J-333 / News Editing
Frank E. Fee Jr.
Lecture Recap - Day 4
The most important point from today's class? It is that there is nothing
worse than copy editing that introduces an error in someone's story. Don't
believe it? Ask the reporter whose story has been soured by a copy editor's
Have you seen the
Dilbert take on copy editing?
And now a word about copy editing
A copy editor brings a fresh look to every story he or she edits. It
is the first, and last, chance to find out how good the story is before
the readers see it. Your job is to determine whether the story works and,
if not, how to fix it.
To quote from my favorite job description source (it's Gannett's, which
I helped write), to do the job well the copy editor recognizes important
story elements and, where necessary, rearranges them effectively. He or
she makes sure the leads are based on proper criteria such as impact, local
interest, human interest, timeliness, prominence, uniqueness, or conflict.
He or she also makes sure elements such as quotations or statistics are
used effectively to support the lede. The copy editor should promptly alert
editors to potential problems, and he or she knows how to repair a story
and suggest improvements.
Good copy editing requires that you keep in mind our Rule No. 1 ("Do
no harm") and at the same time apply Rule No. 2 ("Don't make the paper
late"). Copy editors have a lot to do and seldom enough time to do it,
so you have to work fast. But that is not an excuse to work in a vacuum.
Talk out the problems; never, ever make a substantive change in a story
without talking it over with the writer or his or her editor. (In this
class, of course, talk with the instructor if you have a question, not
When it comes to organizing the story, a good copy editor has to think
"beginning, middle and end," and make sure that the elements of the story
follow a logical progression. In editing the lede and the body of the story,
the copy editor tightens copy and improves grouping of related elements
for clarity and readability.
Keep in mind that tight editing is not license to shred the reporter's
style. Copy editors may become stakeholders in the story, but it is first,
last and always the reporter's story.
Besides the skilled application of the fundamentals of grammar, spelling,
punctuation, style and story organization, the copy editor must bring to
the job critical judgment, a concern for fairness, and a knowledge of libel,
privacy and other media law issues.
Sound like a demanding job? It is! Here are some tips on how to go about
(1) First, size up the story. Read the entire story at least once --
before you start "fixing" anything. Get to know what the story is about,
what the writer seemed to have in mind and what problems you may be dealing
with. Among questions you may ask is whether this is the right organization
for the facts. Is the Inverted Pyramid the best approach to the story?
Would one of the alternative forms be better? Is this a first-day story
masquerading as a follow-up story or does it break new ground? Based on
your own knowledge of the community and the news, is the story on target?
(2) Once you have a good grasp of what the story is saying and a general
idea of how well it is saying it, you move into the lede. What does the
lede need? Does it grab the reader with crisp, interesting language? Does
it get bogged down in long sentences that try to say EVERYTHING? Is it
informative? Does it orient the reader the way a road map would at the
start of a journey? The copy editor must do what it takes to make the lede
compelling and valuable to readers.
(3) From the lede, the next concern is the body of the story. Among
key questions here is whether the story supports the lede. Remember that
this "middle" must work with its beginning. Don't make promises in the
lede that the story can't keep.
Of course, all the way through you are looking for ways to tighten the
sentences and protect against inflated, meaningless quotes, redundancy
and irrelevant detail.
(4) Once you have edited the story, take another spin through it. Does
it read well? Is it better than when you started? Did moving grafs around
lose first references to anyone? The final read is critical because it
is very easy to tinker with something and have it come out wrong. This
is your chance to backstop yourself.
We will be talking about some of these points in detail in the next
few classes. But if you have any questions, be sure to ask now.
Don't forget that Topic Paper No. 2, EDITING 1, is due at the beginning
of class Day 6. Also, that the 50 common writing errors quiz is on Day
5. This will be a closed-book quiz from pp. I/4-10 in your lab manual.
Special Offer -- Held Over!
Anyone who would like some extra help with the basics of the Mac computers
in Room 001 should get in touch with me soon.
Likewise, anyone having trouble with basic Internet searches can stop
by for some additional coaching. Call ahead (3-9851) to set up a time.
Comments? Questions? Call 593-9851 (o) or 594-5251 (h), or send me
an e-mail message for virtual office
hours. Or, stop in for a real visit. You're always welcome.
-- Frank Fee