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ABCs of Copy Editing - Valuable tips for Copy Editors

Copy Editor's Cheat Sheet

attribute Attribution gives credibility. Don’t let it appear that the reporter is drawing conclusions. When you attribute, don’t say “according to a reliable source.” Get names and titles.

between/among between concerns two parties; among concerns three or more

concrete. Make the story concrete, supporting statements by:

  1. Including details and quotes.
  2. Translating terms. Don’t send readers to the dictionary, the map, or the calculator. Tell them where towns are, what a median income is, etc.

content Is the story complete? Does it need to hold for more work?

clarity Is the story clear, understandable? Don’t assume the reader knows as much about the news as you do.

ellipses use with caution. They interrupt the story and make the reader wonder what was left out and whether the omission affects the statement’s meaning. When using ellipses, don’t omit the verbs, nouns, etc. necessary to keep the statement from being nonsensical.

floating numbers “Everyone got his due,” not “Everybody got their due.”

geography If a story says Shepherdsville is in Shelby County, bells had better ring. If a reporter says New York City is the largest city in the world, stop the bus. If a story says Lima is the capital of Bolivia, you should know better.

headlines They usually are based on the lede and contain active verbs. Always make sure the story supports the headline, and try to avoid:

  1. Dead heads- heds that offer no perspective, aren’t precise, use inactive verbs, and don’t spark interest.
  2. Demand heads- “Kill five in a fight.” A hed should have a subject and a verb, although an understood verb is acceptable in a bind.
  3. Words with double meanings.
  4. Splits in clauses and verb phrases from line to line.
  5. Padding.
  6. Giveaway heads- heds that steal a reporter’s lead phrase.
  7. Obscure names.
  8. Wrong-emphasis heads. Sometimes a story needs an overall hed, not just one in the lede, to convey its message.
  9. Awkward abbreviations.
  10. Editorial headlines.

-ics, as in suffix.

  1. A dramatic coach and a dramatics coach.
  2. An athletic coach and an athletics coach.

jargon Don’t use jargon and non-words; they are imprecise and can be unclear.

Examples: “The parents wanted more input in the classroom.” Be more specific: “The parents wanted a larger role in decisions affecting the classroom.” “The project is not cost-effective.” Instead: “The project costs too much.” “The program is impacting on health?” Impacting.

jumping identification When a story includes more than one person, be precise with the second reference or the reader might end up wondering who’s saying what. Don’t say “the businessman said,” the good old boy said”; use names to avoid confusion.

keep alert and concentrate Understand what you are reading; think about every word and every statement; grasp detail and overall meaning.

ledes The lede is the most important sentence of the story; it keeps or loses the reader. Consider:

  1. Is the lede of the story really the lede? Has the lede missed the main point? Is the lede really 12 graphs down in the story?
  2. Does the lede make clear what the story is about or does it lead the reader on a wild goose chase?
  3. Does it spark interest?
  4. Does it add a new perspective or new dimension to the ongoing story?
  5. Does the story support the lede?

the five W’s don’t have to be included in every lede, but they generally form a good starting point.

length Is the story too long, too bogged down? Does it need trimming?

numbers Numbers are land mines. Always step carefully whenever numbers appear in a story. Consider:

  1. Do numbers and percentages add up?
  2. Are they realistic? Just because somebody provides them doesn’t mean they are correct. People can twist figures to mean anything they want.
  3. Are they abstract? Would they mean something to a reader? Can we put them in better perspective? Example; “Nearly 265,000 were killed in automobile accidents in 1984, a number equal to the population of Louisville.” “The 60-foot rocket, as tall as a six-story building, blasted into space.”

near beware of this word. Avoid “near-fatal accident,” “near tragedy,” “near miss.”

own avoid it. “He said he wanted his own car.” Omit “own” The same with “himself.” “He said he’d like one himself.” Himself is unnecessary.

punctuation know it.

perspective Always put yourself in place of the reader when editing a story.

quotes Don’t change them, not even to correct poor grammar. Don’t use them out of context.

quotations marks Don’t use them around slang. (Slang should be used rarely and only when it is widely recognized.” Don’t use them to try to justify cute phrases, and don’t pepper the story with short partial quotes.

redundancies slash them. Redundant words: new record, old adage, dead body, future plans. Redundant quotes: “John Doe said it was hot today. ‘It was hot as blazes,’ Doe said.”

reformer This term is political and editorial. Who deems someone a reformer? Dissident is a better word.

skeptical always be. “You can’t believe everything you read.”

simple keep the copy that way. Make sentences and paragraphs short, make statements clear and terse and use simple words and phrases. However, don’t underestimate the reader.

superlatives beware of them; they are unnecessary; “most prestigious,” “most unique.”

spelling Good copy editors are good spellers- or they are at least good at spotting misspelled words. Always have a dictionary handy.

taboo words They are often judgment words: just, only, exactly, ironically, grandmotherly, middle-aged, elderly.

that Often used superfluously. Try reading the sentence without the "that." If it still makes sense, leave it out. The same goes for "although."

the/a/an Don’t delete them automatically.

unfamiliar Beware of unfamiliar words, phrases, and concepts, such as legal and scientific terms and foreign phrases. Define or explain.

verbs Use active verbs when possible. Always make sure verb and subject agree.

variety To try to assure this:

  1. Don’t let all paragraphs begin the same way.
  2. Vary sentence construction and location of attribution.
  3. Let reporters have their styles.

while It means “at the same time,” not “and,” “but,” or “whereas.”

X-ing, or cutting a story. Don’t be afraid to cut, but do so with care. Stories can’t always be cut from the bottom either. Be careful not to cut first references, leaving an unidentified last name dangling later in the story.

“You don’t have to change things.” Don’t change something just because that’s the way you would have written it. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’ fix it.