The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: word choice

Student guest blog post: Is news writing ready to graduate from junior high?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Andrew Murray is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. He loves hockey, English football (soccer to most of you), and as an ex-chef, food. He’s figuring out how to use his soon-to-be journalism degree in one of them.

Every Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, a handful of white vans descend upon the city to fill newspaper boxes and racks with warm bundles of The Stranger, an alternative weekly that dubs itself “Seattle’s Only Newspaper.” Usually within minutes, well over half of each allotment has been snapped up by passers-by and nearby business owners and employees.

By the way the public clamors for it, you would think it really was Seattle’s only newspaper. And there’s a reason for that.

The Stranger treats its readers like they’re part of a club. As if the business of media wasn’t actually a business at all, but was instead concerned with the sharing of information in a way that made people want to read it, maybe even have to read it.

Some of the way they accomplish this is by doing an outstanding job of creating coverage that feels like it was actually written by fellow residents of the great city. Their peers, people who know the city, not the cold soulless journalism machines that too many universities, editors and media organizations have pumped out or molded over the years.

Their coverage creates a mutual understanding of the internal machinations of the city on all levels, from politics to arts and entertainment to the police department, and so on. Contained within that great coverage is the ability to tell the story in a way that effectively gets the information across in an engaging, enjoyable and educational way. They don’t “cookie cut” the news, and they don’t dumb it down, which is often the case.

One of the first things we were told in in our News Writing classes was that the general rule was to assume we were writing stories for an audience with an eighth-grade education. That we as writers or editors must always account for the lowest common denominator and take care to not write over the reader’s head. That we are always trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, especially if writing for a print media that continues its dance with death.

And there is a part of me that can understand that. But there is also a big part of me that sees the role of media as a form of continuing education and the eighth-grade level we’ve settled for is far too low.

In most cases, the audience we write for has varying levels of education and intelligence. What writing at an eighth-grade level does is, intentionally or not, lump them all together into a mass of junior high school brains and is extremely patronizing. It also gives writers every chance to think of their audience as stupid, which can then lead to condescension and will ultimately torpedo readership.

One of my favorite things to do while reading is to learn new words. I love to be able to finish a book and have picked up 10 or more words that I wasn’t familiar with when I embarked on the journey, or to pick up one or two in a well-written article. I view new words as more ammo for my arsenal, and I don’t have a problem turning to my dictionary to learn something new.

When done appropriately in news writing, however, people should be able to infer the meaning from context — no condescending explanation required. This requires a little more work on the writer’s part but as journalists, our prose and command of the English language should certainly be a portion of what sets us apart from the average writer, especially now at a time when the barriers to entry in the news spreading business are as low as they’ve ever been.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that perfectly good “regular” words be replaced by unnecessarily complex words. I don’t need to see the word  “synecdoche” crammed into a sentence because the writer has some sort of inferiority complex. But I do believe the writer needs to be able to use the words they’re most comfortable with, lest the writing becomes a chore.

We’re told that in this “world of distractions,” we as writers/editors need to keep things simple to make sure readers can quickly and easily get the information they need and move on. And in some cases this is absolutely true. In a hard news story about a plane crash, simplicity and frankness should be your guide.

But I do believe there is room for a higher level of writing in most other forms of news writing, and it is in part because of this “world of distractions” that I believe this. I often want something a little meatier and complex to draw me away from those distractions, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes while I’m on the train to work. I like being pleasantly surprised by a nice piece of writing about economics or politics or sports. The goal should be to write the best story you can in both message and style.

Now, the example of an alternative weekly that I used is obviously a bit different. Weeklies definitely have more leeway to write as they see fit because the content and the target audience is usually much more narrow than your average major media outlet. They can cater to their readership much more and they are rarely if ever writing hard immediate news stories.

But I believe there are some lessons in style that can be learned by both print and online sources from the alternative format. I believe there is still some room for the human element in average news writing so that the word “average” and “news writing” can be separated for good.

Perhaps rather than writing for the lowest common denominator, we should be bringing them up to, say, the 12th-grade level? Because if you’re the print media, what exactly do you have to lose?

Student guest post: An education in editing and style

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Jordan Moses is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She recently returned from Australia and plans on writing and editing for a travel magazine.

“Oh, and by the way, leave the commas outside the quotation marks; the Jamaicans are using a British style.”

I admit, it wasn’t something I expected to hear that morning, but my internship has taught me to be prepared for anything. I recently undertook working with Technical Information Publishing Solutions, or TIPS, a small publishing company that I learned about through The Editor’s Desk.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a great deal about what it means to be a copy editor. As editors, there are a lot of forces that draw our attention. After all, we must choose who to serve and how.

