Friday, May 1, 2009

Where Have All The Editors Gone?


There once was a time when if you wrote a headline like this for a wire service, a grizzled vet across the newsroom who edited your copy would explode in laughter or rage. If you were a greenhorn, it would be the latter rather than the former. Either way, the vet's coffee would be spilled all over the desk, ashtray knocked to the floor--such would be the umbrage taken at the headline and story description of this suspect.
The editor would stand and hitch up his pants over his pot belly and question the writer's manhood, intelligence and college pedigree in language that would peel paint. (At least mine did).
Now pictures may be deceiving, and John Floyd Thomas Jr. could be eight feet tall, but he doesn't look like he weighs 800 pounds. Either of those physical features would qualify Thomas as the "largest ever" serial killer.
Instead, he's suspected of being the most prolific killer in L.A.'s history, a fact that Thomas Watkins notes in his lede. So why does the headline quote robbery-homicide Capt. Denis Cremins bludgeoning of the language?
"If he turns out to be the guy, he probably would be the largest ever (serial killer) in the city of Los Angeles."
We may never know, just as we may never know why serial killers are "prolific," "indefatigable," hardworking," "dedicated," "diligent" or "tireless."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The "Natinal" Pastime

The team off to the worst start (3-10) in Major League Baseball also employs a vendor with the worst spelling habits.

The Washington Nationals use Majestic Athletic uniforms and, as part of the deal, they get Majestic's crackerjack copy desk too. Nationals players Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman played three innings of a game last week wearing home jerseys that read Natinals.

It took a few days, but Majestik officials finally got around to apologizing.

Uniform typos aren't uncommon, unfortunately. Joe Carter of Toronto (below) was an earlier, famous example. And it took him six innings to figure it out, according to Paul Lukas, who compiled a nice list of jersey injustice two years ago.

By the way, for those of you keeping count, the Nationals lost the Typo Game in extra innings, 3-2. Zimmerman was 2-5 and Dunn 0-3.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Word of the Day: Chthonian (gesundheit!)


Occasionally, I come across a word I couldn't even imagine existed, have never heard and couldn't make up if my life depended on it. Today was such a day.

Chthonian (tho' ne un): Pertraining to the deities, spirits and other beings dwelling under the earth.

A variation was used in Meghan Cox Gurdon's brilliant essay in today's Wall Street Journal on eco-propaganda in children's literature (Carl Hiaasen being her poster boy in this case).

If you have somehow missed the fact that April 22 is Earth Day, it's probably because you are grown up. Were you a child, there's not a chance you'd be allowed to miss the urgent chthonic nature of the day -- nor the need to recycle, to use water sparingly, to protect endangered creatures and generally to be agitated about a planet in peril.
This weekend in the mountains, as I lay down on the ground to sleep under the stars, I will no doubt listen for faint chtonic sounds emanating from below me, maybe from the goddess pictured here.
And it'll probably keep me awake all night!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Copy Editor's Lament


A lovely mixture of melody and lyric brings the tragedy of the dying copy desk home at Christopher Ave's site, Music for Media.
"Copy Editor's Lament" makes you laugh and cry at the same time, especially if, like the protagonist, you've been laid off! (And, if you're like me, you met your future wife on the copy desk in college).

An excerpt:
"I'm a human safety net...I can provide punctuation, appropriate for publication, make the capitalization right. I was there to fix your grammar when you thought it wouldn't matter, cut all your extraneous blather down."

Copy editors are among the tens of thousands of reporters and editors who have been cut loose in the past year or two in North America. As Ave puts it in the song, "with only Web sites and TV, nothing really there to help you see."

Yeah. Good luck with that.

In any case, here's to Christopher Ave and all of you who understand the difference between a colon and a semicolon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

New Gig, Old Books

So what's a fellow to do on Day One of his work in the Gig Economy? Unpack reference books from the old gig.
That work, which I did first thing yesterday morning, may be akin to a soldier checking, oiling and testing his weapon. I felt a granite sureness in pulling out Webster's Unabridged, The Chicago Manual of Style, Follett, Fowler, Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook. Weapons and ammo. Check. Ready to go to battle.
I mentioned this in a Tweet and got an interesting response from an old colleague, an award-winning wordsmith in his publishing days.
Strunk and White? Are you kidding? The days of having 30 minute arguments of serial commas and whether one means anticipation or simple expectation are days of yore, old friend.
I understand where he's coming from, in an era of 140-word Tweets and IM slang that's, OMG, 2die4.But sunshine peeks through the clouds. His response coincided with a request from a colleague at Blanc & Otus. A client wanted to resolve an internal discussion about how to handle compound modifiers. He was wondering whether their copy was too hyphen-happy.
There, in the pages of those great language books, was the guidance we so often have trouble finding these days: Use the hyphen to avoid confusion. "Small-business owners" means something different than "small business owners."
So people still care. Are these people graying around the temples, raised at a time when we read books not screens, tapped typewriters not keyboards? Perhaps. But at the agency I got urgent questions from twenty-somethings (note the hyphen) about serial commas, about punctuation, about style. It matters.
People, like nature, abhor a vacuum.While the language evolves as it should, business communications, done well, will always adhere to rules.

