Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Infuriating Moments in Copy Editing

The following is a rewritten opener of an actual story I edited recently about a world-famous athlete. The names and details have been changed to protect the ignorant. Don't pay attention to the sentence structure; in the original article the sentences themselves were okay. It's the story organization that interests me.

Bear in mind that it's being reported in September.

After winning the Crisco Classic in December, champion bowler Strike Splitsville vowed he would take a vacation -- and it was a promise he kept.

"We went to Dollywood and it was very relaxing," he said in January as he geared up for the Beerbelly Championship in Milwaukee. "But it's good to be back on the lanes competing in the game I love."

Splitsville won at Beerbelly Lanes, afterward answering questions not just about his victory but about the knee surgery he had scheduled for July. "I think it will probably affect my game for a while, but I'm determined to come back."

His victory at Pinultimate proved he was already on top of his game. He won that match in a lockout before going on to win the trophy at the Desenex Bowl, defeating Fats Fingerholes.

Did you actually just read all that? Impressive. I couldn't -- and I was getting paid to. I kept getting tripped up on the single biggest issue in this article, which can be summed up as, "Mother of !@!# pearl, what the !%&$! is this !#$@! article about?!?"

There were two major problems in the piece -- problems that I think will be of interest to writers and readers.

Issue No. 1: This story starts in December, then jumps to January for a quote reflecting back on December before mentioning a victory that took place in January after which the victor speculated about something that was going to happen July even though speculation was already moot since the story came out in September.

Issue No. 2: Real articles written by sober people usually contain something called a "nut graf" or just a "nut." In pretty much every article, near the beginning, you'll find one or two sentences that tell you what the story is about. In straight news stories, it's often the first sentence, "Congress on Tuesday voted to club to death the author of a bad sports article." With features and anecdotal ledes, the nut comes immediately after the introductory illustrative stuff:
When John Badwriter felt the club on his head, he at first thought it was a just piece of his brain falling off -- a regular occurrence for him. But when he looked up and saw a copy editor holding a club, Badwriter realized he was being held accountable for his work.

Writer clubbing is a crime on the rise, experts say. In Los Angeles alone, two writers were clubbed on the noggins last month."
That second paragraph is the nut. It tells us the main point of the story.

After reading the sports article for a period any medieval dungeon master would have dubbed inhumane, I learned from the assigning editor what the story was about: It was a chronological look at a year in the life of the athlete.

Once I knew this, both problems in the story could be fixed with a simple bridging nut graf.

After winning the Crisco Classic in December, champion bowler Strike Splitsville vowed he would take a vacation -- and it was a promise he kept.

"We went to Dollywood and it was very relaxing," he said in January. But as he stood at Beerbelly Lanes preparing for the first match of the year, he was more focused on the year to come. It was a year that would make headlines across the globe, with stunning wins and a well-publicized medical success story. And for Splitsville, that year began at that bowling alley in Milwaukee.

"It's good to be back ..."

In other words, all this story needed was a simple sentence or two to tell the reader what the article is about and set it in motion.

I believe C&C Music Factory put it best in their prophetic dance hit "Gonna Make You Sweat" with the line: "I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut."

Great Moments in Copy Editing

Mike Wilson is a veteran hiker from the 1980s.

(Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent and prevent others from finding out where they've hidden their time machines.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)


Not the one that means "to buy." But the one I've come across countless times without ever really registering and that I came across again in an article that read:

"Desperate to hold on to something, to gain some purchase, Clive started to keep a journal"

Here's that definition of "purchase," per Webster's New World College Dictionary":

"a firm hold applied to move something mechanically or to keep from slipping b) any apparatus for applying such a hold."

Now I know.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)


Is it "kitty-corner"? "Catty-corner"? I've always wanted to know. Now that I finally have an audience (you) to witness my discovery, I can find out.

So I finally look it up and I see that, most properly, it's neither.

(noticed the "d" at the end)

adj., adv. cater-cornered: also, kitty-corner

That's from "Webster's New World College." "American Heritage" says the same thing: that the proper term has a d at the end (I don't like that one little bit. Who's going to say, "The post office is kitty-cornered from the drugstore"?)

So, for schticks and giggles, I checked my 1933 "Oxford Universal Dictionary." According to this one, there is no "kitty-corner." There is no "kitty-cornered." There is no "cater-cornered" (apparently back in those days nothing was ever located diagonal to anything else). So I looked up "cater," which had some obvious definitions plus another that was a new one on me:

"To set rhomboidally; to cut, go, etc. diagonally."

Perhaps it wasn't until 1934 that someone first observed a cat blatantly disregarding a marked crosswalk.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Moments in Copy Editing (As notable as "Great Moments," just not as funny)

Tardiness is disrespectful of "other peoples' time."

Should be: other people's.

Those funky plurals like people, children, women, sheep, etc. always mess me up when possession gets tossed into the mix.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up

I bet I've looked up comprise about once a year for the past 10 years. And the most that ever sticks is that comprise doesn't go with of.

Anyway, here I go again. Per the AP Stylebook:

Compose means to create or put together. It commonly is used in both the active and passive voices: She composed a song. The United States is composed of 50 states. The zoo is composed of many animals.

means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice, followed by a direct object:
The United States comprises 50 states. The jury comprises five men and seven women. The zoo comprises many animals.

