Student guest post: Accuracy, not technology, must be editor’s priority

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Ashlie Carlson is a senior undergraduate studying editing and graphic design, and she plans to enter the field of book editing after graduation. She has recently worked as a freelance copy editor with Technica Editorial Services in Carrboro, N.C. She enjoys rock music and concerts, and is an avid reader of fantasy and horror novels.

If I’m being honest, I probably read more fiction than news, but no matter where I stumble upon them, basic grammatical and spelling errors make me cringe. Especially when it comes to books, I have little to no sympathy for editors who apparently don’t notice the occasional missing letter, or in some cases, entire words.

When I run into more than one of these errors in a single piece of writing, it becomes irrelevant to me how much work the editors put into fine-tuning a manuscript. Editing is one field in which the “don’t sweat the small stuff” adage does not apply.  It’s the small stuff that your readers notice, and it’s the small stuff that calls competence into question.

According to Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for The Washington Post, readers of the paper started noticing an increase in the number of simple errors being printed in 2010. Although his comment on the trend was published a year ago, the points he brings up are still valid in today’s copy-editing world.

The problem, Alexander said, may have something to do with a decline in the number of copy editors on staff and an increase in occupational responsibilities. Copy editors today must be more versatile than ever — well-versed in not only editing, but also in design and Internet technology.

With every major newspaper now sustaining both online and print editions, copy editors must be mindful of the compatibility of the design with multiple platforms, the relative ease of locating articles online, and other factors that were never a concern previously. Taking on these facets of production may in fact be pulling the focus away from straightforward editing.

Take USA Today, for example. Its online archive lists just below 50 corrections from March to December in 2009, all of which were printed in the paper as well. Just the months of November and December in 2010 saw 54 corrections between them. Most of the corrections address incorrect dates and names and are not as trivial as the ones listed in Alexander’s assessment of The Washington Post.

The abundance of them is staggering nonetheless. Though this increase in errors may be coincidental and limited to a handful of papers — it is surprisingly difficult to track down a list of corrections on most sites — the possibility that it is a widespread pattern does raise some interesting questions about what an editor’s primary function should be.

The changes that the newspaper industry has undergone have undoubtedly made news easier to access, but content should not suffer because those involved are more concerned with keeping up with the rapid progression of technology than publishing accurate, polished stories.

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