Active duty for the undead

Sometimes I think journalists have an obsession with zombies.* (Or is it that the world at large has one right now?)

If you have a zombie thing, why not put it to good use as an editing agent. The zombie rule can help you determine if the sentence you are writing is passive.

I first heard about the zombie rule from American Copy Editors Society colleague Andy Bechtel, who said he wasn’t the originator. How does it work? If you can add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence and the sentence makes logical sense, then the sentence is passive.

“The parking ticket bill was passed (by zombies).” Get it? It’s a passive sentence. Whereas “The City Council passed the parking ticket bill (by zombies)” doesn’t make sense. So active sentence.

One of ACES grammar stalwarts, Lisa McLendon of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas, just did a fun video about active and passive voice and the zombie rule. She demonstrates it better than I could. So watch it! (Yes, I used an exclamation point.)

* In addition to Lisa’s video, another ACES colleague, Fred Vultee, also mentioned zombies in his blog this week.

Hanging out with my people

One of the many people I’ve met over the years at American Copy Editors Society events said recently that attending his first national conference was like finally finding his tribe.

logo-nb1I fully understand.

I’m all set up for the word-nerd fun this week, starting this Thursday. I’ll be busy during the conference — although maybe not as busy as I’ve been the past few weeks getting ready for it. (That’s why the blog has been a bit sparse lately.)

One of my big jobs this week will be running the student newsroom and  coordinating all the other volunteers who produce some great content for the ACES website during the conference. At an ACES conference, there are more training sessions than one person could ever attend, so the website offers second-level training both for those who are at the conference and those who can’t join us in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, copydesk.org can’t reproduce the after-hours conversations about the value of editing, grammar, errors we’ve seen and other issues big and small — mostly washed down with a drink of choice in the hotel bar. But you can always follow the #ACES2015 hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to get the flavor of that.

So even if you can’t be with “your people” this week, join in some of the editing fun on the ACES conference blog.

(But be kind if you see typos in the program. And don’t tell me about them.)

The value of slowing down

I was recently explaining triage editing to my students, telling them that when there’s a rush to publish, you have to concentrate on the big things first and not get bogged down in the things of lesser consequence.

So my hierarchy of triage editing is accuracy and clarity first, headlines (plus labels, decks … whatever your system calls them) second, grammar and punctuation third (when grammar and punctuation don’t affect clarity) and style last. Whether you capitalize a title has the least lasting impact.

Of course, triage editing depends on taking a quick read to make an assessment and then doing what you can in the time you have.

But sometimes, for some stories, it’s a good idea to just say “STOP!  Slow down. This story can’t be handled quickly. It’s better to get it right than be first.”

Poynter.org reported Tuesday that because of two recent incidents, Boston.com would be putting more emphasis on vetting stories and reassigning some editorial staffers to work on copy editing.

I particularly found this quote by Corey Gottlieb, Boston.com’s general manager, interesting:

“We’ve made a pretty strong point about the fact that it’s OK to slow down. That we’d much rather not be first but get something right and be really thoughtful about it than rush to publish and bypass the discretion that should be required of any good content producer like ours.” — http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/314791/in-response-to-missteps-boston-com-tweaks-its-editing-approach/

In a perfect world, we’d have all the time we needed to edit every story, and plenty of people behind us to take a look at it as well. And, unfortunately, sometimes errors would still find their way into copy.

It’s even more unfortunate that the rush to publish these days means many stories are posted without any editing. Because no matter how conscientious writers are, they are apt not to see their own errors — and worse, their own biases and misunderstandings.

No matter how much you want to beat the competition, or how few people are manning your copy desk, it’s important sometimes to take your time. Two specific instances would be when, as a copy editor, you think a story needs a fact check and when you think it focuses on sensitive issues that need more discussion. (That’s one of the things we’ll be talking about during the ACES national conference, March 26-28 in Pittsburgh, which has the theme “Getting It Right.”)

As a copy editor, you need to develop your “slow down” radar and you need to speak up about the value of slowing down to the editors above you. Don’t be timid about telling the bosses that something needs more editing time and another look.

That’s a different side of a copy editor’s “do no harm” mantra.

Make sure your bosses know that many more people will remember who got it wrong than who got it first.

Word choice matters

If 100 people gathered across the street from your workplace to express their opinion about something, would you call that a rally, protest or demonstration?

Here are a few definitions from the American Heritage dictionary:

Rally: n. A gathering, especially one intended to inspire enthusiasm for a cause: a political rally.

Protest: n. An individual or collective gesture or display of disapproval.

Demonstration: n. A public display of group opinion, as by a rally or march: peace demonstrations.

The three definitions are mostly the same, but there are slight differences. If the 100 people were mad because my employer had dumped toxic waste in a nearby stream, I’d be apt to call the event a protest. But if they wanted the leader of my company to run for governor, I’d probably use the word rally.

But beyond the dictionary definitions, we all know words have nuances to individuals. To me, a protest sounds a bit angrier than a demonstration. That may not be the case, but it’s a perception I have.

I grew up in a city along the Mississippi River. To me a river is big. Something about 3 feet wide is a creek or stream. Natives of the desert may see things a different way.

When you are editing, you need to look at word choice in the context of the type of editing you’re doing. In fiction editing, you may decide a word is too sterile and something that has more nuance is best. In news editing, you may decide a word is loaded — it evokes a certain opinion about the news event — and a more neutral word is better.

One of the jobs of the news copy editor is to make sure the word choice of the reporter doesn’t editorialize about the subject of the story.

Copy editors represent the reader. Remember, if you think a word is loaded, others will, too.