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Oct 5 / King Kaufman

Copy editing advice from the New York Times

Patrick LaForge

Patrick LaForge

It’s the eternal battle of the online content racket: Speed vs. accuracy. We fight it at Bleacher Report, they fight it everywhere.

They even fight it at the New York Times, where the definition of “speed” might look different than the one used by your favorite blog site—or by B/R.

“Mistakes in copy have been a problem since Gutenberg, but it is hard to shake the impression that we have been slipping more than usual, especially in articles that are rushed onto the Web site, bypassing some of our traditional steps,” writes Patrick LaForge, who oversees the Times’ copy desks, in a memo to editors reprinted in a Times Topics Blog post yesterday.

“This era of news publishing has put a greater emphasis on speed, across multiple formats and platforms,” LaForge continues. “Thanks to blogging and continuous updates, more people in the newsroom find themselves in the role of publishing live material … It can be tempting to cut corners. You might decide, unwisely, to save some time by bypassing the copy desk. There is rarely a justification for doing so.”

New York Times logoBleacher Report’s model differs from that of the Times, of course. But the point is the same, and maybe even more important at Bleacher Report than at the New York Times. If the Times refers to the Speaker of the House as John G. Borehner, as LaForge notes it did recently, readers are likely to say, “Gee, the Times is getting sloppy. They must have cut back on copy editors.”

If Bleacher Report were to make a similar mistake, our friends across the web would use it as proof  of B/R’s alleged illegitimacy.

Though Bleacher Report does have a copy editing process, it’s not as involved as the one in play at the Times, where, LaForge notes, “Our policy is for every article to get at least two reads, preferably one of them by an experienced copy editor, before publication.”

Question: Does the Times have inexperienced copy editors?

Writers at Bleacher Report—and almost anywhere else most writers are likely to publish these days—have to be their own copy editors. As an aid in improving at that part of the process, here are some proofreading tips that LaForge writes are “culled from years of journalism tip sheets:”

• Break your mind-set: Read the copy out loud. Read it silently, one word at a time. Read it backward and focus on the spelling of words. Print a copy. Preview it in a different application. Change the format or the screen resolution. Justify or unjustify the type. Take a break and return to it with fresh eyes.

• Use spelling checkers but don’t trust them. In particular, be aware of homophone confusion: complement and compliment, accept and except, effect and affect, oversees and overseas.

• Memorize frequently misspelled and misused words. Here’s a list: http://www.yourdictionary.com/library/misspelled.html. [Bleacher Report writers should also consult their online Spelling, Hyphenation and Capitalization Dictionary, linked on the Writer HQ page.]

• Beware of contractions and apostrophes: their and they’re, its and it’s, your and you’re.

• After reading for content and spelling, proofread separately for punctuation.

• Beware of doubled words at the end and start of a line. A doubled “that” will often slip right by if you let it.

• Double-check proper names and claims of distinction (first, best, oldest, tallest, etc.).

• Double-check little words that are often interchanged: or, of; it, is.

• Check all the numbers, especially any reference to millions, billions or trillions. Do the math. Do the math again. [From King: This can't be emphasized enough for sports stories that involve stats. Do the numbers check out?]

• Set aside a regular time to review stylebook and usage rules. This includes backfield editors [a Times term for assignment editors] and reporters. If you don’t want someone to change your story on style grounds (and perhaps introduce an error), learn the basics and follow them.

• Be aware of dates and days of the week, especially in advance copy or copy that has been held. Be aware of references to next month/last month around the time the month is changing.

• Make a personal checklist of the things you tend to miss. Use it on every story.

• Have someone else, preferably a copy editor, read behind you.

Last of all, think of our readers—and care what they think of us.

  • Nedu Obi

    Great Tips. More of the same please.

  • Anonymous

    I just realized there’s been a highly ironic typo in the first sentence of this post for each and every one of the 114 days it’s been up. And now I’ve fixed it, so you all missed it.

  • REC

    There is an error in the second sentence. Two independent clauses should be joined by a semicolon, not a comma.

    My favorite semicolon reference: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

    • King_Kaufman

      My favorite semicolon reference is Kurt Vonnegut Jr.:

      “Do not use semicolons.”

      • REC

        . . . then I guess you need a period in there. Perhaps you would prefer a conjunction? The NYT official style guide is adamant that a comma not be used to separate two independent clauses without a conjunction. Since this article is NYT-centric, it makes sense to respect that convention.

        • King_Kaufman

          The New York Times is not the boss of me.

          • REC

            I am perplexed. Is the purpose here to be informative or to be shocking?

            Authors have the luxury of making wildly inflammatory statements that eschew the use of particular forms of punctuation. Copy editors don’t. I hope you don’t want Bleacher editors deciding based on their personal preferences what forms of punctuation pass muster.

            I don’t know of any style guide in print that would allow for joining two independent clauses with a naked comma. The proper construction involves a period, a semicolon or a comma with a conjunction.

            Your above comment (while it is quite likely technically true) is confusing given the headline, graphic and extensive amount of sourced material in the above article.

            Is your claim that the sentence is question is presented correctly? If so, can you provide a reference that would back that up?

            Alternatively, are you trying to say you don’t care and/or don’t enjoy receiving constructive feedback?