1. See that each sentence is the tightest it can be. Instead of “There are some people who think the President can do better,” try “Some think the President can do better.” (All writers can do better by avoiding “there is” and “there are.”) By the same token, would too much tightening kill a joke, mar the rhythm, or harm the writer’s voice? Maybe. Sometimes you actually are harming the voice, and sometimes the writer is the only one thinking you are. Like any editor, a copyeditor often has to balance the publication’s needs and the writer’s wishes. Negotiation is part of the job, as is standing your ground when you have to.
2. Don’t assume. Think everyone must know that DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals? Just because the initials are tossed around without explanation doesn’t mean people know what they mean. (This could change with time.) Another example: Some years back, Washingtonian ran a powerful photo of then-President Obama embracing former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the State of the Union address along with a caption commenting on the emotion of the occasion. The copy that came to me didn’t mention that Giffords had been shot in the head in January 2011 or that the photo was of the 2012 State of the Union, a year later. Every chance you give readers to stop and scratch their heads is a chance for them to put the magazine down.
3. Never settle for a cliché. I came across a reference to “pesky blackheads” in an article about facials. That’s advertising lingo—and what else would blackheads be if not pesky? Just yesterday, in an essay that was otherwise very carefully worded, I came across “Without missing a beat . . .” Immediate cross-out! Sometimes it’s not a matter of cutting but of coming up with a fresher way of saying it or passing it back to the writer. You can always do better than stale.
Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor of Washingtonian. He has taught the personal essay at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for 25 years. On Twitter, he’s @billmatto.
President Trump “misspelled ‘counsel’ three times and had five errors in the span of 280 characters. As journalists and others poked fun at the mistakes, the president quickly deleted the tweet and posted an edited version. He successfully changed ‘wether’ to ‘whether’ and eliminated an inadvertent repeat of the word ‘the’—but he failed to correct three inaccurate references to the title of his nemesis, Robert S. Mueller III.”
—Washington Post story, “A casualty of Trump’s White House: Spelling,” March 22, 2018
I walk our dog every morning to a nearby park that’s close enough to an affluent neighborhood that one of the dog walkers is among the richest men in the nation’s capital. He’s a real estate developer; he builds big condo and apartment buildings in the Washington suburbs.
One morning a group of us got talking about college and several of us admitted we hadn’t done all that well academically. The real estate developer said he had barely made it through his Boston college (Babson, unranked by U.S. News among business schools).
“You have to remember,” he added, “that those of us who went into real estate were the C students.”
He was smiling as he said it to the lawyer standing with us who had received top grades at an Ivy League law school, thereby attracting a recruiter from a top DC law firm.
The nation’s capital increasingly is full of people who had top grades at the best schools. At social gatherings the two questions most asked are “What do you do?” and “Where’d you go to school?”
“What do you do?” lets you know if the person is worth talking with at all and “Where’d you go to school?” gives a reading on just how smart and accomplished this person is. In the Clinton and Obama years, Harvard and Yale ruled.
We’re very smart in the nation’s capital and we can’t believe that those deplorable voters in 32 states sent us what amounts to a C student, a real estate developer who can’t even spell correctly.
— P.S. In the 2016 election, only 4 percent of Washington, D.C., residents voted for Donald Trump. As federal power and spending have increased over the past 50 years and Washington has attracted more and more smart people from top colleges, the nation’s capital has increasingly voted more Democratic. As a DC journalist for the past 50 years, I’d argue that Washington journalism has trended the same direction, especially at the Washington Post.
Copyeditors do more than fix grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They solve problems every hour of every day and plant the flag for good English and clear writing—a worthy goal in the age of emoticons and Twitter shorthand. They save writers and the publications they work for from embarrassment.
A copyeditor asks questions and makes suggestions that, for whatever reason during the editing process, no matter how good the assigning editors are, never got asked or suggested: What do you mean? Who is this person ID’d by only a last name? That last sentence doesn’t add much—it might be stronger to end with the previous one. This sounds choppy. Oh, and nice lede.
The best copyeditors are born, not made. You can be decent at the job with training and hard work, but it helps if you take pleasure in tasks many people would find mind-numbing. For those of us who like it, it can be extremely satisfying. Perfection is nice but probably unrealistic. I prefer to recast it as getting it right.