The first rule I learned about editing is that a copy editor only exists through whatever stylebook they’re using; everything else is superfluous.

TIPS uses the Chicago Manual of Style since they primarily deal with e-books. However, many journalists favor the Associated Press Stylebook, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school.

Having to jump between my Advanced Editing class and my internship, I’ve stumbled across several inconsistencies. An apostrophe s at the end of duchess might have been welcomed in class, but it shouldn’t have existed at work. And I would have received an actual timeout had I put the dash in “time-out” during class.

However, from working with both styles I’ve come to appreciate the differences between the two handbooks, and more importantly that copy editors cannot be expected to edit if the rules that need to be conformed to are not established. In this instance, I had to know who my audience was and what style the writer wanted to use to best reach them.

So it was with no great peril that I seamlessly transitioned into inversing first authors’ names, but not second authors, rid references of serial commas and struck out Jamaica every time it appeared beside Kingston. Two hours later, when I would sit in front of an Apple computer in class, my brain would once again switch to AP mode.

Once a style is chosen, we then come to a thin line of distinction that rarely any copy editor gets right the first time. It is the line between editing for style use and maintaining the author’s voice. There are certain turns of phrase or colloquialisms that writers insist upon using without which their writing would cease to be their own (at least that’s what I’m told.) Striking through every “out of this world” when you know the writer is going to return a paper full of angry red STATs is probably not the best approach. An agreement has to be made between the author and editor to do what’s best for the reader.

Carol Saller, who works as a manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, has an insightful book called “The Subversive Copy Editor” that can help you deal with those authors who just won’t budge. From what I’ve experienced, I think Saller is on to something.

The most important thing I’ve learned both in class and at my internship it is that the goal of any copy editor should be to know how to balance using a style manual and making compromises with the author to present the best package for the reader. The audience is who we should be serving.

Student guest post: How much jargon should we allow in sports stories?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Michael Lananna is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who majors in reporting with a focus on sports. He is a senior writer on the sports desk of The Daily Tar Heel and an intern at

A colleague of mine once quipped that it’s impossible to write a baseball story without using clichés.

I think he’s right.

With baseball season fast approaching, we’ll soon be hearing again about pitchers who can dot the corners, sluggers who swing for the fences and teams who play one base at a time. Phrases like those are very much interwoven in baseball culture. Heck, Wikipedia has an entire glossary full of baseball-derived idioms.

But should we use that kind of language in our stories?

In this great journalism school of ours, we learn that clichés are bad, jargon is worse and that both should be avoided at all costs. But I’ve always believed that there should be a lot more leeway when it comes to sports stories.

How do you decide what to print and what to axe? For me it comes down to three main questions:

Who’s reading the story? As the most popular sports in the country, baseball, football and basketball pose an interesting dilemma. On average, stories on these sports will draw a readership from a far wider segment of the population than, say, a bridge tournament. As a result, you’re going to have readers who know everything there is to know about those sports as well as readers who have only a loose understanding of what a touchdown is.

So whom do you favor: the diehards or the casual fans? As a sports writer, I tend to favor the diehards a tad, but it’s important not to lean too far in either direction. You don’t want to confuse the average reader, but you also don’t want to insult the intelligence of the avid fan.

For events like that bridge tournament I was referencing, I think it’s OK to load up on jargon because you’re only going to be reaching a niche audience anyway — an audience composed of people who play bridge. So if you’re writing a bridge column, go ahead and give advice like this: “When it is no-trump and you believe an opponent has four-card length in your long suit, even if you have three touching honors, it is often right to lead low, so that the suit does not become blocked when partner has a useful card doubleton.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds like practical advice.

How common and accessible is the language? I once had an impassioned dispute with a non-sports editor about using the word “bloop” in a baseball story I wrote. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a bloop essentially is a soft, high-arcing hit that strikes the ground just past the infield or in the shallow outfield. I argued that the term was ubiquitous enough in baseball lingo that most readers would know what I was talking about. I won. Bloop lived.

Other times, though, it’s better to bite the bullet and clarify, especially when it comes to strategy and coachspeak. If a basketball team switches from a man-to-man defense to a zone halfway through a game, it might be beneficial to explain to the reader exactly what that change means instead of assuming that he or she understands the terminology.

Is there a better way to word it? As writers and editors, we should always aim to present things creatively. While I believe some clichés and common phrases are acceptable — and often unavoidable — in sports stories, we shouldn’t lean on them. If there’s a more compelling and creative way to present something, go for it. In the case of “bloop,” there truly wasn’t a more concise or practical alternative for me to turn to, but that certainly isn’t the case every time.

