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."


R-bek said...

I did not make it through myself, but did you know September 24th was apparently Celebrate Punctuation Day? I thought of your blog when I heard of it.

June Casagrande said...

I appreciate your honesty!

Re National Punctuation Day: I wrote a column about it. Not sure whether it ran. The holiday is the baby of a former educator in Northern California trying to stop the sprawl of apostrophe, etc., abuse.

I wish him luck!

Official site:


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