John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
First things first
Gladly. This text is revised from a post published on the old Baltimoresun.com blog on November 15, 2007 (now no longer accessible at that site).
Accuracy comes first. If what you publish is not factually correct, you will look stupid, and your credibility will evaporate. You have to get people’s names right. You have to get place names right. You have to get the details right. If the reader sees that you have allowed factual errors, it won’t matter how elegantly you write or how fascinating your subject is. You may even be held up to contempt and ridicule.
Clarity comes next. If your writing isn’t clear, it won’t matter that it is correct. When you publish, you are imposing on the reader’s time, and the easiest thing any reader can do is to stop reading. It doesn’t take much, either. Don’t give the reader an excuse. Use conversational language instead of jargon. Cut padding ruthlessly. Read your text out loud to yourself; hearing what you have written will expose awkward spots.
Be precise. If you are a writer, words are your material, grammar and syntax your tools, and you must learn the technical details of the craft. You should handle your tools as expertly as a carpenter wields a hammer or a sculptor a chisel. You must choose your words with exactitude, not approximation. Get a couple of reliable manuals of usage and a serious dictionary. The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain advised, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. You do not want to be an insect.
Get to the point. Steve Young, one of my former colleagues on The Sun’s copy desk, says that the most useful advice he ever got in college came from a professor who told him, “Say one thing.” Your article, however many subsidiary elements or subtopics it may carry, has to be about one main thing. Establish what that is, and tell the reader as soon as you can manage. Directly. Up front.
Be honest. Plagiarism and fabrication have embarrassed the small and the mighty, campus papers to the big time. You must indicate to your reader where your information comes from, how you know things; the reader has a right to see that. And you must do your own work. Remember what you were taught in elementary school: Don’t copy. Don’t tell lies.
Everybody needs an editor. H.L. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility. Someone should be told off to go through it, and that someone should be responsible for undetected slips.” You are not a better writer than Henry Mencken. Get somebody you trust to look over your stuff and tell you honestly what works and what doesn’t.