Copyediting comes more easily to some than to others, and it’s more enjoyable for some. Having fun with arcana helps a lot. That’s why there are relatively few really top-notch copyeditors. Most people get their kicks elsewhere.
Here are three of the things I’ve learned. (Future posts will address a few more.)
1. When in doubt, look it up. We don’t know everything; we just know when to look something up. Are you sure “copyeditor” isn’t hyphenated? Or two words? (It’s one according to The American Heritage Dictionary, the spelling guide at Washingtonian,where I work.) Never remember if it’s Van Gogh or van Gogh? It’s the second one.
2. Be consistent. Consistency shows readers someone is at the wheel. You may not think people care whether you always use the same style for “adviser” vs. “advisor” or “toward” vs. “towards” or that you punctuate listings the same way every time, but consistency imparts an awareness among your audience, if only subconsciously, that intent is behind every word. That, in turn, engenders confidence.
3. Read everything twice. That goes for the longest article and the shortest headline. At least 75 percent of the time, you’ll notice or realize something you didn’t the first time through. This rate seems not to change much throughout one’s copyediting career. Which I prefer to see as encouraging rather than discouraging.
Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor of Washingtonian. He has taught the personal essay at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for 25 years. On Twitter, he’s @billmatto.
Before retiring at the end of 2017, Avery Comarow spent much of his 50-plus years in journalism as a consumer writer and editor for publications including Money, Consumer Reports, and U.S. News & World Report. In response to a March 9 post, “Editing Service Stories: Try to Avoid a ‘You Must Do This’ Tone,” he passes along the Ten Commandments he created for consumer reporters at U.S. News.
Jack’s complaint about service journalism sometimes reading too much like a series of commands rang my bell. When I started doing consumer journalism for Money magazine in the 1970s, I quickly learned the truth of that that versatile cliche, “Doing X is like playing chess—easy to do, hard to do well.” I could knock out a 600-word advice-filled piece filled with “you shoulds” and “talk to your doctor/lawyer/accountant” so much more easily, and with so much more seeming authority, than reporting the real story, which would have been nuanced to account for the fact that we live in a real world.
But a couple of sharp editors at Money disabused me of taking the lazy way out, God bless the late Bob Klein in particular. It didn’t fly at Time Inc., nor should it have been tolerated anywhere.
When I inaugurated the News You Can Use service section at U.S. News & World Report in 1987 and needed to build a staff, I was surprised at how hard it was to find writers who got it—who understood that good consumer reporting is a brand of investigative journalism. Over and over, writers would appear at my door holding a markup, distressed and demanding to know what the hell I wanted from them. Doing this stuff right was HARD. So I created the Ten Commandments, tweaking it over the years for currency but with unchanging intent: to help writers think before they sin. see Commandment VI.
The Ten Commandments
I. Be timely. Why is this story worth reading? Why are you writing it now?
II. Be fresh. There’s always an angle. Be a little unconventional. A story with a twist is more fun to read (and to write).
III. Plunge right in. Throat-clearing is deadly. Lede feel wordy? Try lopping off the first graf.
IV. Telegraph the “why.” A nut graf high up tells readers why they are reading the story. A sentence or two in the lede works. It doesn’t have to be a graf of its own.
V. Don’t overstuff. Limit the points you want to make. Know what they are before you hit the keys. Stick to them.
VI. Honor thy reader. The imperative voice (e.g. “Be sure to get your flu shot this fall”) is patronizing. Aunt Sally isn’t dumb and she doesn’t like being ordered around.
VII. Kill the clichés. “You’re not alone….” “More studies are needed….” In the days when stories were marked up, Newsweek editors would scrawl MEGO (My Eyes Glazed Over) next to such yawners.
VIII. Spare experts’ quotes. Quotes do not confer credibility or authority. Use them only to add interest, a surprising element or a new dimension.
IX. Jettison the jargon. Why would you explain to Uncle Fred that aspirin helps heart patients due to its meaningful prophylactic effect on the incidence of cardiovascular events with a significance of 95 percent or better?