In other words, if you can swap it out for contain, comprise is likely the word you want. Therefore, my brain comprises very little accumulated knowledge about the word comprise.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

Stockholm syndrome

a psychological condition in which a person taken hostage sympathizes with or becomes emotionally involved with his or her captors. -- Webster's New World College Dictionary


This term doesn't quite work for my purposes -- those purposes being to describe a bizarre psychological ailment affecting Los Angeles drivers. Yes, there's a story behind this -- a story originally to be titled "How to Beat Vegas-to-LA Holiday Traffic" but now called "I Fought the 15 and the 15 Won and Clearly Angelenos are Mental."

It all began on Labor Day morning as my fiancé and I faced a dilemma: Do we check out of our room at the Golden Nugget a little early to drive our friends to the airport? Or do we leave 'em high and dry to spend a few more hours at the pool? Since the Golden Nugget is in the north side of town and the airport is south, the only logical thing to do after an airport run is to just keep going. In the end, that's what we decided to do. And after a quick and clean airport drop-off in which only one airport employee yelled at me, "You can't stop here," albeit several times, we hit the 15. The 15, for those of you too smart to either live in LA, visit Las Vegas or both, is the main north-south-drag from California to Nevada. And on a day like, oh, I dunno, Monday, Sept. 3, it can be notoriously congested.

But this was the third year in a row we had passed the Labor Day weekend watching people gamble away the fruits of their labors, and we'd had good luck in the past. So no one was more surprised than we to find ourselves among countless hundreds of cars moving about 4 miles per hour.

So how was it that last year, for example, had been such a breeze? Ah, yes, we remembered. Last year we had purchased an extra half-day at our hotel and hit the road much later, albeit much more sunburned, too.

The flash of genius came right as we hit the town of Primm, Nev. -- the last bastion of gambling and 99-cent shrimp cocktails before hitting the California state line: We'll stop here, see if we can get a $30-ish room at any of the three elegant properties with names like Whiskey Pete's and Buffalo Bill's. (The entire hotel group, by the way, is named Terribles. And when they answer the phone at any of their hotels, they use this name -- not, as I had expected, with French pronunciation -- "tare-REE-blays," but exactly as you would in American English -- "terrible" with an s on the end.

After being greeted with the word "terribles," it seemed like less of a score to learn that, indeed, $32 hotel rooms were available.

We checked in at Buffalo Bill's, where we found the rooms not scary and the pool decidedly more appealing than a car in 4-mile-per-hour traffic.

All went well for the first two hours or so until we had our next flash of genius: "Let's ride the roller coaster!" Not only would it be fun, but it would offer us a clear view of how traffic was doing on the 15.

Now, Ted and I like roller coasters. But we made an important discovery: We don't like roller coasters that are both really fast and seem to be so poorly maintained that they rattle like an earthquake 15 stories in the air as centrifugal force tries to hurl you into space. Our screams weren't of the fun, fast-ride variety. They were real.

Was it worth risking our lives for a look at the freeway? No. But did it save us from getting on the 15 too soon? Yes.

So it wasn't until after several more hours spent in the arcade (where I learned Ted's pretty good at Galaga), playing nickel video poker and eating chicken noodle soup that we finally hit the road.


We were flying. It was 5:40 p.m. and the roads were wide open, traffic moving at about 75 miles per hour, until …


We would later learn from a screaming northbound driver what had happened. Somewhere farther south a minivan had flipped over, the woman hollered from her driver's-side window to southbound cars, "Turn back! Both lanes are closed! Nothing's moving!"

The car in front of us made a U-turn and headed back toward a little cluster of fast-food places and coffee shops. But we had just spent five hours waiting out traffic. At that point, the car seemed like as attractive a place as any to sit and wait.

So, after 20 or 30 minutes of moving at full speed and congratulating ourselves for our clever layover in Primm, we were at a dead stop. And there we stayed. After an hour and a half, we had moved maybe a mile.

We passed the time listening to NPR podcasts (Did you know that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was for years the justice responsible for opening the chamber door every time someone knocked?) and hailing the miracle that my normally demi-tasse-sized bladder was suddenly displaying venti capacity (i.e. not torturing me).

We were cheerful -- cheerful -- for the duration of the two-hour delay. The drivers in the cars around us -- all of them with California plates -- seemed to be taking it just as well.

And that's when I realized there's something very, very wrong with Angelenos' attitude toward traffic -- a sort of lie-down-and-take-it, denial-ridden almost blissful acquiescence that will one day, no doubt, capture the fascination of the mental-health community.

Until then, I expect I'll keep spending my Labor Day weekends baking by the pool in Sin City.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional series on words I'm looking up)

adj. [Slang] displaying a contrived, often pretentious, sophistication,
opulence, etc.
-- Webster's New World College dictionary

This caught my eye as I was looking up another word. Like any self-respecting 11-year-old, I had to stop.

To the grown-up part of me, one of the most interesting things is that comma after "pretentious." I'm not sure that's not a typo. Since when do you put a comma between a modifier and its immediately following subject? Even if there's more than one adjective, you usually don't.

a tall, powerful man.

Not: a tall, powerful, man.


I also find it surprising that the definition doesn't contain more emphasis on ... hmmm ... well ... scumminess. Seems like this should describe Cletus on "The Simpsons" scooping up a dead raccoon with a shovel and saying, "Girly Sue's gonna have an elegant wedding feast!"

Most surprising, though, is that this is the first word I've come across that is in my Webster's New World College Dictionary that's not in its computer version -- which came from a disk which came with that same book. Odd.

By the way, I found piss-elegant while looking up:

piste (always italicized, on account of it's a French word not used enough by English speakers to justify calling it an English word -- think "ennui.")

n. a ski run of hard-packed snow -- Webster's New World College

Yes, it had potential. But in the end, it definitely was not as much fun as piss-elegant.


Bookmark and Share