SPJVPA16: Pros offer tips for editing copy

By Janeal Downs

A good news story means more than presenting information as an inverted pyramid and applying AP style. In today’s newsrooms, reporters also must be copy editors and turn in articles that are as ready for publication as possible.

At the VPA/SPJ Region 2 Conference, two experienced editors offered advice on how journalists can better copy-edit themselves. Karen Denny, director of the Annapolis Bureau of Maryland Capital News Service, and Suzanne Wardle, copy editor and books editor for The Roanoke Times, led a session titled “Stop Errors in Their Tracks: Copy Editing for Everyone.”

Both Wardle and Denny have had their fair share of editing reporters’ work: Wardle joined The Times’ copy desk in 2006, and Denny has been an editor for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and the Washington Times.

Here are 10 of the many tips they offered during the session:

  1. Look at all elements of a story. Don’t forget that every piece of content must be copy-edited, including infographics and cutlines. Don’t just edit your article and forget the rest.
  2. Double check everything. Every time a name appears, make sure the spelling is consistent. Not only are the words important, but the math is as well. “Ask someone to read over your shoulder,” Wardle said. “That’s allowed; that’s OK; that’s not a weakness.”
  3. Know your reporters (or yourself). Do you or your reporters tend to mix up they’re, their and there? How about issues with passive voice? Remember these things, and look for them in copy to save time. As a reporter, work on breaking bad habits.
  4. “It’s better to be right than to be first,” Wardle said in discussing digital reporting. With the rise of social media, reporters feel even more pressure to be first in breaking news. But they must remember that accuracy is paramount. Not only should reporters strive for accuracy on the web, but Denny said journalists should have a policy for how to make corrections on social media posts.
  5. “What would I tell my parents to Google?” When writing headlines for the web, think search engine optimization, or SEO. Web headlines need more information to attract online readers. Wardle suggested that reporters think about what words they would search for in Google to find the article – or better yet, what words they would tell their parents to search for. And then use those words in the headline.
  6. Before turning in copy to an editor, Denny suggested many things to avoid. For example, avoiding using the same word in a sentence; avoid generalities or cliches; avoid technical language; and avoid euphemisms.
  7. Another thing to avoid: passive voice. Denny recommended using Ctrl-F – the “find” command on your keyboard – and searching for “by.” This usually signifies a passive sentence.
  8. Know the rules for writing a good lede. Denny mentioned such guidelines as: Don’t have a lede with more than 30 words, don’t begin with a quote and don’t use exclamation points!
  9. Know which is better, a direct quote or paraphrase. “I hear this all the time from students: ‘I’m almost done with my story; I just need a quote,’” Denny said. “No, you never need a quote. What you need is two things – information, and you need to give people the chance to explain why.” Take advantage of paraphrasing and making the information clear. Moreover, don’t quote what you’ve just written, and try to keep quotes to fewer than 15 words.
  10. Take a break between writing and editing. When editing, you might read from the last sentence up; print out your story and edit it with a pen; or scrutinize it line by line.
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