I don’t pretend that I always know the answers to these questions, but they’re still important questions to ask on both sides of the writer-editor relationship. In my short time as a sports writer, I’ve encountered this scenario quite a bit. I’m not sure that I’ve always made the right decisions, but when I err, I err on the side of bloop.

Top 10 names of rivalry games

It’s the time of year for college football rivalries. Some of these matchups have colorful and unusual nicknames.

Today, for example, Clemson and N.C. State will play in the Textile Bowl. Last week, Notre Dame defeated Boston College in the Holy War. Here are my other favorite names for rivalry games, listed countdown-style:

10. The Apple Cup (Washington vs. Washington State)

9. Backyard Brawl (West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh)

8. Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn)

7. The Border War (Kansas vs. Missouri)

6. Bayou Classic (Grambling vs. Southern)

5. Bedlam Series (Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State)

4. Battle for the Iron Skillet (Southern Methodist vs. Texas Christian)

3. Egg Bowl (Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State)

2.  The Big Game (Cal vs. Stanford)

1. World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (Florida vs. Georgia)

For more about these games and an extensive list, check out this Wikipedia entry.

Charlotte still needs N.C. — for now

Creative Commons image of Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte, N.C., has an impressive skyline. But is the city known well enough nationwide to stand alone in datelines in news stories?

On occasion, I have shown students in my editing classes a collection of news stories that identify Chapel Hill, N.C., as the home of Duke University. The Wall Street Journal and are among those making this error, which UNC-Chapel Hill students find unfathomable and even offensive. (For the record, Duke is in nearby Durham, and the campus is known for Duke Chapel.)

I thought of that problem this week when I read that journalists and PR people in Charlotte, N.C., are asking the AP Stylebook to recommend that Charlotte stand alone in datelines and stories as big cities like Atlanta, Houston and Miami. They argue that Charlotte has hit the big time, especially with the Democratic National Convention coming to town this summer. The stylebook campaign has its own hashtag on Twitter. I’ve even seen at least one call for UNC-Charlotte to rename itself the University of Charlotte.

The AP Stylebook editors responded on Twitter that it periodically reviews its list of standalone cities but didn’t plan to make a change for Charlotte now. I think that’s the right call. Here’s why:

  • When I was in Los Angeles in 2008, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge there about North Carolina. There some awareness of where UNC was located, and most people knew that college basketball is a big deal here. But there were lots of questions: Where did the Carolina Panthers play? (Charlotte.) Where did the Carolina Hurricanes play? (Raleigh.) And are those places in North Carolina or South Carolina?
  • A friend who lives in Washington, D.C., posted a photo on Facebook from the Charlotte airport with the mildly snarky caption: “Greetings from layover country!” The image was of a sign with this motto: “Charlotte’s got a lot.”
  • Another friend who grew up in South Carolina and now lives in Denver told me that she is often asked which state Charlotte is in.
  • On a recent trip to Miami, I was asked by the hotel concierge where I was from. I told him North Carolina. His response: “I was in Charlotte this year for a few days for a conference. Nice city. What state is that in? Is that North Carolina?”

Indeed, there’s confusion out there, and that includes in the media and in advertising. Charlotte suffers for two reasons: People mix up North Carolina and South Carolina, and they mix up Charlotte and Charleston, S.C. (The existence of Charlottesville, Va., and Charleston, W.Va., doesn’t help matters.)

Charlotte is not alone in that regard. The New York Times and other media labeled Greensboro, N.C., as a S.C. city in coverage of the John Edwards trial. It probably doesn’t help that Greensboro sounds similar to Greenville — and North Carolina and South Carolina each have a Greenville.

This is where a stylebook comes in. A style recommendation should be about clarity for the reader. Does this word choice, abbreviation or spelling improve understanding of the news?

I  think keeping the “N.C.” after Charlotte adds detail and clarity. Helping readers is more important than boosting civic pride.

I suggest that people in Charlotte do the opposite: Rather than rejecting the “N.C.” abbreviation after the city’s name, embrace it. Own it. Make it clear that Charlotte is in North Carolina and that it’s not the place where the Civil War started or where Thomas Jefferson built Monticello.

Use the media hype surrounding the Democratic convention to play up your connections to the state, not play them down. Show the nation who you are and where you are. Afterward, we can revisit this stylebook discussion. What do you say, Charlotte?

UPDATE: In August 2012, the AP turned down Charlotte’s request, saying that “more detailed datelines help readers overseas and elsewhere grasp news locations.”

