quickly, getting out. We don’t really have to go that far on the web, but we do need to emphasize conciseness.)

Visual aspects

On the web, one of the most important aspects of writing is how it looks. Computer screens are sometimes difficult to view, and text on a computer screen takes some extra effort. In addition, many readers are in the habit of “scanning” rather than “reading.” As editors, we need to offer them visual cues that interrupt their scanning to concentrate on the words that are on the screen. An editor needs to ensure that the presentation of the words is as legible and easy to understand as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Paragraph separation — A pretty standard presentation on the web is to have a line of white space between the paragraphs. Some programs do this automatically, but if they do not, the editor should see that this is one, as long as it is consistent with the visual style of the web site. Here is a good time to bring up the value of WHITE SPACE in design; white space is what allows us to see items on a page or on a computer screen. The web has unlimited space, so creating the appropriate amount of white space should not be a problem.

  • Lists — Creating lists, where they are appropriate, is one of the most valuable things a writer or editor can do for a web audience. Lists are easy to read because they are short and the white space is built in. But a good list should also be informative and should add value for the reader.
  • Block quotes and indentations — Block quotes, as long as they are not too extensive, are another device that makes reading easier. Like lists, they have white space built in.
  • Pull quotes — The pull quote is a graphic device used for many decades in print to create white space on a gray page. A pull quote can also be used to emphasize certain information. This is an important editorial decision that the editor should take seriously and give a good deal of thought to. A pull quote does not have to be an direct quotation, although that is often the way it is used. A pull quote can be anything that editor deems relevant and worth emphasis.
  • Story box — A story box is like a pull quote in a graphic sense: an insertion of larger type into the body of a story. The box doesn’t pretend to be a quotation, however. It is an explanatory paragraph of list that adds something that is not in the story itself. It introduces both graphic variety and new information to the reader. An editor who creates a story box must spend some time and effort on it.
  • Subheads — Subheads serve the same purpose on the web that they do in print: to break long stretches of copy. Subheads should be consistent and logical in their placement, and they should be accurate in their description of the text below them. They should be general enough to cover what the text says in the next few paragraphs.

Links

Links represent one of the special powers of the web as a news medium — the ability to put the reader in touch with additional information about a top. For more on linking, see The Art of Linking article on JPROF.

For the editor, two major questions about links arise:

Where can I insert inline links into the text? And from this question comes those of where will be link take the reader? And will the purpose of the link (that is, where it will take the reader) be apparent? The editor needs to construct inline links so that they fit into the copy flow but that they are also obvious about what the reader will get if he or she clicks on that link.

What links do I list separately (related links)? Why are they there? Sometimes the reason for their presence will be obvious. At other times, the editor will need to describe them succinctly but in a way that will inform the reader.

Chunking

Chunking is an inelegant term for breaking up information and presenting it to the reader. In print, we think in terms of a single “story” and possibly a few exras: pictures, graphs, sidebars, etc. On a web site, we should think in terms of a subject/event and the different pieces of information we have about it.

At this stage of the web’s development, we still think of the central piece of information as a “story,” albeit a shorter narrative that we might have in print. In the near future, we may see a reduction in the use of the “story” as the organizing center of a web package. It may instead be the video or the photo gallery.

Chunking means that we need to consider the pieces of our package. Many of these pieces may be put together in some kind of text/narrative, such as an inverted pyramid news story. Other pieces, however, may not fit into that genre, and as editors we should be intellectually nimble enough to handle them.

Jim Stovall (Originally posted on JPROF Feb. 7, 2007; updated Feb. 3, 2009)