Copy Editing

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Jun 27, 2008 in Journalism Basics

At some newspapers, they call them copy editors; at others, sub-editors or "subs." At small operations, the chief editor often has to do everything: assign stories, edit the copy, write the headlines, choose and crop the photos, write the captions, lay out the pages (and perhaps eat lunch!).

No matter what the title is, too often copy editing is narrowly defined as the task of fixing typos and spelling, doing a little cutting, and writing the heads-not a particularly high responsibility. But, the fact is, this job is often the last defense against inaccuracy, confusion and just plain trouble. For those of you who do this work, here are some thoughts that may help.

Think of yourself as three distinct people:

1. Consumer
2. Architect
3. Mechanic

Consumer:

Read the whole story first, putting your self in the place of the average reader. Don't make any major changes at this stage (even though few can resist tinkering). Avoiding the temptation to start hacking away gives you the luxury of taking the long view, the audience's perspective: Is this the kind of story I want to read? Is it interesting enough that I want to read on? Do I understand it? Is it so full of jargon that it needs a translation? Do I know why the story is in the newspaper in the first place?

The intelligent reader wants to be shown, not told. Does this story do it? If you're not satisfied on any of these fronts, jot down a note or two at the top of the page.

Architect:

Even though you may be tempted here to pick up the repairman's hammer or hatchet, look first for fundamental design flaws. Fixing the little things might end up being a waste of your time, because the whole story may need a complete overhaul. Here is where you want to make sure there are no major holes, that the six pillars of a story are in place: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. If this essential information is not there, mark it in the margin. Now, you will want to look closely at the structure, the organization of the story. This starts with the "lead" or "intro," which sets the whole tone and approach for the rest of the story. Perhaps the writer should have taken a "back door"-i.e., been more indirect-because the news is either stale or meager. Or perhaps there should be a more direct, straight-news approach. Maybe a key fact or quotation buried on the second page should be brought up higher in the story, for example.

Let's take a moment here to summarize the classic structure of a straight news story:

  • summary lead
  • supporting information
  • secondary information
  • background
  • additional detail, if necessary

And, somewhere up high in the story, if it's not obvious on the face of it, there should be a context paragraph answering that crucial question: "So what?"

Another weakness to be on guard for as architect is whether the lead/intro is backed up with hard evidence and quotations. Often, the information in the first paragraph is left standing in lonely isolation, looking for support among 800 or so words.

Finally, ask yourself: "Is the structure balanced, too? Are all sides represented or is the story lopsided?" It goes without saying that you've checked for libel.

Mechanic:

Cut away the fat and unnecessary detail (newsprint is expensive, and so is a reader's time). If it doesn't add to the essence of the story, cut it out. And watch out for inappropriate or unnecessary adjectives.

If there are numbers in the story, make sure they add up. If they're questionable, double check with the reporter. If you have any suspicions about name spellings and addresses, double check those, too, because few things can undermine a paper's credibility than to have those details wrong.

If you have to cut a story to make it fit, make sure the least important information is the first to go, and that the story still flows. In conclusion, ICFJ's former Director of Training, Tewfik Mishlawi, likes to use the acronym "HELP" to help him fashion a good news story:

Humanize
Energize
Localize
Personalize