The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: ACES

Welcoming Pam Nelson to the ACES site

Pam Nelson, a friend and former colleague, has moved her Grammar Guide blog to the website of the American Copy Editors Society.

I worked with Pam twice at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., from 1992-1997 and 2001-2005. She’s a wonderful colleague, easygoing and dedicated.

In 2010, Pam was a contestant on “Jeopardy!” and my son and I cheered her on when the show aired. She didn’t win, but she did us copy editors proud.

Earlier this year, when McClatchy dissolved the N&O copy desk and sent those tasks to an editing hub in Charlotte, Pam took an offer to work there. As she explained in her first post for the new blog, she did so because she believes in copy editing.

“We add value to the articles that we touch — making sure that the facts are complete, that the assertions are supported and that the writing is clear enough so the facts and assertions can be understood,” she writes. “We are not extras. We are essential.”

Please join me in welcoming Pam to the ACES site. We’re lucky to have her wit and insight there. Thanks also to the N&O, for allowing ACES to repost the archives and quizzes from Pam’s former blog.

Fall break

This blog will be on hiatus for the next couple of weeks.

This week, I’m off to New Orleans for the midterm meeting of the ACES board. Next week, it’s time to give and grade midterm exams in my editing classes.

I’ll still be on Twitter now and again. Thanks for reading, and enjoy autumn.

Editing with the flavor of south Louisiana

The American Copy Editors Society is headed to Louisiana twice in the next several months:

  • In October, the organization will play host to a one-day workshop in Baton Rouge. Topics include headline writing, fact check and editing maps and charts.
  • In April 2012, the national conference of ACES will take place in New Orleans. The program for that event is in progress, but you can register now.

As a native of New Orleans, I’m looking forward to combining some of my favorite things: visiting my hometown, attending the ACES conference and eating and drinking well. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Where teaching and research intersect

With the fall semester just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about changes to the editing course that I teach at UNC-Chapel Hill.

One area I’d like to focus on more is what research tells us about writing and editing. The objective of academic research, after all, is to create knowledge and make discoveries that can be shared with the world.

For several years, I have mentioned eyetracking research done by The Poynter Institute and similar work by a UNC colleague, Laura Ruel. Students have said that they liked learning about how readers read pages, both in print and online. They have also taken an interest in Poynter’s research about alternative story forms.

This semester, I will add the important research by Fred Vultee of Wayne State University that shows that readers value editing. Vultee presented his findings earlier this year at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society and again at the recent AEJMC conference.

I’ll also mention a study in the current issue of Newspaper Research Journal that found that grammar errors hinder comprehension and damage credibility. (The study isn’t published online, unfortunately.)

I believe that it’s important to let students — and working journalists — know about research that speaks to our profession. That’s the central mission of efforts at ACES to encourage and promote research about editing.

I encourage others who teach editing and writing to include research as part of your classes. And if you know of studies that speak to those skills, please share that knowledge. I’d love to pass that information on to the writers and editors of the future.

Meet us in St. Louis — for breakfast

The Breakfast of Editing Champions returns to the AEJMC national convention in St. Louis on Thursday, Aug. 11.

The breakfast, which will begin at 8:15 a.m., is free and open to anyone who teaches editing, appreciates editing or simply likes to hang around editing professors. That should be pretty much everyone.

This year’s breakfast is BYOB: Bring Your Own Bagel. As in years past, coffee will be provided. If you would like to attend, RSVP by signing up on the event’s Facebook page.

The agenda is simple, yet fundamental to journalism that matters: the future of editing and editing education. This year’s breakfast will include a panel discussion on the fast-moving changes in our field:

  • Joy Mayer, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to her academic duties, Mayer is an editor at the Columbia Missourian, the community newspaper run by faculty and staffed by Missouri students. Her focus at the newspaper is community outreach and engagement.
  • Merrill Perlman, freelance editor and consultant. Perlman spent 25 years at The New York Times in jobs including business copy editor, managing editor of the New York Times News Service and director of copy desks. She is an adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and writes the Language Corner column for the Columbia Journalism Review.
  • Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society. Schmedding, a frequent presenter on managing creative people and other newsroom issues, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, the third largest paper in Illinois.

A highlight of the breakfasts has been the Teaching Idea Exchange, in which we swap assignment and strategies. Jill Van Wyke of Drake University will handle the exchange this year, so send your best teaching idea or tip to her at by Friday, July 29. Send her a few paragraphs on your idea and be ready to discuss it for a minute or two at the breakfast.

Thanks to our sponsors for making the event (and coffee) possible: the American Copy Editors Society, Poynter’s News University and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. Thanks also to the Newspaper and Scholastic Journalism divisions of AEJMC for their support.

