Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First things first

When I spoke last month to the McMurry audio conference on “Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You,” I mentioned a hierarchy of editing values: accuracy, clarity, and precision. A listener eager to “convert the unbelievers” in her shop has asked if I would enlarge a little on that hierarchy.

Gladly. This text is revised from a post published on the old 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.

The little things that count

My eminent colleague David Sullivan of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes on his blog, That’s the Press, Baby, that as the “reader-feedback editor for corrections and clarifications” he hears what the readers dislike, and what they dislike most of all is small errors of fact.

He politely disagrees with my contention that lack of editing leading to slack, ill-organized writing is an equal turn-off to readers. The difference, I think, is that readers who notice the little errors of fact are apt to complain, while readers who are baffled or bored simply stop reading. And subscribing. Perhaps we can argue the point over a pint at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference in Philadelphia in April.*

Nevertheless, let no one underestimate my own irritation at small errors.

Item: You’ve seen the television ad for Bertolli pasta products in which Italian chefs sing a mock aria protesting the popularity of their competitor? Perhaps you noticed that their mock aria is set to music from Carmen, a French opera.

Item: Last night in the opening moments of The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies referred to “opening arguments” in a trial. Lawyers present opening statements at the beginning of a trial, closing arguments at the conclusion. One would think that a drama about lawyers could master that distinction.

Item: This one is about irritations sure to come. In an election year journalists feverishly publish the results of opinion polls, with little regard to reliability and little skill in interpretation. They write about a candidate who is “leading” when the “lead” is a couple of points, well within the margin of error. They quote results without looking too closely into who sponsored the poll, or what the sample was, or what the questions were, or any of the other elements that might call the conclusions into question. Think I exaggerate? Look at Stinky Journalism’s awards for the top ten dubious polls of the previous year, and brace yourselves for the dubious ones this year. (Thanks to Phillip Blanchard of Testy Copy Editors for pointing this article out.)

Item: A point Mr. Sullivan didn’t go into is that while the customer may always be right, the reader may not. Edward Schumacher-Matos, the ombudsman at the Miami Herald, sent a copy of his newspaper to a veteran teacher, Elaine Kenzel, for inspection. She returned it with 133 errors marked. That should be “errors,” because some of the things she marked as wrong were not. She faulted sentences beginning with and or but. (If that is how she teaches, she is doing her students a disservice.) She dislikes the journalistic convention of putting attribution — “so-and-so said — at the end of a sentence rather than the beginning. Insisting that minor stylistic variations are errors of grammar and usage places her in the ranks of the Legion of Peevers.

Item: Ron Ramsey, the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, said this week, “I don't know whether President Obama is a citizen of the United States or not” — this in the course of explaining why he thinks that the president’s citizenship should not be a campaign issue. While it is not surprising to find a candidate for public office planting himself squarely on both sides of an issue, it continues to astonish that candidates of a major party continue to utter this canard. Surely the president has provided enough grounds for disagreement on policies and proposals to make it unnecessary to resort to the birthers’ fantasies.

One does wonder why people strain at small factual errors in journalism when they are prepared to swallow whoppers.

*By the way, have you registered yet for the ACES conference? And if not, why not?