Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Good editing requires continual practice

A former colleague asked me to do a little editing on a college student's project, and I readily agreed to do a favor. Other than editing my own writing and occasionally pulling out a pen to mark mistakes in the newspaper, I have done very little editing in the past five years.

Like all learned responses, editing skills get rusty after a spell of inactivity. Sitting before a computer monitor and looking for misspellings, subject-verb disagreements, verb tense errors and so forth is something you have to do continually to be good at it. Early in my newspaper career, I was not a very good editor. As a college student, I liked to quote Ernest Hemingway, who once defended his errors by saying, "Anybody can hire an editor." I was a writer, not an editor. But my career demanded that I become an editor, and so I did, with the help of some good grammar seminars and my striving to explain to reporters why my corrections were based on good grammar and syntax.

Editing is a thankless job. If you get it right, no one notices. If you miss one word — or even one letter — used in error, everyone thinks you must be an idiot. I've had the embarrassing experience of seeing errors once an article was in print, but I had missed that very error when I saw it on the computer screen — before it was too late. When I look back at old posts in this blog, I find simple errors I had overlooked before.

Newspaper readers frequently complain that no one proofreads any more, and that's true in the strict sense of the word. In the old days, when everything in the newspaper was typed into lead type on a Linotype machine, proofreaders would sit and compare the reporter's typewritten copy to the "proof" sheet from the Linotype. Typographical errors would be corrected.

With the advent of "cold type" — computer-generated copy on paper or in digital form — proofreaders were eliminated, as were Linotype operators. All of the burden of getting a story right fell on editors. And editors are as fallible as anyone. That's why I insisted on having what we called a "second read." After one editor finished editing story, he or she would hand it off to another editor for a second look in an effort to catch any oversights. It was not a fail-safe system, but it was better than relying on just two eyes.

Good editing takes practice. You learn to stop and look at certain words, such as "lay" or "its" because their misuse is very common. You also look at antecedents and plural nouns. When you're doing this kind of work every day, it becomes second nature. I am no longer doing this every day, so I have yet another excuse for any mistakes I make.

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