See you in St. Louis!

Student guest post: The importance of online editing

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Laura Hoxworth is a senior studying reporting and French at UNC-Chapel Hill. She loves traveling, everything to do with language, and occasionally playing the ukulele. Follow her on Twitter or check out her blog at

Copy editing is a thankless job. When it’s done well, it’s invisible – and, as follows, it’s one of those jobs that readers only notice if it’s done badly. And according to new research, they will notice.

In a presentation given at the American Copy Editors Society conference in Phoenix, Wayne State University Assistant Professor Fred Vultee showed that readers have an idea of what a good news story looks like and will notice significant grammar errors or confusing organization.

The problem is, with the rise of blogging, citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle, online editing often gets shoved out of the way by a pressing emphasis on speed. But according to this research, while readers might rarely finish a good article and exclaim, “Wow, that was some fantastic editing,” they will notice bad (or nonexistent) editing. And that will come back to haunt you.

This seems to go against the newer trend of speed over accuracy. But I would argue that solid editing is even more important when it comes to the Internet. Here’s why: With such an abundance of information and a wide spectrum of credible and not-so-credible sources online, significant errors in online stories (particularly at a website without a well-known print edition) are more likely to affect readers’ perceptions of the website’s credibility in general.

Catching an error in print is less of a big deal because the reader knows, on some level, that establishing a print publication takes time, people, money and a certain amount of credibility. Websites can be thrown together by anyone. Catching an error online is more likely to make the reader doubt the website’s credibility, and turning to another news source takes just the click of a mouse.

This research is an interesting addition to the debate on the evolving state of journalism, but I think it’s good evidence that we can’t sacrifice copy editing for speed, especially online.

There’s also the bigger picture. We need to remember the purpose of those things we editors hold close to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, organization, etc. It’s all for the sake of clarity. As Vultee noted, no one is going to blacklist a publication (or a blog) for a misplaced modifier. But the goal of copy editing is to get the point across in the most clear and effective way.

So while it’s important that websites stand by copy editing to avoid damaging their credibility, producing clean copy should be about more than whether readers will notice it or not. Maybe they don’t notice us (as they shouldn’t, if we’re doing our job well). Regardless, producing the best copy possible is a way of showing respect to our readers and demonstrating that our first priority is making sure they understand what’s going on.

And let’s be real: If we don’t have copy editors to look out for grammar and organization, who will?

Wish you were here

This blog will be quiet this week as I head to Phoenix for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. The program, as usual, is packed with interesting sessions.

I hope to see you there. If you can’t attend this year, follow the conference on the ACES 2011 blog and on Twitter. And I hope to see you in 2012, when we meet in New Orleans.

Why you should go to the ACES conference

The national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place March 17-19 at Arizona State University.

Editors from newspapers, magazines, academia, government and the corporate world are invited to attend. Everyone is welcome.

Here are some reasons you should be there:

  • If you’re old school, you can brush up on your skills on grammar and proofreading.
  • If you’re new school, you can learn about blogs, wikis, video and social media.
  • Either way, sessions will include hands-on training to help you be the best editor you can be.
  • Phoenix is a nice — and warm — place to visit to escape the winter doldrums of the East Coast and Midwest.
  • You’ll have access to free, reliable Wi-Fi on the ASU campus — no fees!
  • Registration rates are the same as last year and less expensive than many other journalism conferences.
  • You can bid on fun items like these at the silent auction, with proceeds going to scholarships for students interested in careers in editing.
  • Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, will be the keynote speaker at the Friday night banquet.
  • We’ll have plenty of fun and fellowship (and networking, if that is your thing), from the Thursday night kickoff through the Saturday night social.

Still not sure? Need more reasons? See for yourself why the ACES conference is a great event.

I hope to see you there.

Studying for midterms

This blog will be quiet for the next week or so. I’ll be busy with midterms:

  • I’ll grade midterm exams for my editing courses. The exam includes a story to edit and a headline to write. The other component is a set of sentences to edit for clarity, word choice and other issues.
  • I’ll attend the midterm meeting of the executive committee of the American Copy Editors Society. We’re gathering in Phoenix to plan for the national conference, which will take place at Arizona State University in March 2011.

I’ll still be active on Twitter now and again. Thanks, as always, for reading here and there.

Q&A with Stephanie Yera, communications associate at the NYT

Stephanie Yera is a communications associate at The New York Times Company. Yera is a 2009 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously worked as an intern and corporate communications assistant at Dow Jones and Company. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Yera talks about her job duties and journalism education.