X. Be skeptical, not cynical. Good reporting, not snarky adjectives, brings unworthy products and services into the light.
Gene McCarthy, a Minnesota college professor who became a U.S. Senator, was a wise observer of Washington politics. Here he describes the difference between Viable and Non-Viable Alternatives.
Distinguishing between the Viable and the Non-Viable Alternative is a formidable challenge. It is comparable between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms.
Non-Viable Alternatives, as a rule, are not difficult to find. They usually hang around, hoping to be noticed. They sit with arms folded and will not be budged. They tend to be stumbled over.
Many Viable Alternatives are short-lived. An alternative that is viable one day may be dead the next day. On the other hand, a change in climate, especially of political climate, may cause the revitalization of a dead or torpid alternative.
Little need be said of the third variety, the Unthinkable Alternative. Using the CIA to pull the whiskers of a foreign leader is an Unthinkable Alternative. The best that can be said of Unthinkable Alternatives is that the are regularly thought about.
Alternative experts are distinguished by their language. Like lawyers and foreign policy experts, they say things such as “Yes, but” or “either/or” or “On the one hand and then on the other. ” Alternatives meet, only one can survive. “Both/and” alternatives, on the other hand, can live together.
Viable Alternatives, if not recognized and noticed, will often lie around making reproachful sounds and saying something that sounds like “I told you so.”
This was first published in the October 1978 Washingtonian; it was part of an article, “A Political Bestiary,” written by McCarthy with journalist James J. Kilpatrick, with illustrations by Jeff MacNeely, that became a small book published in 1978 by McGraw-Hill.
The garden spot of the New Journalism was the New York Herald Tribune, which was having a hard time trying to survive and to lure readers.
The new journalists were feature writers trying to bring a new look to the old news story.
Their techniques were varied. Truman Capote believed that taking notes or the use of a tape recorder distorted any naturalness that might exist between the observer and the observed, between “the nervous hummingbird and his would-be captor.” Rex Reed took notes because he often was “dealing with actors or actresses who have fragile egos and who are unsure of who they are in the first place.”
A lot of legwork was required. Taking more risks that most journalists would, Hunter Thompson lived with the Hell’s Angels. Truman Capote spent five years tracking the trail of two murderers for In Cold Blood. George Plimpton climbed into the ring with Archie Moore and played quarterback with the Detroit Lions. Joe McGinness rode the campaign trail with Richard Nixon for The Selling of the President 1968. Tim Crouse, author of The Boys on the Bus, said, “You really have to bother people.” David Halberstam said he has interviewed a subject as many as 10 or 15 times and may have only begun to mine “gold” during the last few sessions.
Wolfe’s four characteristics add up to a strong sense of the present—a kind of nowness and a sense of presence—a you-are-there feeling. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, said the writer puts together “an impressionistic portrait of what happened or, at least, what he saw happen.”
Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker said what bothered him about the New Journalism was “the temptation to go beyond an honest effort to get the truth is sometimes very great.”
Philip Nobile of Esquire said, It can be a very lazy approach to writing. Sometimes you write out of your own head rather than your legwork. It’s an easy way for young writers to gain attention.”
Dwight MacDonald calls it “parajournalism—a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”
Michael Todd, an editor at The Atlantic, said, “The New Journalism takes on a considerable burden, which is to win his audience by creating himself in print. When this is done successfully, it can approach the novelist’s work: dramatizing full and subtle sensibility. But more often we settle for caricature.
Hunter Thompson defined it as taking the information from your notes and from the photograph that your brain took and using fantasy to strengthen certain points. The question is whether the reader knows which is facts and which is fantasy. For instance, readers felt taken in when they learned that Gail Sheehy’s lively report on a Manhattan prostitute in New York magazine was not written about a real person but a life-like composite.
The question, said Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, “is whether this is an adequate form of journalism for dealing with the issues that most of us are interesting in.”
Lewis Lapham of Harper’s thinks “it works with marginal people. It doesn’t work if you’re trying to write about American institutions. If you’re trying to write about how the government works or how a bank works, you can’t do it because they won’t let you hang around that way. It’ll work if you’re dealing with rock bands and so forth.”
