Thursday, September 13, 2012

Making the writer look good

        Editing sports stories for newspapers -- and these days for the Internet and Internet blogs -- can be tricky. Not difficult (unless you're on deadline), just tricky.
         The sports copy editor's job is to make the writer look good. Many writers are outstanding, and don't need much editing or any help looking good. But most copy needs a second (and third) look. Some stories need an overhaul.
         Mike Richey, my old buddy from Monroe, La., and the first sports editor I worked with at the Florida Times-Union, used to remind me that if the writers were all that good, we (sports copy editors) wouldn't be necessary.
          In newspapers, I was a sports editor, assistant sports editor, high school editor (making assignments, editing copy), writer/sometimes columnist and -- mostly for the past 25 years -- sports copy editor.
          In editing copy, your objective is to give the story clarity, to eliminate the clutter and  repetitiveness, to make it flow and easy to read, to give it the proper grammar and punctuation, but mostly -- in my view -- to be sure it's accurate. Correct facts and names are top priorities.
          Opinions should be left alone ... unless the facts are just wrong. Then you need to check with the writer.
           And that's the tricky part. Some writers don't want to be corrected, don't want you messing with their stories, don't want you -- as I heard so often at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- "taking their voice."
            It can be an adversarial situation -- the writer and the copy editor. It doesn't have to be, but if egos become involved, and they often do, there can be problems.
            I've found plenty of writers with plenty of ego. Didn't like them complaining, especially to the higher-ups. I always found that unbecoming. If they had a problem with something I changed, I could explain it to them.
            So you do have to be careful making changes. I've had my share of screwups, believe me, and I know what it's like to have changes made to things I've written -- changes I didn't like. What I learned to do years ago was not go back and see what was done to my stories, and -- because I've been a copy editor -- not to complain about those changes. What's done is done.
            Never considered myself a "wordsmith," whatever that is, or an expert on grammar or punctuation. I've worked with many copy editors with more ability and knowledge than I had.
            But I did try to edit with sensitivity and integrity. I saw some editors rewrite people's stories completely, without feedback from the writer. That wasn't cool, in my opinion. Sure, I've rewritten stories -- especially ones by young writers -- but I tried to explain to those writers what I was doing, and what they could do to improve.
              Some listened and learned; some ignored everything you pointed out, and never or seldom got better.
             One example of improvement: Matt Hayes came to us at the Florida Times-Union right out of the University of Florida. He was just learning as a writer and not many days went by that I didn't go over his stories with him, pointing out what he could do better, take a better angle, improve his grammar, whatever. 
Matt Hayes

      Encouraged him -- as I would encourage any young writer -- to read good writers, see what they did. And he did. He improved, kept improving, to the point that he now is one of the national college football writers for Sporting News, and -- if you don't see his stuff -- he is a bigtime writer.
            One of my problems reading the papers these days, and the Internet, and even Sports Illustrated or Sporting News, is that I read it like a copy editor. I still see plenty I could change.
            From reading copy at our local newspaper, I know we have writers/columnists who don't punctuate well -- don't know what takes a possessive and what doesn't and wouldn't know where a comma belongs if it lands in their laps. One writes run-on sentence tacked onto run-on sentence, with no commas in sight.
             (Reminds me of the time at the Times-Union when I inserted several commas into a guy's story. He was a very good writer, but his sentences that day needed some stops. Offended by my editing, the next story he turned in had NO punctuation at all. That petulant act cost him a suspension and a week's pay.)
          Just as I wrote about my cliche' quirks, I have my editing quirks. I share them with some fellow sports copy editors; we discussed these things, and I tried to listen.
          Here are a few items for Copy Editing 102:
          Why -- and I see this almost every day in the paper are there references to runs scored, or touchdowns scored, or innings pitched? What else are you going to do with runs, touchdowns or innings? Just writing runs, touchdowns or innings will work.
           Why write the pitcher allowed so many runs and/or hits? That sounds like permission. The pitcher gave us those runs and hits. Same with the usage of may instead of might ... may connotes permission.
           My friend Ken -- who I mentioned in the previous blog -- never liked the use of straight ... as in nine straight victories (rather than wins) or nine straight seasons. It's used every day, but his point is that it is used incorrectly. So we always tried to change it to consecutive victories or, say, nine victories in a row.
           He also felt that teams don't have their winning streaks snapped (again, that connotes permission). The Nationals' winning streak was snapped.
           We can write that a team won its third game in a row. No, actually it might be, say, its 122nd game in a row, but it was its third victory in a row. See the difference?
            Again, some people -- some copy editors -- would say these are needless changes, nitpicking, personal preferences. All true.
            What I'm seeing often now: A sentence that starts in one direction then twists in another direction. BUT there's no comma before "then." It's a run-on sentence. In my world, if the thought changes, if the sentence needs a pause, always use the comma.
             Here is the error that I find most common in today's sports stories: the use of it and they. I see this from the very best writers to those who don't have a clue (and possibly never will). I learned the correct usage as a kid because Jim McLain at The Shreveport Times corrected me on it a dozen times before I caught on.
              The rule is this: Common name -- Dallas, New York, LSU -- is followed by it. Team nickname -- Cowboys, Yankees, Tigers -- is followed by they or them.
             Correct: Dallas won its season opener. (NOT Dallas won their season opener.) The Cowboys won their season opener.
             Correct: New York has blown its 10-game lead in the AL East. (NOT New York still thinks they are the team to beat.) The Yankees still think they are the team to beat.
             Correct: LSU has as good a defense as it had last year. (NOT LSU likes their chances for a national championship.) LSU likes its chances.)
             OK, got it? I can find incorrect usages of it/they a half dozen times a day in the newspaper, maybe even a dozen times.
            A week ago Thursday, on Page 2 of my paper in the "High School Huddle," there were 23 incorrect usages -- mostly "they" instead of "it" when referring to teams. Yes, 23 ... I am not making that up.
           My opinion: shameful. If the writers got it wrong, they should be told. And a copy editor should correct it. No one looks good here. 
             This old-school sports copy editor has a tough time with that kind of journalism. But maybe it doesn't matter these days.

No comments:

Post a Comment