Q. Describe your job. What does a communications associate do at The New York Times Company?

A. Every day begins by reading The Times in print and online to see what stories are on deck and which ones are “most viewed” and “most e-mailed” online. Pinning down our most popular news stories determines what newspaper content I’m going to actively pitch to TV and radio producers in an effort to secure interviews for our reporters to discuss their stories on air.

Even without pitching, we get numerous invitations daily from producers for our reporters to appear on their programs, so coordinating interviews is my primary responsibility.

It’s important to be familiar with the paper, its reporters and their beats, because if one reporter on a particular story is unavailable for interviews, I need to try to find another reporter to jump in. If I know The Times is working on an investigative piece or is preparing to break a big story, part of my job is to do advance outreach to producers to reserve air time for reporter interviews and make sure The Times gets credit for the news scoop.

My job also includes copy editing all external communications, writing company press releases and posting to the company’s Twitter feed. In the fall, I’ll be posting to Twitter live from TimesTalks events, part of an ongoing series of celebrity guests interviewed by Times reporters, which I’m especially excited about doing.

Q. You were a student in the news-editorial sequence at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did the skills you learned there help you in your job? What wasn’t taught that should have been?

A. Coming into The Times already knowing how a newsroom works and what kinds of stories make for high interest really helped me find my footing quickly. Because I’m speaking with producers and reporters constantly, I hear industry jargon all the time, and I’m able to keep up despite not having previously worked in a newsroom thanks to my time in the j-school.

The skills I learned in news editing helped me carve out a bigger role for myself in the office because I’m now trusted to copy edit and review corporate communications before they leave our department and to take such precautions as proofreading my Tweet before posting. Volunteering to edit internal communications is how I eventually got to do more writing.

I’m still not a master of the press release, but what helps me write one is the inverted pyramid, the concept I learned my first day in the j-school and which is now second nature when it comes to writing most corporate communications.

News reporting really pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but it was a necessary challenge that taught me a lot about taking initiative, networking and being confident in my writing. Networking isn’t something I’m naturally inclined to do, but putting myself out there as a journalist and getting interviews from sources gave me the nudge I needed to be more comfortable with it and, eventually, come to enjoy it.

I would like to see a j-school class devoted entirely to digital journalism that included lessons in basic HTML, Web design, blogging with video and audio, putting your resume online and attracting people to your Web site, Twitter feed, Facebook, etc. Something I wish had been more ingrained in me is the important habit of keeping up with the latest media industry news. Being up to speed on the gadgets, apps, tech startups and media journalists of the moment is critical if you want to stand out and be ahead of the curve of new media.

Q. You were an intern for the American Copy Editors Society. How did that experience help you in the job you have now?

A. As an intern, I was responsible for setting up interviews with copy editing professionals to discuss their jobs and editing expertise and for interviewing and following up with them without an intermediary, which were experiences that directly relate to what I do now.

For some people, picking up the phone and calling someone they’ve never met is easy, but for me, it took some getting used to, especially because I was nervous I hadn’t prepared the right questions to get enough meat for the stories I’d be writing for the ACES newsletter. Every time, though, I ended up having more than enough to write about, and I hesitated less and less before picking up the phone and conducting my next interview.

The majority of my day is now spent negotiating interviews, cold calling and e-mailing producers and “meeting” reporters on a call or via BlackBerry.

Having ACES on my resume also earned me some credibility with my colleagues when I first started at The Times. They let me have a go at copy editing internal memos and departmental e-mails when I started volunteering myself for the task. After a couple of months, I was asked to assist the company’s speechwriter in editing executive speeches and to copy edit press releases, and now I help write them, as well.

Q. Many college students would love to land an internship or first job like yours. What recommendations do you have for them?

A. Big opportunities can come from unexpected places, so tell people about your ambitions and get to know classmates and professors in and outside of the j-school. The interview for my public relations summer internship with The Wall Street Journal came through a professor in UNC’s peace, war and defense department — an unlikely source who knew I was looking for an opportunity in media. Without that internship, I wouldn’t have met the person who would hire me a year later to work at The Times.

Getting to know your professors can not only lead to job recommendations, but can also be a gateway to important introductions and meaningful support systems. Maintaining relationships with Carolina alumni is also an important step in preserving resources of encouragement and possible job connections. I only really took advantage of University Career Services in my senior year, and that’s something I should have done much sooner. Through UCS, you can find jobs posted by alumni or by organizations where alumni are already employed and find employers looking for Carolina grads.

Skills that will serve you in digital journalism should be kept sharp and up to date, but not at the expense of traditional know-how. I once got a job without an interview because I was the only candidate to not include a spelling or grammar error with my application.

If you haven’t yet had luck in securing a paid job in journalism, seek out volunteer or freelance opportunities to keep you in the game. Even if they don’t pay, they’ll add important value to your resume.


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