Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Copy Editing: Why One Should Never Assume

A reporter at my paper notes to me that we introduced an error. Since this is not about someone reading this trying to figure out who introduced the error into whose story, I will try to make this as vague as possible, which runs the risk of its being nonsensical.

Essentially, what we did is changed an "in" to an "of." The reason is that the way the sentence first read, the "of" seemed impossible. It implied that this was, say, the 170th anniversary of an institution that had only existed since 1900.

That made no sense, so it must have been that the number referred to the number of people in the institution, right? Must be wrong. Change it. Easy fix to the preposition.

The problem is that the institution, in its first years, counted its anniversaries in half-years.

(Some old newspapers did this. The "Volume" number only makes sense if you assume there were two volumes in one year.)

The reporter, aggrieved and getting calls about how this figure is very important in the tradition and the meaning and this is why we don't trust newspapers, complains. I can only apologize.

The hardest thing to do in copy editing is to not make something make sense. A hard-to-understand sentence may be a poorly written sentence. Or it may be a sentence that had to be written awkwardly because the facts are awkward.

Either way, asking "is this what this means?" can't hurt. Except it can. This story was moved very late in the cycle. Deadline approached. Copy editors in general don't like to get into elaborate discussions with reporters over things that seem obvious; we've all got our jobs to do. It could take a minute to make clear exactly what the problem is, and that's a minute that could be spent on the headline -- or another story. And heck, they're paying us to fix this stuff, right?

And to be honest, when we assume we usually get it right. But any time we assume, there's an innate 50 percent change we will be wrong. The difference between the two figures is that copy editors are very intelligent folks who usually make the right choice.

"Never assume" and "always do the math" are my two most important copy editing rules. In this case we did #2 quickly and then assumed when the answer didn't add up.


Mae Travels said...

I used to be a technical writer. Sometimes we received variously-written raw material from programmers or other techies. The way that I formulated your principle is this:

**It's better to leave an ambiguous sentence as is, than to change it so that it's flat-out wrong.

Of course the best choice is to ask the author which possible ambiguity was intended.

Wayne Countryman said...

Did the reporter use the word "anniversary"? Anniversaries occur once a year.
People have begun to ignore this definition, though; it's becoming common to hear of "six-month anniversaries" and such.
I sympathize with the copy editor who made the error on deadline, but you're right--when the facts don't add up, we shouldn't assume.

[Congrats on getting the blog off to a strong start, by the way.]

Anonymous said...

"Copy editors in general don't like to get into elaborate discussions with reporters over things that seem obvious"?

Thank the copy deities. I, an official, paid copy editor for the first time, was starting to feel like a slacker because I notice myself avoiding drawn-out discussions about things that "should" be obvious. It's true that I was hired partly to counteract the lack of copy-editing skill of the magazine editors who speak Spanish as their native language, so I might actually *be* slacking when I don't want to spend fifteen minutes arguing over a local style nitpick that someone keeps changing, but at least now I know it's a common copy editor trait and not just me being a bad copy editor. ;)

Terry said...

"Copy editors in general don't like to get into elaborate discussions with reporters over things that seem obvious"

This is more to do with unwillingness to appear stupid in front of the reporter by asking what might turn out to be a dumb question than it is to do with not wanting to waste time. I used to feel that way in my youth: one of the benefits of growing older is that I don't care about asking stupid questions any more. If it confuses me, it'll confuse the reader. However, I'd agree with Mae Travels that the first rule of copy-editing has to be "do no harm".