Share your style

Old stylebooks and updates from my days at The News & Observer. I recently donated these materials to a library at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Earlier this week, I stopped by the Park Library at UNC-Chapel Hill to borrow The Bluebook to assist me in a revision of a textbook chapter. The librarian, Stephanie Willen Brown, showed me a nice update to the library’s collection: freshly bound copies of stylebooks from newspapers.

The collection includes stylebooks from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle. News services such as Bloomberg, United Press International, the Catholic News Service and The Associated Press are also represented. The oldest item in the set is the 1943 edition of The New York Times stylebook.

Nearly all of the stylebooks are print only, but you can see them at the Park Library and other libraries on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. I’m hoping to spend part of my summer thinking of how these stylebooks could be used for research.

I have several stylebooks in my office, including three from my days at The News & Observer. I’ve donated those to the Park Library. Like many newspaper stylebooks, these are in three-punch folders, so Stephanie will look into getting them bound.

Do you have a stylebook from a newspaper, website, magazine or wire service that you’d like to share? Contact the staff at the Park Library. We can study, save and protect your stylebook, and we’d be grateful for your gift.

Student guest post: Is wordplay “Linning” or losing?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Kevin Minogue is a senior journalism and political science major from Reston, Va. He is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel, as well as a former intern at The Fayetteville Observer.

Earlier this year, the success of New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin brewed up a perfect storm for epic headline writers across the country. For those tasked with writing a paper’s front-page headline – better known in big cities as those snarky puns that persuade pedestrians to pony up two bucks for a copy of the day’s issue on their walk to work – Lin was the ideal subject of a clever play on words.

After all, how often does a Harvard-educated, couch-surfing, Asian point guard lead the New York Knicks to their most successful spell in recent memory? And how often does that hero’s name contain elements of a common preposition, prefix and suffix?

Not often, most New York headline writers concluded. The headlines during Lin’s roughly month-long reign ranged from the witty and original to the corny, the forced, the poorly contrived, the questionable and the … woops. After that last headline cost the ESPN employee who wrote it his job, the headline hubbub settled briefly.

But on Easter weekend, when a country bumpkin named Bubba used a pink driver to throttle golf balls more than 350 yards on his way to winning the world’s most storied golf tournament, the scribes of over-the-top headlines feasted once more.  Most of the former Lin-obsessed headline writers in New York focused on Sunday’s big Knicks win, but plenty of smaller papers and online editions posted Masters headlines with ill-fitting wordplay.

I suppose this British paper felt obliged to use the obvious Sherlock Holmes reference, but it doesn’t work when nothing about Watson’s one-stroke, playoff victory was elementary. In fact, if not for a hooking moonshot from the trees that defied the laws of basic physics, Watson would have gone home wearing only his buttoned-up polo.

Many other papers, including this Texas publication and this Utah paper, made obvious references to Watson’s bubblegum-colored attire. While I get the attempt at wordplay, the story is about his victory, not solely his clothes. It’s also poor form to poke fun at the man’s outfit when he wore it as a way to raise money for charity.

These headline hiccups didn’t flop quite as badly as the Lin headlines, but they would be better served sticking to the main premise of the story. Headline writers can still use clever wordplay, and I, for one, hope that they do. But here are a few of my rules for ensuring that your witticisms are appropriate:

1. Make sure the headline is not offensive to any particular group. Wordplay is funny, but not if it makes fun of you. Your readership is generally composed of a mix of ethnicities, religions and sexes, so try to avoid wordplay that hinges any of these items. Otherwise, you may offend and alienate a significant portion of your readership.

2. Be original. The point of wordplay is to be creative, and clichés are short on imagination. You won’t get your desired result from a “clever” headline if five other papers wrote the same thing that day.

3. Make it subject-appropriate. There’s no sense in thinking up clever headline wordplay if it has nothing to do with a story. The reader might initially be drawn to your front page, but he or she will quickly lose both interest and respect in your publication upon finding that the title is merely for show. The purpose of a headline is to give readers a sense of what they are about to read. Don’t lose sight of this.

4. Don’t force wordplay. If it’s not there, it’s not there. The headline should instantly jump out at you as you’re writing. If not, don’t try to convince yourself that it works and end up with a headline that isn’t apt. As is the case with a bad comedian, once you have lost your audience, you’ve lost them for good.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. Feel free to post your own or offer examples of other bad headline wordplay in the comments below.

From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar

UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is famous (infamous, some students would say) for its spelling and grammar test.

Since 1975, the journalism school has required students to pass the 100-question test with a grade of 70 or better. Few do so on the first attempt, but it’s offered numerous times each semester. Those who cannot pass may not graduate with a journalism degree.

