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Editing tactics for dopey leads and other poor writing techniques

story editingAs kids, it was fun to ride a seesaw (and occasionally even fall off). As adults, riding the ups and downs of the stock market and the economy is enough to make us sick. (Forbes)

Seasoned business editors think they’ve seen it all, until the next dopey lede pops up.

We can deal with misspellings, bad numbers and even flawed historical references. But it’s usually hard to talk a reporter out of embarrassing himself with the sort of bad writing that the copy editors might read aloud for laughs after deadline.

It’s hard to keep count sometimes. For every finely crafted column we read, we seem to get five “early Christmas presents.” It’s entirely possible that the writer who turned in “jittery investors” thinks she invented the term.

Starbucks sells coffee. The CEO is looking for “common grounds for action,” whatever that means. Coffee leaves grounds. So the writer smacks her forehead and writes, “Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s message about finding common grounds for action has nothing to do with coffee grounds.” The writer is a professor and a book-writer, so we might have trouble appealing to common sense. What to do?

Fix it.

Carol Fisher Saller, author of the “The Subversive Copy Editor,” is not in the news business, but she seems to get it. “What I’m suggesting is that your first loyalty be to the audience of the work you’re editing: that is, the reader,” she writes early on. She is really talking about nitty-gritty style in manuscripts, but it’s a nice thought. For our line of work, I would add that No. 2 on the loyalty list is the institution you work for, with the writer a distant No. 3. We don’t have time to massage egos; that’s what assigning editors are for.

Fixing bad copy in the face of prideful writers and defensive desk editors is tricky business. Before you try it, make sure the department head has your back. Miscalculating the support you have can be fatal to your career.

In 2003, I gave this advice to budding copy editors: “Occasionally you will come across something awful that you know everyone will want to keep. Fix it anyhow. If you are called on it after publication, shrug your shoulders and say, ‘What can you do?’ Reserve this for really bad stuff. It could backfire.” Yes, it could.

The emphasis on speed imposed in the years since I said that might work to your advantage. Many writers see instant publication as validation for their raw product (“I write to publish—I don’t write to revise,” one said proudly). A smart editor, though, might see speed as an ally: Who has time to go over every change with a writer, when the world is waiting for the news?

That supposes, of course, that we get to edit this stuff before it hits the Web. That’s another problem, for another day.

In Best Practices, Phillip Blanchard, TrendingTopic.

Comments (2)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Great piece, revealing some of the innards of publishing. (How many people know the difference between an assigning editor, a desk editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader.)

    (Forgive me for pointing out the typo "lede" instead of "lead" in paragraph 2.)

  2. Sorry, anonymous, but that is no typo.

    lede
    c.1965, alternative spelling of lead in the newspaper journalism sense (see lead (v.)), used to distinguish this sense from other possible meanings of the word, perhaps especially the molten lead used in typesetting machines.

    Now, you probably never worked with molten lead (I certainly didn’t), but lede is still CQ for the first paragraph of the story .. .or the intro as they say in the UK.

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