John Peter, the author of a 1973 Folio article from which all this is drawn, concluded, “There is no question New Journalism has challenged the anonymity, impersonality, and frequent dullness of conventional reportage. At it’s best, New Journalism reaffirms the importance of originality, personality, and style in writing.”
Peter concluded by quoting George Hirsch, publisher of New Times: “You can’t use a lot of razzle-dazzle to cover up a deficiency in solid reporting. It’s not new or old journalism. It’s either good or bad journalism.”
From a Tim Noah post on Facebook about opinion pieces in the New York Times:
The basic problem is that so few of the NYT’s signed opinion pieces are any good. Not that they’re “right” or “wrong,” which matters less than everyone thinks. But that they aren’t good.
I’m all for diversity, in both the multicultural sense and the let-conservatives-have-their-say sense. But the first consideration in hiring columnists and “contributing writers” should be quality.
It’s amazing to me that the most powerful newspaper in the world tolerates so much mediocrity on its op-ed page. Not a new problem, I should note.
NYT columnists were mostly washed-up bores when I was an editor on the page in 1982-83. A column was bestowed on a writer for services rendered to the paper, not because the writer in question possessed any knack for discursive writing.
Today the situation is, if anything, worse. You have Maureen Dowd, a very gifted feature writer whose method as columnist is to write the conventional wisdom but give it edge by phrasing it in gratuitously, sometimes pathologically mean language.
You have Charles Blow, a haughtily self-righteous liberal bore.
You have Gail Collins, an intelligent person who in her column chooses to impersonate a not-intelligent person, for reasons known only to her.
You have David Brooks, who used to be an interesting conservative writer but has turned into a pedantic lay minister.
You have Paul Krugman, who’s actually quite good, I think, but given to repetition and the occasional bout of paranoia.
You have Nick Kristof, who I would like if I were a better person but because I’m not I can’t abide his frequent attestations to the extreme fineness of his character.
You have Fran Bruni, whose column attests to his apparent niceness and not much else. Michelle Goldberg is showing some promise, but she’s a bit on the earnest side. Bret Stephens is kind of mediocre. Ross Douthat I’m poorly equipped to judge because the topics that animate him bore me to tears. Still: kind of a prig, no?
And then there’s the long procession of contributing writers, who are also a pretty tedious lot.
So I get why James Bennet wants to shake things up.
But he seems engaged more in typecasting than in a talent search. Get me a winger who hates Trump (Stephens). And so on. Some of this predated Bennet. What Bennet should be saying is merely, “Get me the best. They don’t have to agree with me. They just have to be good.”
Part of the problem is that it’s very hard to be a good columnist, and even harder to stay one. The great columnists can be counted on one hand.
Instead of signing up too many columnists and contributing writers to load the firehose that the Internet demands Bennet should beef up on editors to sift through freelance submissions. That was the original idea for the op-ed page when it was invented in 1970: Lots of one-off pieces. Almost nobody has 20 good op-eds in them but a lot of people have one.
There was a time in the distant past when one turned to the op-ed page to read these one-off pieces. Sometimes they were by famous writers. Sometimes they were by regular people. Rarely were they by politicians or special interest groups peddling some line.
Good writers wanted to write for the page. I wrote a few op-eds there myself (after I was no longer on staff). It never paid decently, but it had a cachet comparable to writing for the NYTBR or NYRB. You knew you’d be read.
Those days are long gone, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to bring them back. Being an op-ed editor was one of the easiest jobs I ever had. I would call up interesting writers and say “Will you write for us?” and they’d say “Yes.”
The Times op-ed page is less dominant than it once was but it’s still the best real estate for short-form discursive writing on politics, policy, and society. Even if nothing can be done about the dreary columnist roster, the rest of the page—which used to be the best part—is salvageable.
An email reaction to Tim Noah’s Facebook post from Mike Feinsilber, longtime reporter for UPI and reporter-writing coach for the AP:
Even though I grew up on James Reston and Arthur Krock, I don’t read the Times’s columnists as assiduously as Timothy Noah so I don’t feel qualified to agree or disagree. But I wonder why he ignores Thomas Friedman who, while preachy, brings a useful custom to columnizing: He reports. He goes places and talks to people.