According to the book “Making News” by Tom Bowers, the test made national news at the time of its introduction. It was mentioned in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, and NBC News came to campus to do a story about it.

The test is still a true rite of passage, even though nowadays it’s given online and not on paper. It’s also still a topic of conversation and a part of the school’s identity. Everyday people in North Carolina sometimes ask alumni and faculty of the school: Do they still have that test that you have to pass or else?

The answer is yes, but its format is changing. Spelling will no longer be part of the exam.

The content of the test came up last fall when several faculty members were talking about the introductory News Writing course, which is where many students first take the exam. In those conversations, I suggested that memorizing a spelling list wasn’t the best measure of competence in our craft. Why not use a set of questions about word choice instead? Other faculty members agreed to the idea.

Spelling, of course, still matters. Students who misspell words on assignments will still be penalized. As journalism students at UNC will tell you, misspelling the name of a source is a bad idea. That error means an automatic F on that assignment. But the spelling and grammar test will become the usage and grammar test.

So starting this fall, students will be tested on grammar, punctuation and word usage. The usage section will draw from this list (PDF) and include sentences like this:

Its/It’s too late to add a class this semester. (The correct answer is It’s.)

The goal of the revised exam is to better test the students’ knowledge of journalistic writing and editing. In addition, the new test will also better reflect what some employers use in making decisions on jobs and internships.

Congratulations to those students who passed the old test. And good luck to those who will take the new one. I hope you pass!

Thanks to the Park Library for help researching this post.

Student guest post: Word choice and sexual orientation

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Rachel Coleman is a senior from Greenville, N.C. She is pursuing her degree in the reporting track at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Compared with generations of the past, I’m happy to say that adults in the current generation are experiencing much more freedom in regard to sexual orientation. The world has made significant progress in its acceptance of all people, whether they identify as gay, straight, bisexual or transgender.

But while the general public may recognize and accept your sexual orientation, are the media doing enough to stay unbiased when reporting about people who identify as LGBTQ?

The Associated Press Stylebook says to mention sexual orientation only when necessary, and it makes a point of saying reporters should identify transgender people according to the gender they identify with.

But a story picked up by The Associated Press in 2010 got in trouble for its headline, “Transgender Men Go Topless at Delaware Beach.” The story went on to say, “Police say passers-by complained after the men removed their tops and revealed their surgically enhanced breasts.”

People wondered how a man could get in trouble for being topless—shouldn’t it have said “transgender women?” Many news outlets recognized the mistake and corrected it.

I found a column from Feministing about the same issue. Some reporters seem to have no clue about how to identify someone like Chaz Bono, who is transgender and was in the news recently for his run on Dancing with the Stars. Many had no idea whether he should be referred to as “he” or “she.”

Luckily, GLADD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) provides a Media Reference Guide for journalists who have this problem. They say Chaz Bono should be described as either a man or a transgender man.

After doing a little research, I found a writer who had another great point — that using the term “transgendered” is more biased than “transgender.” In Joanne Herman’s blog on The Huffington Post, she said the extra “–ed” in the word makes the same difference as saying “colored people” versus “people of color.”

I once interviewed a drag queen who said she liked being referred to as “she” more than “he” because being a drag queen was her full-time job. While it always depends on the individual, the media and law enforcers who write reports that identify someone’s gender should take care to ask before they assume what someone wants to be called. If the media make small steps to ensure consistency in their writing, the public will accept these people for who they are, too.


My favorite bowl names of the past

A ticket stub from the now-defunct Bluebonnet Bowl, played at the now-defunct Astrodome in Houston.

It’s bowl season in college football. Fans will get to enjoy more than 30 games in the next few weeks. Headline writers will be tempted to “go bowling,” in an attempt to “bowl over” readers.

Nowadays, names for most bowls contain corporate names for companies, industry groups and chain restaurants. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The bowl games of days past are filled with colorful names that reflect the aspirations, culture and history of the places where they took place. Here are my 10 favorites, listed in random order and accompanied by the cities that hosted them:

  • Cigar Bowl (Tampa)
  • All-American Bowl (Birmingham, Ala.)
  • Cosmopolitan Bowl (Alexandria, La.)
  • Gotham Bowl (New York City)
  • Garden State Bowl (East Rutherford, N.J.)
  • Freedom Bowl (Anaheim, Calif.)
  • Oyster Bowl (Norfolk, Va.)
  • Aviation Bowl (Dayton, Ohio)
  • Bluebonnet Bowl (Houston)
  • Aloha Bowl (Honolulu)

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