Friday, February 13, 2009

In writing, measure twice, cut once

PR industry consultant Sam Whitmore has been tracking editorial accuracy (as if he doesn't have enough to do!). It falls loosely under the umbrella that smaller editorial staffs are doing more work and stress cracks are emerging. He used as an example an error in a Wall Street Journal story about an SAP product. His email blast today contained the following:
It turns out that the WSJ no longer has a copy desk per se. Senior editors still read and edit stories, but recent layoffs have decimated the layer of fit-and-finish wordsmiths -- copy editors and slot readers -- that reinforced the WSJ's hard-earned reputation for excellence. Also, WSJ production systems don't make it easy for reporters see a headline before it runs. This creates risk when stories are technical, like the SAP piece.
This anecdote illuminates a ignored problem within digital publishing: When a piece of content is published, regardless of when it's corrected, the original incorrect version not only can get into millions of hands quickly but can also exist in certain forms even after the correction.
The moral to the story? Similar to a carpenter (who should measure twice, cut once): edit many, publish once.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Apostrophe Catastrophe Continues

Earlier this month I blogged about about the lingua lunacy that's infiltrated elected officials in Birmingham, England. In short, they're ignoring them on public signs.
An updated dispatch from the Daily Telegraph indicates the good guys are still losing the good fight.
Wakefield Council in West Yorkshire said that it did not include the punctuation mark on road signs "to avoid confusion", even where the name was intended to take the possessive.
One of the good guys turns out to be the uncle of an EE Times colleague of mine, David Blaza.

Allan Blaza of the Pontefract Civic Society accused the council of ducking its responsibility to maintain standards.

He said: "I think it's a cop out. I'm sufficiently rigorous when it comes to the English language, which is a magnificent language, to feel sure that all the grammatical necessities – not niceties – should be observed."

Here, here, Mr. Blaza. Now that said, check out the photos here. The upper photo is from the earlier coverage and shows no apostrophe. The lower photo is from the more recent story. It has an apostrophe but appears to be a different sign placed in a slightly different position near the church.
So there's hope.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Art of Editing

Our son, a high school sophomore, demonstrated over breakfast today why that adage about jazz is just as true about writing: Often it's what you leave out that resonates more than what you put in.

He was reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a trial of a man accused of shooting the bullet that paralyzed a young boy while he was playing piano.

Here's the lede:
(02-02) 17:58 PST OAKLAND -- The 11-year-old boy paralyzed by a gas station robber's bullet while taking a piano lesson in Oakland still plays music and basketball - but now, he does both from a wheelchair.

My son's suggestion: Replace "paralyzed" with "hit" or "struck" or "shot," and you have a better lede. The changed construction adds an element of suspense to the sentence because it leaves out the outcome of the shooting until the end of the sentence. The emotion-coaster that creates in a single sentence is breathtaking: He was shot! Oh, he survived! He can play basketball and piano! Oh! He's paralyzed and in a wheelchair!

Writing is just as much about engaging with readers as it is about the raw conveyance of ideas and information, even in the digital age. Whether it's in print or online or in an email newsletter, good writing engages the mind.
You do that, and the rest will follow.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Catastrophe for Apostrophes

The people who invented the English language seemed determined to destroy it.
Birmingham, England, officials have decided it's okay not to have apostrophes.

Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city's transport scrutiny committee, said he decided to act after yet another interminable debate into whether "Kings Heath," a Birmingham suburb, should be rewritten with an apostrophe.

"I had to make a final decision on this," he said Friday. "We keep debating apostrophes in meetings and we have other things to do."

Martin, why on Earth are you debating apostrophes? There's nothing to debate. They're a crucial part of understanding a written piece of communication.

Perhaps you should pass a law allowing people to spell Birmingham any which way they choose. Or renaming it. I'd vote for Mullaney's Folly.



Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quote of the day

From Dr. Seuss:
"So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads."

Tip of the cap to Mighty Meredith for the Twitter Tip.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How Obama's Words Look to Us

A great way to revise and refine your copy is to run it through visualization tools (more on this in another post). Then there are times when you just want to admire how those words look. Here's what one visualization of Barack Obama's inauguration speech looks like, courtesy of the IBM-backed tool Many Eyes. Click on the image for a better view.
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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Writer in Chief

It seems appropriate to re-energize this blog on Inauguration Day, as Barack Obama takes office as the 44th (and first African-American) president of the United States. It's not just about the theme of hope that we so dearly need right now, but it's, as Peggy Noonan points out, the theme of language.
Imagine that: A writer in the White House. It's a been a while. Maybe not since Kennedy (although Profiles in Courage was a bit of an outsourced endeavor).
Noonan wrote in this weekend's Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Obama is a writer, and he sees himself as a writer. It is an important part of his self-perception. He is the author of two books, the first of considerable literary merit. He loves words. It is in writing that he absorbs, organizes data, thinks his way through to views and decisions, all of which adds to the expectations for his speech.
I can relate to that.
On Greeley's Ghost last year, I wrote of Obama's muse, Abraham Lincoln and how gracefully he describes his favorite portrait of Lincoln.
Could it be that a writer--The Writer in Chief--could navigate our troubled waters? We've had a businessman, two career politicians and an actor in the Oval Office since 1980. We've had good times and bad. And, I'd suggest, we've been frustrated at one level or another.
We need someone who can articulate not only our troubles but the way forward. In an age of sound bytes, text messages and IM, the complexities of the world around us are lost, vaporized in unknowing, uncaring, inarticulate ones and zeroes.
With his savvy use of new media, it could very well be that Obama, the writer, is the right man at the right time, able to analyze, synthesize and articulate complex problems and bridge old forms of communications with new, while using language to inspire and lead.
There's hope yet.

 

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