And why does he ignore Timothy Egan, who writes from Seattle and brings a Western eye to the carrying on in Washington. Egan is the author of my favorite book, The Worst Hard Times, about the impact of the Dustbowl on America and the American character. Maybe Noah doesn’t read the Times on Saturdays when Egan writes and gives us something to think about for the rest of the weekend.
Maybe Noah should widen his reading and check out the Washington Post’s editorial pages, where David Ignatius, another reporter-columnist, offers thoughtful insights into foreign affairs, Michael Gerson contributes a conservative’s balanced assessments of Trump and Trumpism, E. J. Dionne gives a liberal’s viewpoint that educates, George Wills imposes a vocabulary lesson on his readers but finds stuff to write about that others don’t. Robert Samuelson makes economic matters make sense, and Richard Cohen writes with two fists pounding, irresistibly.
An email reaction from me to Mike and several other journalist friends about Noah’s Facebook comments: Maybe the larger point is that in the digital age newspaper columns are harder to do because there’s so much opinion on the web. There now is a shortage of good reporting and analysis and a huge oversupply of opinion. I feel as strongly about Washington Post columnists as Noah does about Times columnists. The exceptions:John Kelly in Metro does a reporting column—mostly looking back—that often is fun to read.
Dan Balz writes columns that are more analysis than opinion and is much more interesting than the straight opinion columnists.
The op-ed columnists I look forward to reading are Robert Samuelson, who explains economic trends in ways the average reader can understand, David Ignatius on the Middle East, and George Will on baseball.
I’ve always thought columnists would be better if they didn’t have to write on a fixed schedule. I’ve always suspected that the most columnists on a fixed schedule start their day by thinking what the hell can I write about next? Everyone else is writing about Trump—but that’s be the easiest to write.
The Washingtonian once ran a cover story, “First, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers,” the cover line a play on Shakespeare’s “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” As for Washington Post columnists, I’d first shoot Dana Milbank and Petula Dvorak as a warning to the others.
An e-mail response from another former Washingtonian editor:
I prefer columnists whose positions—political or social, left or right—shift over time based on deepening powers of observation. Certainly agree with Noah’s point that “almost nobody has 20 good op-eds in them but lots of people have one.” Wish he had named some when he said “the great columnists can be counted on one hand,” which might have provided clues to the reasons for some of his judgments. I admire his general candor, however.
Agree with Jack that some columnists should be shot, or at least badly wounded, but I have other candidates in mind. And if Charles Krauthammer recovers from surgery, I hope he’s reassigned to food criticism and sent to very bad restaurants.
The idea of service journalism is to help the reader decide what’s worth doing or seeing or buying and the role of the editor of service pieces is to put yourself in the shoes of the reader: Is the writing clear? Is the tone helpful? Sort of like advice from a good neighbor.
What I sometimes found, and fixed, was service writing I thought was almost Germanic in tone: “You must do this…” or “Make sure you don’t…”
Nobody likes to be ordered around by a journalist. Most advice can be given in a gentler way, more a suggestion than a command.
P.S. When I found a writer using the “You must do this” tone there always were flashbacks to the writer as a Nazi soldier ordering civilians around.
One of our Washingtonian writers had lunch with one of DC’s top “bookers,” a woman in the ABC-TV bureau whose job was to line up prominent guests for political talk shows.
The woman said that when Carl Bernstein, who had flamed out at the Washington Post after Watergate, became head of Washington’s ABC-TV bureau, he came by her desk and said, “Let me have your Rolodex. I want to copy it this weekend.”
No way, the woman said. And she outlasted Bernstein at ABC.
A few of her other comments:
A lot of people in TV are getting eye surgery—the cosmetic kind.
So-and-so, wife of a prominent businessman, hired so-and-so as her “handler” so she could make a bigger social splash. Ambitious Washingtonians increasing hire “handlers” to help make them A-list people.
She was amazed at how much people in Washington now lie. They now do it without blinking.
The lunch was in 1999 when a lot of journalism was done over the phone and a good Rolodex—full of unlisted telephone numbers— was valuable.
As for people in Washington lying without blinking. . .