Cleaning copy: 29 or so pitfalls to avoid

I put this two-page list of tips together for a small newspaper chain recently. It’s available as a PDF on my Web site, I’m posting it here mainly in the interest of getting your feedback so I can touch it up. if y0u find it useful, feel free to download it from the Web site.

Below is a list of four of the most common issues to hit the copy desk. What follows is a list of some of my Twitter tips (@EditorMark) that might be particularly useful to reporters.

1. Errors in math. Don’t ignore the common-sense advice drilled into our heads in high school: Check your work. I would put the error rate in number-intensive stories at about 20 percent. Reread your stories, pull out the numbers, and make sure they work together. Quick tip: For percentages, divide the part by the whole and multiply by 100. Also, remember extremes usually do not tell the reader what is typical. “Up to 70 percent” off at a store means some things are 70 percent off, most are not. Same goes for claims by politicians and other public officials.

2. Errors in parallel structure. Once you’ve put down a verb, everything that follows in a list must agree with that verb. The same holds true for bulleted lists. This is often forgotten, and so we get “plans to cut police positions, library hours, and to reduce spending on parks.” Read what you have written (and don’t be afraid to move your lips as you do so).

3. Misplaced and dangling modifiers. Don’t be afraid to rewrite or divide a sentence to avoid confusion over the intended object. “A Wisconsin man was reported stabbed by Beloit Police.” “Frozen solid, Bruce walked out onto the lake.” Read what you have written.

4. False continuums: The snowstorm brought everything from fender-benders to school closings. So those are the extremes? Where does the increase in sales of plastic shovels fit? Make a list if you must, but avoid the “everything from” construction unless you can actually fit all your items on a line.

Tweeted tips

“That” often is superfluous. But don’t omit it without carefully reading what’s left. Keep it in for clarity; omit if excessive.

Ships “founder,” meaning they take on water and sink. A sailor on the doomed ship might “flounder,” or thrash about trying to stay afloat.

For something to be “historic,” it must be important to history. If it just happened in the past, it’s “historical.”

Do not call charter schools “taxpayer-funded private schools.” Governance models vary, but all charter schools are public schools.

To “flout” is to mock or otherwise show disdain; to “flaunt” is to show off. “Flautist” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “flutist.”

AP says “mike,” not “mic.” OED has references to “mike” dating to 1920s, “mic” to 1960s.

Don’t say “margin” if you mean “ratio.” Ratio is the relationship between two numbers; margin is the difference: 2-1 ratio; 12-point margin.

If you feel bad, don’t say “badly” unless you have a poor sense of touch. It’s the same as with smelling bad or smelling badly.

It celebrates all mothers, but Mother’s Day keeps the apostrophe inside as a singular possessive, as does Father’s Day and New Year’s Day.

“Biweekly” means every two weeks. But for 150+ years, it also has been used to mean twice weekly. Avoid confusion and say what you mean.

You “lay” something. But, annoyingly, “lay” also is the past tense of “lie.” Lay an object down. Lie down. He lay down. (It was laid down.)

“Currently” usually adds nothing; use it rarely and thoughtfully for clarity. Never write the horribly verbose “at this point in time.”

Don’t call two quarters of GDP decline a “traditional” definition of “recession.” The recent convention often is rejected as simplistic.

To “clamor” is to make a lot of noise. To “clamber” is to awkwardly climb or move (probably from “clamb,” an old past tense of “climb”).

“Discrete” means distinct or separate (the island of Crete is a discrete part of Greece). “Discreet” means quietly careful or judicious.

“Defuse” means disable a bomb. It can be used figuratively: to defuse a tense situation. “Diffuse” as a verb means to spread out or scatter.

You can be both interested and “disinterested.” “Disinterested” means impartial. Don’t care? Then you are “uninterested.”

Avoid using “fumes” to mean “vapor.” Fumes usually are smelly or toxic vapors. Vapor is any diffused matter floating in air, such as steam.

Don’t fear “effect” as a verb. To “affect” is to influence; to “effect” is to bring about. “Effect” something and you can take the credit.

“Who” is the proper pronoun for the subject of a sentence. If your pronoun is not doing anything, use “whom.” “Who” does stuff to “whom.”

“Alright” is common, but it’s a nonstandard spelling of “all right,” which prevails in formal writing. Stick with two words, all right?

“Irregardless” is a nonsensical variant, formed by adding the negative prefix “ir'” to “regardless,” which already has a negative suffix.

There is no need to write the awkward “’til.” Till is a perfectly good word that means the same thing. “Until” is best for most writing.

One who “begs the question” is pretending that restating a question answers it. Consider “raises the question.”

“A while” is two words if it follows “in” or “for” — that’s when it acts as a noun. “Awhile” is an adverb.


6 thoughts on “Cleaning copy: 29 or so pitfalls to avoid

  1. Great tips!

    Your tip on lay/lie is concise, but the best way to explain (IMO) is to have a table showing the different tenses of the two words. I know anyone can find it in a grammar book, but it might be worth spelling it out again.

    My thoughts on “mike” vs. “mic”: In dialogue, “mike” looks better; in narrative, “mic” looks better. I think it’s because “mike” isn’t really an abbreviation—it’s the phonetic spelling of the abbreviation (mic). “Mike” just has a old-fogey look to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if “mike” were to disappear in the future.

    Here’s one you didn’t mention:
    Re-read it carefully before you publish! I see journalists (esp. online) making more and more brazen errors, like reduplication of words. “The car careened off the road and hit two pedestrians and hit two pedestrians”. I suppose it’s the pressure to get the news out fast, but mistakes like this really just make the reader think that the journalist doesn’t take his writing seriously; and that, in turn, makes the reader wonder if the journalist has been sloppy with the facts too.

  2. Very good list. How about correct usage of “further” and “farther”.

    As you know, one is distance (farther), the other “to a greater degree.”

    Have seen sentences (probably guilty myself) such as, “I read farther in the book.”

  3. I’m not convinced by the explanation for “begs the question”. Looks like it may have suffered from the 140 character constraint. This particular kind of logical fallacy isn’t an expectation that “restating a question answers it” (it’s usually not a question at all) but rather a case of assuming the thing to be proved within the original proposition. For example, “lying is wrong because we ought always to tell the truth.”

    My advice (especially for journalistic contexts) would be simply to never use “begs the question”. Those who are familiar with logic, rhetoric and classical languages will recognise the occasions where it’s appropriate to use the phrase anyway. But for everyone else, they almost *always* mean “raises” or “prompts” the question.

  4. Thank you for the comments and terrific suggestions. The “begs the question” entry is lacking because my original tweet left room for a link to, but I took that out for a printed version. I’ll work on a standalone explanation.

    Perhaps read and read again should be the No. 1 suggestion. Duplication is common, often a result of rewriting.

    I appreciate all the ideas — keep them coming.

  5. Apostrophes — use them for contractions and noun possessives, not for plurals and possessive pronouns.

    Jargon — state it in plain English if possible when you are writing for a general audience.

    A good suggestion for writers of news (or anything, really) is to read your work out loud once you think you’re done. That’s a good way to find places where readers might stumble or phrases that are clunky or verbose.

    There are lots more things I’d sweat before farther/further, but pick your peeves. 🙂

  6. What about the ‘dis-‘ and ‘mis-‘ prefixes? I dislike their misuse (see what I did there?).

    “I knew she was no good; I always mistrusted her”. No, no, no. You distrusted her.

    ‘Mis-‘: you put it in the wrong place. ‘Dis-‘: you didn’t put it there at all, or it moved.

    If anyone can think of a better way to explain it though, cool and thanks.

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